Halfway to Hybrid: the office is dead. Long live the office.
As we all emerged from lockdown the consensus seemed to be that there would be no return to pre-pandemic levels of office work. The future was hybrid.
There has been a huge amount of debate about the future of work with a broad consensus that those based in offices pre-pandemic would be entering the brave new world of the hybrid workplace.
It seems that the Omicron wave has put those plans on ice, at least temporarily but, in many respects, this is simply delaying the inevitable.
In the two years since March 2020, we have formed new habits which suit us, and our families, and which will prove difficult to break. The pandemic has made us all reflect on what is most important to us – leading us to re-evaluate what matters in life, and at work.
This has led to what has been coined as the ‘Great Resignation’. As many employers are already finding out, attracting and retaining key talent has become much more challenging. In the US circa 40% of employees are thinking about leaving their jobs this year. Most ‘workers’ have worked out that, for the moment, more power lies with them. Labour is ahead of capital for a change.
So, does this mean that we will never commute again? Is the office dead?
We’ve heard a lot about the concept of hybrid working and we have all adapted to new forms of technology. But as the word ‘hybrid’ suggests there remains some element of face-to-face in this new world of work too, and in truth, the hybrid idea has not had the opportunity to bed down. Each time the economy has opened up, a new wave of covid has sent us back to our kitchen tables and home offices.
But over time, as vaccines spread, and restrictions ease, and Covid moves from pandemic to endemic, more face-to-face work will be possible - and we will all have more choice about where we work.
Even prior to the arrival of Omicron, we had seen some level of reversion to previous habits in some sectors of the economy. By the autumn of 2021, three days in the office had become a ‘norm’ in some parts of the City of London for example. While this may have been driven by a top-down mandate from nervous CEOs, it remains highly likely that offices have an important role to play in the future of work.
Not as the slightly soulless battery farms that some open plan offices had morphed into. Instead, there is an opportunity to create offices which become the beating heart of an organisation - acting as a cultural ‘focal point’ which in turn helps to foster a sense of company pride, brand identity and emotional connection.
And this sense of feeling connected will become even more important during 2022 after two years of predominantly working from home. Many office workers have hardly had any face-to-face contact with their colleagues in that time, and if you have started a new role it has been particularly difficult. Many new employees have never met the people they work most closely with.
The best workplaces will be working harder than ever to forge an emotional connection with their workforce – partly through innovative uses of technology, explaining their social purpose, by addressing issues of unfairness and inequality, providing improved benefits, increased flexibility, etc – but also by investing in high quality face-to-face interactions. Meetings will become experiences which are well planned and coordinated with clearly understood value for all participants. People will simply not commute if they think their experience is going to pointless and unproductive.
In summary, our expectations around the workplace have shifted beyond all recognition. 2022 will be a pivotal year in the pandemic, and how it unfolds will greatly affect the future of the workplace.
In response, enlightened employers will put significant focus on explaining what their organisation stands for, how it treats its workers and what it means to work for that organisation.