I have now been back at the office for just over three weeks. After spending more than 100 days at home, I was desperate to get back to my desk and the bustle of urban life.
Love my family as I do, I’ve missed my colleagues, the atmosphere and interactions. Office life has not returned to normal yet, but even with reduced capacity, masks and social distancing reminders ever present, it feels good to be back.
Covid-19 will change working patterns and none of us will emerge from our bunkers unaffected. But, while lockdown has reignited debates about the death of the office, returning to my desk has reaffirmed my belief in the relevance and longevity of city-centre workplaces.
For generations, young people have flocked to urban centres – for work, culture, social life and love. As Sinatra’s timeless tune goes: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” Tomorrow’s talent does not want to work in a bedroom or from a suburban office park two days a week. Today’s youngsters crave interaction and experiences.
The power and effect of collaborative working should not be underestimated for individuals or companies. How many ideas emerge from a drink in the pub or over lunch? Zoom meetings, online quizzes or virtual drinks evenings cannot replace the energy created by real human interaction. Most companies will realise that scrapping city offices will cost them in team cohesion, innovation, loyalty and company culture.
That said, it is time for offices to sharpen up. Just as physical retail needs to offer more than products that can be bought online, offices need to provide more than just four walls, desks, chairs and computers.
Big tech companies have led the way, but we must take this further by providing health, wellness and social facilities, the importance of which has been highlighted during lockdown. There is a huge opportunity as occupiers’ wish lists get reshuffled, with an emphasis on community and collaboration.
Office tenants may pull back on quantity of space taken, but won’t compromise on quality. If staff are not coming in daily, a base that communicates the values of the business, that they look forward to visiting and feel attached to, will be vital. Occupiers will need access to fitness facilities that encourage them to stay active rather than sacrifice their health for hours logged at a desk. Also, lockdown has proved that catch-ups and brainstorms can take place and be productive beyond the boardroom.
Zoom meetings or online quizzes cannot replace the energy of real human interaction
We also need to understand that working together in offices provides opportunities and reduces inequality. Those advanced in their careers may enjoy working from home, but those still climbing the ladder can learn by spending time with senior colleagues, attending meetings, walking building sites, or sitting opposite a counterparty negotiating a deal.
Facebook’s recently announced plans to adjust salaries according to where remote-working staff live highlights another way that increased working from home might exacerbate inequalities.
Flexible working will be embraced as lockdown eases, and, if done right, will further level the playing field and improve work-life balance. But remaining ‘out of office’ indefinitely is of little help to ourselves, our colleagues, local businesses and the economy. We should embrace lessons learnt from lockdown, but returning to normal as soon as we feel safe will help us move on from the devastating effects of the pandemic.
Jonathan Goldstein is chief executive of Cain International