We took it for granted when we had it and now the office is under the microscope like never before.

Allison English

Allison English

Our existing office-based data of more than 740,000 respondents confirms that the office has been vital for employees’ learning, socialising and collaboration. Perhaps we already knew this; now, we are starting to understand how these activities have been affected by months of homeworking.

Employers are asking: what is the true value of the office, and what will my real estate footprint look like in the future? Some, perhaps prematurely, may believe they no longer need an office. Others, meanwhile, are desperate to return. Either way, employers have to work out how best to support their employees now and in the future.

Covid-19 has shifted the paradigm when it comes to where people work. While 81% of the 50,000 respondents in our global homeworking database believe their home environment enables them to work productively, many are being challenged in other areas. For example, more than one in three people (38%) have said their homeworking environment does not support ‘informal social interaction’.

The chance encounters someone has with colleagues are facilitated by the office environment; trying to connect with colleagues in the same way while working from home takes much more effort.

While 95% of respondents think ‘planned meetings’ are supported while working from home, spontaneity seems to have fallen by the wayside. With a dispersed workforce, nearly everything is planned and intentional, so it is a real challenge for employees to reach the same levels of connectivity experienced when working together in the office.

Office collaboration

Source: Shutterstock/ Rawpixel.com

Additionally, only 31% of homeworkers say they can collaborate on focused work. Their work-life balance is also suffering – just over half (54%) say that relaxing and taking a break are important when working from home, and only 29% say they cannot maintain a healthy work-life balance at home.

Highs and lows

As responses continue to pour into both the homeworking and office databases, we will continue to mine them for trends. While these findings reveal the overall experience, we know averages mask highs and lows. We know no two organisations are the same.

We recognise that many employees are having a positive experience working from home, but we cannot ignore the low scores, especially given the uncertain duration of current circumstances.

As employers start to realise that their employees could fall prey to a sentiment drift, the focus must be on engagement and connection. This homeworking experiment is quite possibly still in its honeymoon phase. Will productivity decrease in a few months when evenings draw in? How will wellbeing be affected? Will people tire of their home and workplace being one and the same? These variables will impact their experience. Employers need this insight to determine how to keep employees engaged at home now and in the future.

Community feeling

For many organisations, the office will remain an integral part of their culture. It brings people together and centres the workforce on a common purpose. Great offices make people feel part of a community.

Employees will still depend on the office for tasks that are crucial to their work and personal development, such as collaborating and learning from others. But no one is going to collaborate in the office from nine to five one day and go home and attempt to do everything else the next day. It is naïve to think work can be segmented in this way.

Homeworking on some level is here to stay for many, but these employees will need a collective ‘home base’ that supports both their work and their basic human need for connection. Maybe this time around, we will appreciate it more.

Allison English is deputy chief executive of Leesman

29% say they cannot maintain