Should you shut the office following Boris Johnson’s latest advice?

We asked leaders to share their new working arrangements in light of the government's recommendation to work from home.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 30 Sep 2020

After months of encouraging the nation to go back to the office, the government recently revised its advice. Now office workers who can work effectively from home are being told to do so over the winter.

Thus, it again falls on business leaders to determine how much they need their staff in the physical workplace.

Since the first lockdown, companies have invested in the technology to set up remote working. A report by Leesman found that the majority of home workers currently have access to all the software and applications (90 per cent), information (84 per cent), and IT devices (80 per cent) they need to do their jobs from home.

However, a separate study by LinkedIn indicated that leaders remain more concerned about the mental health and motivation levels of their employees when they carry out their day-to-day duties remotely.

Prior to Johnson’s announcement, 35 per cent of bosses were reopening offices, in part out of fear that employees may become demotivated at home - which in the long term could reduce their effectiveness.

The change in advice is likely to stop the national return to work in its tracks, but with the term “effective” leaving much room for debate, many firms might completely disregard health risks associated with travelling to an office if they believe that remote working doesn't work for them.

We asked leaders to share what their new working arrangements look like.

Emma Kane, CEO, Newgate Communications

We all have a duty to support the Herculean efforts to defeat this pernicious virus; our starting point is full compliance with the government guidance. From the outset we recognised that we are all in the same storm but not the same boat. Complexities of childcare, elderly parents, long commutes, and general anxiety meant that flexibility and trust have been paramount - an anywhere, anytime culture. We reinforced this with practical initiatives like shipping technology to homes and mental health support. But we also provide the sanctuary of the office for those who cannot work from home. We are open to change but closed to risks for our people and the wider community.

Chris Jefford, CEO and co-founder, Truant London

To suddenly revert back to a 100 per cent WFH model would be a cruel blow. As a creative and collaborative business with a relatively young workforce who often don’t have an ideal WFH set-up, it’s important to give staff a little freedom.

We permanently closed our Shoreditch office after lockdown, so we now operate a co-working/membership solution where employees can access space in London. We've asked employees to only use our new co-working spaces when necessary and to always adhere to safety guidelines. Many have recently met up in small groups, which is great for morale and mental health. But client meetings should all be remote and everyone is respecting that. While we’re conscious of the new government guidelines, we’re also conscious of not removing that precious little bit of freedom.

Helen White, co-founder, houseof

During lockdown we had a meeting about ending our office lease. We have always encouraged flexible working but our office was part of our identity and brought us together as a team. We had just moved into a new space the day before lockdown and were ready to paint it and make it a visionary houseof hub. For three months during lockdown we held onto grand plans for our office and dreamt about going back one day. However, reality hit when we realised we were in this for the long haul - and also how accustomed we had become to working remotely.

After the recent announcements, we consulted the team again whether we all wanted to go back. It wasn't about saving money and if one person had said they would prefer to work there - we would have kept it. We have always said 'work where you work best' and in reality we all work best remotely as we can eliminate distractions and focus on doing deep work. The reality was that many of us had been forcing ourselves into the office most days. Although we will miss our houseof office, we feel our decision to move everyone to working remotely on a permanent basis has been a positive step forward for the business.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director, Clearly PR

The chopping and changing and mixed messaging that has emanated from the corridors of Number 10 in recent weeks has been incredibly frustrating. As a business owner, my first priority is the health and wellbeing of my team. But it is also important as a leader to provide some semblance of certainty at times when there is a lack of clarity and the issuing of guidelines that are very much open to interpretation.

I have opted to keep the office open and available for any member of staff to work there if they so choose - working in relative isolation is not for everyone. In doing so, they don’t lose the positivity of the last month since we re-opened the office. Not to mention the money they’ll save by having their cuppas in the office rather than the coffee shop across the street!

James Sandford, managing director, Propellernet

We exist in an industry where it’s always been traditionally easier to operate remotely than from the office in some respects. However, our team missed the collaborative nature of working in an office and we missed physically seeing them. So after the first lockdown we introduced a hybrid model to how we work, asking staff to work from where they work best.

However, we have chosen to close the office again following the news this week. It was a ‘head-over-heart’ decision and we will be supporting teams to meet up where possible for walking meetings, a coffee or just interactive Zoom calls to keep the energy and creativity pulsing and the communications strong.

Indi Birdee, co-founder and head of strategy, AI Music

Like most companies with office-based staff, COVID-19 forced us to embrace home working. However, unlike many companies, we have no intention of going back to the office.

Before the pandemic, we were getting ready to move to larger offices. The trouble was we needed office space with a music studio attached – a mix that’s hard to find in London. Our new ‘virtual’ approach to work opens up new options for us. Our producers are currently using home studios, but if we decide we want a central studio in the future this will be easier to find separated from our office needs. We’re also seeing a beneficial impact on our employees. Without exception, our staff have reported feeling more productive. They’ve also been able to flex their working hours around their home lives and other commitments. Previously, most of the company was of the opinion that we needed an office to function effectively. Now they are 100 per cent behind our new virtual model.

Rob Skinner, founder and managing director, Skout

Having de-risked the office ready for a partial return in September, we’ve decided to keep it open for anyone who wants to use it at any time. We’re still advocating working from home as the norm, and avoiding full team gatherings in the office, but if people need a change of scene from the kitchen table, it’s there. I think it’s very easy to assume that working remotely is easy for everyone but it’s not - some people thrive being home based but others find the isolation more of a struggle. What’s ironic is that some people are now using the office for quiet time, whereas in the past this is the reason they would have worked from home for the day.

Sue Frogley, chief executive, Publicis Media UK

We’re keeping our office open as we know that some find working from home hard – from poor WiFi to loneliness - but we aren’t actively encouraging any of our 2,000 employees to go in. It’s about striking the right balance between supporting people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

For those that do choose to go in, we’re encouraging travel outside of peak times, following our safety recommendations both inside and outside the office, and using our desk booking system so we can ‘track & trace’ should we need to. The focus now is to make sure everyone, at home or in the office, feels equally supported and connected through a hybrid approach.

David Morel, CEO, Tiger Recruitment

We have no plans to shut the office. We reopened in July and want to hold on to the momentum we’ve been able to achieve since then. Our people are coming into the office two or three days a week and working from home the rest of the time. This hybrid model has been very effective for us; we’re seeing maximum productivity and employee satisfaction. Morale is improved when staff are in the office; creativity and communications are, too - so we’re reluctant to give that up.

Of course, we still retain a huge amount of flexibility and can return to full-time working from home if required, but for now our office is staying open for business.

Image credit: Matthew Horwood via Getty Images

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