Will you keep the office after COVID-19?

Imagine the virus disappeared overnight. Management Today asked nine leaders what hybrid working looks like for their firms in the long term.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Flashback: Boris Johnson has just made the announcement that all non-essential businesses must close.

Cue employees gathering any possession they can from their workspace - including wheeling ergonomic chairs and heavy desktops across the London underground - and rushing to work from home, completely unaware of how long it would be until they return to the office.

While businesses had been talking ad nauseam around how important embracing technology is, nothing could have prepared them for the lockdown which forced them to embrace organisation-wide virtual working.

For some people, it's been a revelation - and a liberation. For others, it's been frankly hellish.

While we've already learned a lot of lessons about making remote working work, a lot of companies have re-opened their offices and are asking employees to come in, or they intend to do so in the near future.

Those who do come in are finding the traditional workplace has had a radical facelift, implanting one way systems, plastic screens, temperature checks and enforced social distancing. It all seems a long way from normal.

But imagine the virus were to disappear tomorrow, and the question of remote work vs coming into the office becomes purely a business decision, rather than in any sense a health one.

How much of your current arrangements would you keep? We asked nine leaders for their views.

Hayley Penn, HR business partner, Intuit QuickBooks

Our plan for the future is a hybrid in-office and remote working arrangement. Whilst some employees have enjoyed remote working, we’ve found that others have missed the office. To ensure everyone is comfortable and working at their best, flexibility is important. On any given day, we envisage our workforce to be closer to an even split between those working from home and those in the office

All company meetings and training courses will be available in person and online, and digital tools – such as Slack and Zoom – will continue to be at the heart of the flexible offer. The priority should be using technology to move forwards, rather than reverting back to old habits.

Jack Mason, chief executive officer, Laundrapp

Our working practices would remain a flexible combination of remote and in-office working. We wouldn’t force people to work from a central office full time and get embroiled in presenteeism. We would keep new habits such as the regular morning meeting which is something we didn’t think we needed before, but was a must while we were all working remotely. It has become an essential part of the day for sharing information and for engendering an ‘all in it together’ ethos.

A massive innovation chain has been kick-started and businesses will be looking to the digital industry for guidance. People can now see they don’t need a big, expensive skyscraper office in the heart of London and that there are flexible, digitally-enabled alternatives. We do look forward to office parties though!

Lian Hirst, company director, TRACE Publicity

We will be shifting a large percentage of our investment from bricks and mortar offices and using this money to further invest into our team. I believe there is still a place for a physical office, but our requirements have now shifted, we want our offices to be used for social interaction, group brainstorming and collaborative working, for perhaps one or two days a week. The remaining piece of work can be done from home, allowing our team flexibility especially when juggling family and work life.

Justine Campbell, managing partner for talent, EY

The pandemic has challenged perceptions around traditional ways of working and highlighted lessons that we mustn’t simply forget, but rather take forward with us as we emerge from the crisis. These include the importance of technology in enabling us to work efficiently and flexibly with colleagues and clients, our greater understanding of the diverse experiences and personal circumstances of our colleagues, and how flexible working can enable people to better meet their professional and personal responsibilities.

Empowering employees to choose how, when and where they work will be incredibly impactful for attracting and retaining not only top, but importantly, diverse talent, which is crucial to the strength of the workforce and business success. Any employer that wants to be truly competitive will need to have flexible working as standard.

Arun Mani, president, Freshworks Europe

Whilst COVID-19 has certainly forced the issue, we don’t need to imagine a scenario where the virus disappears to see momentum behind the rise of remote working, and how it need not be the exception but the norm. Less travel means lower cost, lower stress, and greater productivity from our team. We still need to think about how we co-create, on-board, and celebrate in person teamwork - digital channels should be complemented by face to face meetings when needed. We are working towards a future where working from anywhere is the new normal, underpinned with periodic moments in time where staff are encouraged to come in, foster in-person relationships and collaborate. When it comes to the ‘new normal’ of remote work, we want to supplement the digital experience with in-person teamwork. We unashamedly want to have our cake and eat it!

Anna Hill, UK general manager, WW (formerly Weight Watchers)

In March our challenge was to accelerate our plans for digitisation to continue to work effectively with our members, while our arrangements with colleagues changed very little. We replaced all our physical workshops with terrific virtual workshops in just six days, helping our members learn how to use video conferencing platforms along the way. Digitisation plans were in the works, but we had to condense timelines to give our members uninterrupted access to their coaches, communities and importantly our wellbeing support services. If the virus disappeared tomorrow, accelerating this digital transition would absolutely remain our focus.

Richard Kauntze, chief executive, The British Council for Offices

If the virus disappeared, we would cement a new way of working (already being established as an immediate consequence of the pandemic) which abandons the culture of presenteeism.

For months, we have taken part in a global remote-working experiment: learning what we like, what we don’t like, and adapting to an entirely flexible way of work. The initial thrill of working in our pyjamas has given way to back pain and Zoom fatigue, but the old way won’t return.

We’ll adopt hybrid working, a mix of home and office, with workers choosing the most effective combination for them. Home working will remain popular for many, but the office will provide an indispensable base for collaboration, pursuing creative partnerships and learning from others for personal development. Most of us work better together, and the office is where the many can work as one.

Alicja Lloyd, European managing director, Feed

Our goal will be to allow a true individual approach to working arrangements. Many will still want to experience the benefits of coming into the office at times – socialising with colleagues, a change of scene etc – but many will also want to maintain more of the aspects of working from home.

We will take the lessons we have learned around WFH and use them to give people the flexibility to do their best work and be their best selves. Hopefully mums, parents, carers and anyone who can do great work outside of the traditional workplace can finally be seen properly.

Kim Huffman, VP of IT, Elastic

The impact of COVID-19 fueled our adoption of new tools and drove an evolution of our business practices that we would keep, even if the virus disappeared overnight. We’ve expanded our use of virtual events and we’ve built out more self-service options for our end users. We’ve also leveraged our own endpoint security product to ensure we’re effectively managing cyber risk and have supported our employees with emotional support services like Ginger, an on-demand mental health support service, as well as flexibility in working arrangements when homeschooling or caring for family members.

Main image credit: mixetto via Getty Images

Body images courtesy of the subjects


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