Expert comment

After Covid, what’s the point of offices?

Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to embrace new working practices.

Our research shows by rethinking the role of the office we have a chance to spark greater creativity, diversity and productivity in our working lives.

The past year and more has made clear to us all the many advantages of flexible working and home working. Yet it has also alerted us to the many risks to personal health and well-being when 'working from home' becomes 'living at work'. The key question therefore should not be whether we return to the office, but how – and even more importantly: what for?

Flexible working options can make an organisation more inclusive and therefore increase the diversity of people who are able to contribute. Flexible working hours may benefit working parents who can capitalise on time when they are without childcare constraints. Enabling home working removes the need to be physically close to an organisation’s base. This opens up a much wider geographical talent pool. It also offers more options for people with disabilities who have physical difficulties commuting.

As we gradually come out of lockdown, some leaders are urging a return to office life as usual. Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon even has gone so far as to describe home working during the pandemic as 'an aberration'. But leaders should not try to recreate their pre-covid cultures in a post-covid world. The pandemic provides an opportunity to build revitalized organizational cultures and explore the different reasons for which organizations may want their staff to return to the office. The answer to why people should return to the office will then inform any plans as to how this should be organized. Our research shows the office need no longer be a space where work gets done, but instead will become a space where community is shared, where ideas are exchanged and where innovation and mentoring happens.

So what role should the office have in post-pandemic working life?

1) Working flexibly boosts creativity and productivity

Our research, Career pathing and innovation in professional service firms, has shown that flexible working arrangements can boost creativity and productivity. 

The research focused on the demanding career paths professionals follow in top-tier law firms. These traditionally involve excessively long working days. To address the negative effects this had on the professionals’ work-life-balance a more gradual career path was introduced.

Addressing the work-life-balance in this way resulted in greater innovation within the organisations. Fewer working hours and a more flexible approach to work and career progression had the consequence of more creativity: it allowed for greater collaboration as people with different expertise could come together to address challenges and find solutions. 

In this way flexible working arrangements can particularly lead staff creativity to flourish when innovation is driven by people’s expertise rather than advancements in technology.

2) Use different spaces, for different work

Different physical work-spaces are conducive to different types of work, our research has found. As leaders examine working spaces, they may find the traditional office environment is not the best for their organisation’s purpose or staff. 

This is particularly apparent when staff are tasked with dealing with multiple and varied duties. Our research shows that moving between spaces helps people enter a different frame of mind. We found this in settings as diverse as Lloyd’s of London and the first Islamic Bank in Germany. Organisations should make space and allow their staff to use that space, whether at home or within the office environment.

3)  Go to the office to be creative and collaborate

We need to ask about what the office of the future should look like. The initial assumption by many leaders was that organisations will need less space in the future because people will increasingly work from home. But as the weeks have passed the picture that emerges is a lot more nuanced. We do know that some firms can reduce their real estate and some firms can relocate their real estate. But some firms are expanding their real estate.

It is simply no longer about people working shoulder to shoulder in an open plan office. What we need the office for is far more creative work. When people come together in the office it is really about those people collaborating, working together. We will need bigger spaces for people to brainstorm in a covid secure way, where lots of people can get together, even if we will have fewer people in the office all together.

4) Go to the office for conflict too

Crucially, studies show both creativity and conflict are more difficult in remote settings. And both are vital for innovation. Studies show the barrier to speaking up and disagreeing is so much higher on a zoom call than in a face-to-face meeting. Creativity and conflict are two sides of the same coin. We have come to a good arrangement during the pandemic in keeping up business as usual but anything involving creativity and conflict will be much more difficult online. We find when you are in a video call people are more distracted, doing email and online shopping, which means they are less invested in the conversation. It is much more difficult to hold attention during an online call. This stunts innovation as people need to focus their full attention on issues in order to foster the creativity and conflict needed to create new solutions to deal with future problems.

5) Offices build prestige, pride and personal relationships

The other thing that is important is trust and relationships. Again early on in the pandemic I started coaching professionals who were very excited about how well their relationships were going. But studies have shown it is more difficult to build relationships in the digital world. It remains important to have at least an initial meeting and establish trust. There is a place for both remote working and office working.

In the post-covid working world, we won’t have to come into the office to work but to innovate, and to collaborate, and to fight and fulfil the social need of coming together as herd animals. The office also brings architecture, prestige and pride. It will become a place to build a sense of corporate purpose, even if we then take that feeling back home.