The Office, Nearly 2 Years On

Pre-2020, I would have used the word hybrid to describe my bike, not my working week. Like anyone else in a full-time desk job, I would troop to the office five days a week, be this via bike, tube, or car, depending on which stage of my life we’re talking. Work from home arrangements were unusual, often for only one or two days a week, and were generally negotiated behind closed doors with managers for certain team members with extenuating life circumstances. Then, in March 2020, everyone got a piece of the action. In “it’ll all be over by Christmas” style, at first I remember colleagues discussing how it would be temporary, but then after weeks it dawned on us all that this was a seismic shift in working patterns. Like how workers two centuries ago had left their small workshops and flocked to factories in the cities, we were heading home, taking our office space into our own hands, though not voluntarily (at first).

And now, in early 2022, the work-from-home-first mentality has bedded in significantly for many office workers up and down the country. An ONS survey conducted in April 2021 found that 85% of UK adults homeworking at the time wanted to use a hybrid approach in future, with many large companies opting for this approach going forward. I would argue that, pre-pandemic, only lofty-headed futurists could have predicted such a change (at least in the near future), with so many companies still stuck in the 20th century concept of the office cubicle (as open-plan as things had become on the surface). For most, WFH policies had been by special arrangement, for special circumstances, and it was thought that productivity would decrease if workers were left to their own devices, without the watchful eyes of managers across the room. Not so – and this is what made the decision for many firms. Similar, or even increased, output sealed the deal for WFH.

The author, whose home office can spring up anywhere in the house…

Positives abound of course. The Economist reported on ‘digital nomads’ – young workers who seized on their newfound freedom and travelled through Europe, working from chalets, cottages, and seaside apartments. Parents, though initially phased by enforced home-schooling, have cut back on childcare costs and reclaimed commuting time. Suburban businesses also saw an increase in sales. Worker fatigue palpably decreased. Seizing on the more healthy work/life balance available, Sarah Healey, secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, has said how “wellbeing is at the heart of Civil Service culture”, and that she would soon meet with senior staff to discuss “what our priorities for 2022/23 should be to make us a healthier, happier civil service”. Other government departments have mandated workers to work from the office only 2-3 days per week.

There are downsides to all this sudden freedom though. The Atlantic argued that for those that have not built up strong social and professional networks, home-working can be alienating. The loss of interaction with work colleagues, who for many become their most regular day-to-day social interactions, has exacerbated widespread loneliness in the US. ‘Water-cooler moments’, once poked fun at by Dilbert and the like, are lost in the virtual office; the kind of casual conversations that stimulate innovation (ideas that cannot be scheduled to appear during a Teams call). I vividly remember one such breakthrough happening within my own marketing team last summer.  It is for this reason that Google offers free food to its employees and makes its offices as attractive as possible. Who knows… perhaps Facebook’s Metaverse will be able to stimulate innovation in virtual settings!

For Hamilton Blake, the biggest change to workflow has been the virtual connection with clients. Many are based in London, which called for regular trips to the city pre-Covid. Now though, a hybrid approach to interfacing benefits all – Hamilton Blake can spend more time crunching numbers, while clients retain their own flexibility. Face-to-face is still an option (and favoured for yearly reviews, for instance) but for monthly catchups, video calls are the norm. The lean towards virtual interfacing also opens up new recruitment options. North Norfolk, as beautiful an area as it is, does not quite have the geographical pull of London, and the company could now recruit workers fully remotely, if required.

“It’s a permanent change … I don’t think things will ever go back to the way they were.” These are the words of Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the British Chambers of Commerce. This sentiment is shared by many that I have talked to, with the 5-day in-office mandate an exception now. As the 2-year Great WFH anniversary approaches, firms – Hamilton Blake included – will need to assess their own individual employee policies and be aware of the benefits and risks to productivity and staff happiness.

Me? I’m going to jump on my hybrid and head to the office for a change.