Sophie Foster
Sophie Foster Workplace Consultant
14 January 2021

Workplace – What is it good for? Absolutely…something

Organisations across the world had to make huge operational changes to survive. It’s been a time for experimentation, causing people to question the purpose of the office, both now and in the future.

If people can work from home, what do we need the office for?

One of our clients within the retail sector was forced, like most other businesses, to close their office and contact centre and have everyone work from home almost overnight. Without the infrastructure to take calls at home they had to adapt quickly, using live chat software to communicate with customers. This was a massive diversion from the norm, not just for employees but for customers too, altering the way people interacted with the brand. 

While our client knew the world of work had changed, they couldn’t be certain of the direction to take next. Back in June, we were tasked with a discovery project to uncover; how their people were feeling and how they had adapted to the last few months, predict the working rhythms of the future and determine some fundamentals (such as how many desks and chairs they might need in the office going forward).

This quickly developed into a deeper discovery project. By utilising our in-house teams’ expertise in workplace strategy and development, we sought to uncover the purpose of their office.

Reading between the lines

While surveys and interviews are critical, providing valuable insight into people’s individual needs, it’s also important that we approach the data with impartiality and try to cross-reference patterns to read between the lines.

The research for our client found 89% of people felt more productive working from home, enjoying their new-found freedom and sense of work-life balance. Surprisingly however, 30% of those same employees said they didn’t have the correct equipment to work from home and weren’t working from an appropriate setting (kitchen tables!). Whilst only 10% of employees didn’t enjoy working from home, these results are comparative.

For example, employees might prefer to work from home if their office doesn’t offer a great experience. If 30% of employees don’t feel they have what they need to work at home, what are they missing? How can the office offer a solution to this?

Aligning objectives

When working with our client, we found the employee perspective didn’t always align with the business objectives. When we first asked their employees about working from home and its impact on wellbeing it was the height of summer. They were enjoying the work-life balance, spending time outside during their lunch breaks. However, from a business perspective, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the creative teams to connect with customers on a human level, to innovate and develop new products. 

Workplace – What is it good for? Absolutely…something

While asking employees what they want is important, we need to remember they are generally referring to their own momentary experiences on an individual level. We had only been in this situation for six months at the time, and whilst people might think they’re doing fine, we also needed to consider the long-term impact of any decisions that are made. For example, how does working from home impact training, attraction and retention or even inducting a new recruit? Would a lack of face-to-face training have an impact on long-term wellbeing?

Before making decisions, it’s essential to look at the organisational and employee priorities – the right outcome connects them together. To be successful, the entire business needs to be aligned, reaching for the same objectives.

The workplace is so much more than desks and chairs

The traditional office is filled with desks, photocopiers and water coolers. In general, the workplace has been a place for processes and meetings, but if people are able to complete process-driven work from home, the office demands a new purpose.

To create meaningful change, you need to know what your objectives are. How can the office work harder for your business? While the need for desks and chairs won’t go away, the office can offer a multi-functional purpose where people can do collaborative work.

The discovery period with our retail client showed they needed a space to better connect with their customers and carry out collaborative tasks that were difficult to do digitally. They also needed a place where they could develop products, brainstorm creative ideas and create content. Rather than renting a space to take photos and showcase products, why not use part of the office that would previously have been filled with desks and chairs?

The objectives of each business will be different, and as a result, so will the purpose of the office. Ultimately, the office needs to accommodate the evolving needs of the organisation and its people.

In summary

To create meaningful change that will benefit your business and employee needs in the long-run, the question is never as simple as “how many desks do we need?”. Instead, we should discover what the office can provide that the home can’t.

It’s about creating informed solutions and realising the opportunities that lie within the office for a more prosperous future.

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