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The times they are a-changing

Article by Juliet Sturridge

Given the rate at which the workplace has evolved since COVID struck, Brian Chesky the CEO of Airbnb is absolutely right when he said recently “We can’t try to hold on to 2019, any more than we can 1950”

The pre-COVID conversations with our clients about prospective office acquisitions tended to focus on location, maximising density and ‘style’ – ie design features to impress prospective talent, as well as clients/customers.

Now, in our post-COVID world, the concept of office work has been turned upside down and client conversations tend to focus on how they can leverage ‘space’ to meet employees’ rapidly changing demands of it.

The rules of engagement (between employer and employee) are changing and a schism between employees’ expectations and employers’ demands of their team is starting to emerge. This is highlighted by the fact that:

  • Almost 70% of British (office) workers would only consider working full time in an office, if their commute was fully paid
  • Almost 30% would not even consider returning – even if their costs were covered
  • 60% would welcome a four-day week.

Employees want to work from home because they want to minimise their commuting costs (a critical factor as fuel prices rocket), improve their work/life balance and, they’ve got used to the flexibility hybrid working brings.

Employers have tried to lure employees back (even offering free lunches in the office in some cases) and some are mandating employees to return for a set number of days a week. It’s interesting to note that Apple, often feted for their innovative employee engagement programmes, ran into an employee rebellion when they tried to introduce a company-wide hybrid working policy – requesting employees return every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The employees accused their bosses of fearing losing control and worker autonomy, as well as discriminating against people with disabilities (an equality of access issue) and those with caring responsibilities.

Before COVID, it was argued that many traditional workplaces suited a certain ‘type’ of employee (someone who is younger, more likely to be white, male, able bodied) and it discriminated against disabled people, minorities and neurodivergent employees (ie people who have autism or other development differences). Remote working looked like the answer – as it did not discriminate on the grounds of geography and employers benefited as they had a larger pool to dip into.

We also witnessed the emergence of Digital Nomads: employees who could work anywhere and in any time zone (the Caribbean, Mediterranean Europe, anywhere), as long they had access to an excellent broadband infrastructure.  Places like Barbados jumped on the bandwagon and launched a ‘Remote Working Programme’ which comprised 12-month visas for these technology enabled executives.

But that bubble seems to have burst. Employees and employers now acknowledged that in-person work and collaboration is ‘irreplaceable’. Even tech giants (such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft), who saw their market cap rise by almost 55% during the pandemic, acknowledge that ‘Back To Work’ (BTW) policies are essential for collaboration and creativity. Netflix went further and declared that they saw “no benefit in remote working.”

Lessons have been learned and there is now an acceptance the workplace has evolved from a hot desking, density-based model, to a Hybrid Working one. Today, discussions about the requirements of a workplace tend to focus on ‘the stage’ on which employees can showcase their talents (and desks), rather than square feet and price. Employees’ expectations have been the catalyst for this change.

Today, mental health is probably the biggest challenge facing employees – and by default, their employers. We now know that too much Zoom and remote working can lead to loneliness and a sense of disconnection/dislocation from work colleagues and professional communities. The recent Mental Health Awareness Week highlighted this issue – according to Government data, 30-40% of all sick leave is related to poor mental health.

A paradigm change in what (responsible) employers demand of their post-COVID workplace is happening, underpinned by a reframing of our approach to mental wellbeing at work. We now have to consider how to:

1.Make the workplace a destination

How do we keep employees motivated
What are their expectations of their workplace and how do we meet them
How do we make the workplace somewhere they want to visit

2.‘Humanise’ the workplace

Create environments and opportunities for in-person interaction
Focus the in-office days on collaborative work and Face-to-Face interaction – with desk work being predominantly an out-of-office activity

3.Consider technology choices which encourage WFH colleagues to check-in with line managers and colleagues, as well as ensure that there are discrete areas in the workplace where conversations can take place (either in-person or down-the-line), without the fear of being overheard

4.Consider a mix of ‘experiential’ space: somewhere where it’s fine to be loud and talkative and where there are quiet zones and places for more introverted employees, as well as zones to unwind after a particularly demanding (work) session

5.Design-in sensory experiences: consciously integrating colour, light, texture, biophilic elements, acoustics and senses-related stimulants (smells, breeze, etc) to create a less hostile and more balanced environment

6.Invoke a ‘Team Culture’ by creating a combination of social areas and informal breakout spaces where people can connect and bond: an environment which encourages employees who feel lonely and isolated, to be part of a ‘family’ – being experimental to leverage the workplace as a petri dish for entrepreneurialism

7.Keep employees’ physical health and wellbeing at the top of the corporate agenda: some companies already offer a workout space or gym membership – a clear signal that the employer values his/her team and, views them as more than a ‘unit of production’.

COVID has therefore proved a potent and very radical catalyst for change in the workplace. Previously, all the major milestones in in the story of mankind’s evolution (from cave man to Virtual Reality programmer), focused on the ‘means of production’ – from the use of stone, iron, steam and electricity to computer power.

COVID changed that. Today, production has been democratised. The ‘units of production’ (employees) enjoy an unprecedented autonomy – they choose where they work, when they work and how many days they work – and they exercise extraordinary influence on the fabric of their workplace.

As bob Dylan once said ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ … COVID marks an unparalleled epoch in the story of mankind.

    Juliet Sturridge is Head of Talent Acquisition & Development at Matthews & Goodman, a leading commercial property specialist offering a nationwide service from offices in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester. Juliet has a strategic focus and deep understanding of how to identify the right talent, grow it and create collaborative work communities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

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