Let’s stop focusing on where we work

We’re forgetting about what the workforce is expected to achieve at the office – and that most of that is now better supported at home.

While it’s about time the CEOs of major corporates are debating and really thinking about the contribution their real estate portfolios make to their organisation, I’m troubled by how fixated some leaders are on mandating place in their future work strategies.

Almost daily, we read reports of the latest FTSE100 organisation ratifying a two-days-per-week office return – or an entirely remote-first strategy. Don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely a case to be made for the role of place.

But the discussion has centred too much around WHERE employees work rather than WHAT they are expected to achieve.

Regardless of role, many employees judge their day based on what they feel they have accomplished that day. To gauge this in our survey, we ask employees to what extent their workplace enables (or fails to enable) them to work productively. When we compare the responses to this question from our home working data (n=160,579 at Q4/2020) to our office data (n=839,688 at Q1/2021), we find that 83% of employees working from home agreed their home environment enabled them to work productively, while only 64% of employees could say the same about their office.

The general consensus – backed with little or no data – is that the office is to be used entirely for socialising and meeting with colleagues; as such, office buildings are being reconfigured to entirely open plan. The chief executive of HSBC for example, shared his socially-distanced, open plan setup across social media, stating that the last thing he wants is ‘to be stuck in an individual office’ when he returns to the building.

There are other examples where executive offices have been scrapped in favour of entirely open plan environments. The advantages and problems with the strategy have been extensively reported, opined and dispelled, most recently by Leesman’s Dr Peggie Rothe.

But when we look into what specific work activities the average office supports better than the average home, only four activities from the list of 21 in our survey are better supported in the average office environment than the average home: Hosting visitors, clients or customers; informal social interaction; learning from others and using technical/specialist equipment or materials.

What’s notably missing from that list are some of the key elements employers think employees are coming back for.

Activities such as collaborating on creative work; informal, unplanned meetings (that serendipity we keep hearing of); collaborating on focused work; planned meetings and even larger group meetings or audiences are all better supported in the average home.

This disparity lays the groundwork for a strategy built upon choice. According to former US nuclear submarine captain David Marquet in his bestseller Turn the Ship Around!, modern leadership centres around providing clarity and a framework to ensure competence, trusting employees by ultimately giving them control over their work. The outcome is what he calls a leader-leader model, rather than the traditional leader-follower model.

Read: Re-writing the rulebook

The variable of choice (ergo, control) has even become a differentiator in talent recruitment and retention strategies, with organisations like Facebook creating a new role for Director of Remote Work and Twitter giving employees full flexibility for where they work in future. Granted, these are tech giants and not your run-of-the-mill corporate, but they symbolise a wider shift in perspective and expectations.

Of the 235,644 employees we surveyed in 2019, 50% had never worked from home before COVID-19. Now the vast majority of employees have tasted freedom, and as our data shows, most are reluctant to give it up. The bottom line is that experience, and therefore expectations, have changed.

Only time will tell if some of the leaders making headlines today will be seen as visionaries or as Luddites – and who will fall into which camp. One thing, however, is certain: if the offices employees are expected to return to don’t provide an environment for these employees to do their best work, employers risk these employees taking advantage of the most accessible talent market in history and vote with their feet.

Read more insights from Leesman