The empty office effect

Our brains have been working overtime these last three months to make sense of the more jarring effects of working in complete isolation. Most of us have gotten used to colleagues suddenly disappearing from Zoom calls and taking silent tea breaks, but it still feels unnatural.

Returning to the office will require yet another mental shift. Walking into sparsely populated workplaces, littered with warning signs telling us to stay one metre apart – a sobering reminder that the ‘silent enemy’ could be hosted by any one of our colleagues. Let’s face it, the tension is going to be palpable. And as employees charge back to their allotted desks, either relieved or anxious with pockets full of sanitiser, the long-term impact on morale is an issue that simply cannot be underplayed.

One of the most public examples of workers having to adapt to a new work environment with significant pressure to perform as they did before is professional football. Sure, the pitch is the same and the rules of the game haven’t changed, but the atmosphere’s taken a major nosedive.

uncertainty, social, workplace

When the Premier League restarted on the 17th of June, instead of players walking into packed grounds, brought to life with a cacophony of sounds from roaring fans, they faced eerily quiet stadiums.

Gone are the days, for the foreseeable future at least, of footballers running to celebrate with their fans. And where once players could feed off a crowd to find that winning goal, they will now have to make do with their inner resources. But without those tangible experiences, will performance be affected in the coming months?

Personality type will play a huge role here. Those who are motivated by public praise may become complacent, while others might relish the absence of pressure – just like many of us returning to work.

In many ways, unnervingly altered offices, like empty stadiums, could well have the same impact on employee experience. Think about sales teams. Professional athletes and salespeople share many of the same characteristics – every top athlete must possess a strong work ethic, be incredibly focused and have an innate ability to adapt while competing. All traits of any successful salesperson. They also have to navigate an intensely competitive, changeable landscape, one where adapting to unforeseen circumstances is key.

Sales floors are known for their pumped-up environments. Upbeat music with public boards recording who’s sold what. Bursts of applause when a new deal is landed. In the absence of rallying encouragements and high-fives after a sale, could there be a knock-on effect in the months to come?

uncertainty, social, workplace

Yes, we’ve all made do on Zoom during lockdown, but for thousands of workers across the country, especially the younger demographic, the prospect of continuing to work on rickety chairs in their parents’ homes or fighting for spots at the kitchen table in their house shares, is far from ideal.

But people don’t just want to return for the comfortable ergonomic chairs in the office or the state-of-the-art coffee machine. The truth is that a lot of us are missing our old working lives. The energy that 30,000 live, screaming fans bring to a game is palpable, just like the energy in an office environment when someone lands a big deal or copies of the latest Leesman Review are being handed around.

Employee satisfaction with informal social interactions

Supported in the office


Supported at home


Since late March Leesman has been measuring employee experience at home. One of the biggest shifts we’ve seen is in employee satisfaction with informal social interactions: this is better supported in the office by 21%, 75% compared to 54% at home. That may seem like an obvious development, but it’s worth noting that almost all other ‘interaction’ activities are seemingly better supported at home – there’s an 82% satisfaction rate on collaborating on focussed work (8% difference to the office) and 93% are satisfied with video calls (28% difference to the office). So, it’s not that colleagues aren’t interacting, it’s that they’re not giving each other a casual ‘well done’ in the elevator. And those little, real-life encouragements may prove to be more meaningful than we ever realised.

As employees gradually re-occupy their workplaces will the basic human desire to interact, to be part of a community, overwhelm any residual fear of the spread? Will the familiarity of office spaces, even wrapped in hazard tape, soon become the comforting workplaces that we remembered? Even with a depleted workforce it surely won’t be long before office traditions and celebrations are returned to. And while the Premier League will have to make do with empty stands for the time being, experiencing the thrill of live support will be undoubtedly be welcomed back with open arms.

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