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Do you really need an office when lockdown finishes?




52% of business leaders said their workers were productive, with more than two thirds claiming remote working would be the future for their businesses. (Harvard Business Review: (April 2020) How organisations are responding to the coronavirus pandemic)


91% of employees would prefer the option to work remotely https://employeebenefits.co.uk/91-employees-option-work-remotely/


With statistics like that, unless you physically must go to a location to carry out a work activity, for example a building site or factory, you are probably assessing if you really need an office given the “working from home experience” people have had during the Coronavirus lockdown. The following 10 points will help with your deliberations.


Leadership.

It starts at the top. If the leader of the business is not open to the change then there is no point in considering it. Leaders, like all other sections of society have a mix of people. Some will be open for the change, others will resist. Those who are not open to the debate run the risk of alienating staff who want the discussion. Having been forced by the pandemic to work from home, some staff will be returning with the intent of asking for “flexible working”, which they have had the right to do for some time. Having been forced to work from home, leaders are going to have to engage with their staff about their return, as you cannot undo what has been experienced.


Activities in the office.

Assuming the leader is open to the debate, then you need to reassess the reasons for having an office. What benefits does it bring and what aspects could be improved by not having an office? One way of doing this is to examine the activities in an office and the current layouts which help to promote those activities.

1. Private offices, with assigned seating – ideally suited to individual productivity

2. Open plan with assigned seating – ideally suited to focused group work, project teams

3. Meeting rooms ideally suited to brainstorming, planning, presentations

4. Hot desks, silo busting or as a touch down

5. Circulation areas

6. Storage / Server rooms / plant rooms

7. Welfare areas.


Taking each in turn, what have we learnt from the enforced lockdown? Which layouts could be replaced?

1. Private offices can be anywhere where the person can be productive.

2. Focused groups have worked remotely using Zoom and Teams to communicate. Where people know each other, and the work does not rely upon interpreting body language then these potentially could be changed

3. Meeting rooms. Depending upon the nature of the meeting then these could be re-thought. Where Face to Face is essential, or preferable, then meetings can be held in a hired room otherwise production meetings have generally gone on-line.

4. Hot desking, the rise of working in coffee shops and mobile working has diminished their attractiveness. The silo busting intention of this arrangement does not occur, they are only really used where the leader insists people work in the office when they are not out of the office on business.

5. Other areas decrease proportionally to the floor space area and alternatives are available.


Staff demographics.

It goes without saying that every member of staff is an individual and will have individual circumstances. Taking a step back to when they joined the business, apart from the opportunity to work for the business, they will have considered the workplace arrangements. Location, commuting distance & cost, the office set up and, for some demographics, the social opportunities on the way home from work will have played an important part in their decision. The enforced change might not be suitable for everyone. Their WFH environment may not be conducive to working efficiently or they may be missing out on social interactions connected with where their work is based.

Businesses will know if the office location is part of the package which attracts suitable staff and will have to consider what impact reducing their premises might have on recruitment.


Customers’ and client expectations.

How important are your offices to your customers and potential customers? Do customers visit your offices and how important is this to them? Visiting a businesses office is usually for a meeting. Meetings do not need to be held at a dedicated premise, but in some instances, there is an expectation to see “the office”, especially with prospective clients, when they are evaluating you. If this is the situation, you will have to evaluate which parts of the office make a difference to the relationship and which could be dispensed with.


Supply chain.

With your suppliers, a similar exercise to that described above for customers will have to be carried out.


Technology.

The enforced lockdown has tested organisations “disaster recovery plans” for the situation for where the office was destroyed. The IT infrastructures have in most cases held up without much modification and people have adjusted to the new way of working in good spirit. Certain applications have become “businesses standards” and going forward we will undoubtedly see improvements to them as demand emerges. Probably reading body language has been the most noticeable weakness in the online meetings, but this will be addressed as soon as 3D video imagery becomes mainstream. Considering the advances in mobile and cloud technology over the last decade, 3D video will be a priority as the need is now established.


Reverting to pre-lockdown.

Whilst this might be considered an option, the reality is, it will not be. During the lock down things will have changed. Staff, customers, and suppliers will have a different outlook on life. Their workloads will have changed and their relationships with stakeholders will be different. Time moves on, you cannot go back. The team dynamics will be changed, the numbers may have changed due to predicted workload changes or changes in the personal circumstances of staff. With those who returning it will require an element of team building to get the teams performing in the office again if you chose to fully reopen, when the working from home ends.

Regardless of staff implications there is likely to be physical house-keeping alterations to be made when offices can re-open initially, if not permanently. Staff and visitors to the building will expect a new level of procedures and cleanliness for infection control.


Premise ownership.

The ability to give up the office will depend upon the arrangements by which it is occupied.

Is the building owned, leased or a shared co working space? The decision as to when to stay, go or downsize is probably dictated by the existing length of the commitment to the premise. The date should be determined as soon as possible. The notice period for any break clauses or termination should be identified as these will be the dates from which to workback from if it is decided a change required.


Managing the change.

Before making the decision, information needs to be collected. There is an opportunity to make a change and it should not be missed if efficiencies are predicted. The change should be treated as a project, with someone heading it up. Using the current office space usage, look at options as to how the activities can be carried out more efficiently. Learn from the staff what has worked and not worked during the lockdown. Come up, with a plan, and cost it out. Include in the plan the savings or increased costs associated with managing the business in the future. External room hire costs, remote working offices for those who cannot work at home. Look at salary levels, if salaries include for commuting there may be an argument to reduce them. Have a plan for how there will be face-to-face interaction between staff.


It then becomes an HR and IT project to implement if there are benefits to the overheads.


Managing remote teams.

There is a lot being written about this now. Teams have a common enemy, the virus. As the risk from the virus fades a new common purpose needs to replace it. The purpose of the business in the new normal will need to be reviewed and processes put in place to manage the remote workers. Feed back from them is essential for remote working to be successful.


One thing is for sure, there is no going back, although some business owners my try to. Some businesses will make a complete step change, others will find a hybrid model which offers benefits to the business and staff.


If you would like to discuss the issues raised above in more detail, please contact me for a no obligation review of your office working situation and evaluation of any development potential, if you own the office. Peter.Searle@ba4cs.co.uk

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