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What’s the best way to proceed after Covid? Should we mandate days in the office or rethink everything. A recent European Smart Work Network debated the issues.
The Covid changes in the way we work should be used provoke a conversation on how we can make work better, the European Smart Work Network heard last week.
Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk, said the workplace conversation needs to be based around high quality data on what can be done to improve work.
He spoke about the issue of whether mandating days in the office is reducing people’s flexibility and about who should do the mandating. He said Covid had accelerated the reduction of office space use. He asked if things like office booking systems – where people book office space when they are in – are useful and whether people are being encouraged to truly think differently about work. Often data on office use doesn’t show what people are doing in an office building and benchmarking exercises don’t encourage people to think how they can do things better, he said.
Lake spoke about how some large organisations specify the number of days people should work in the office, usually two or three days a week. Some specify particular days. Others just give an average number of days people can do in the office over a longer time period. Some organisations devolve decisions on days in the office down to individuals or to teams. Others, like Twitter, are in chaos and swinging wildly.
He said some of the reasons given for mandating days in the office are not convincing, such as that the office is underused. “That’s more a reason to rethink things,” he said. Others include the need to generate ideas and to build team spirit, but could there be new, more dynamic ways to do that, he asked. Also, do people need to come in for whole days at a time?
Lake said the conversation about home or office is too narrow. Many people want to work remotely, wherever that might be, for instance, in a remote co-working space, he stated. The tendency is for people to default to what is familiar and they need to have their minds opened to smarter ways of working. “The data says what people are doing, not what they could be doing,” he stated, adding that people should “beware the seduction of averages” as different kinds of work require different forms of flexibility.
For Lake it is important to break work down into tasks and to consider how the way we do different tasks is changing with greater technological advances and as we move towards a more knowledge-based economy. He added that there was a real chicken and egg debate to be had about whether we should design the work around the workplace or vice versa.
Ian Baker, Head of Workplace at EMCOR UK, spoke about how the facilities management company had worked with United Utilities to develop a hybrid campus. The project started in September 2020 amid all the concerns about how Covid was changing the workplace. The company had an office building on their campus which was lying empty after it had been used temporarily while the main call centre was refurbished. It offered the perfect place for a trial of how to move from a traditional office space to a flexible, hybrid model rather than the more controlled hybrid model [of a few days in the office and a few at home] that came in Covid’s wake.
“We let people come back into the space to see how they used it,” said Baker. “We used people as guinea pigs in terms of their expectations of the office post Covid.”
The building was filled with furniture from across the campus and different workspaces were created, reducing traditional desk spaces significantly and adding focus chairs, focus pods and collaboration zones as well as a quiet area. The different spaces were given different names, such as project spaces, support areas or social areas. There was a strong demand for projects areas – drop-in spaces which were needed for two to three month bursts.
The new space was launched in September 2021 with the intention for EMCOR to continuously monitor usage through a hybrid working survey once a month. These would result in some tweaks backed by pulse surveys. However, they only managed to get a small amount of data before Omicron hit and the office was shut down until Spring 2022. That opened up an opportunity, however, to compare the early 2021 data with the post March 2022 data. They discovered that both productivity and a sense of community went up, but whereas social spaces were used a lot in 2021 that reduced in 2022, perhaps because people were used to seeing colleagues by then and could socialise elsewhere.
The early statistics also showed low levels of mobility around the building. Over half of workers were working remotely at the time and when they did come in 31% were mostly desk-based. However, by March 2022 the number of highly mobile people was up from 4% to 11% and the mainly desk-based figures had dropped by 10%. EMCOR used occupancy sensors which showed it was mainly the collaborative and meeting spaces that were being used. By March 2022 there was also an increase in people using the space to work without the distractions they might face at home.
Baker said the trial allowed the company and EMCOR to avoid the swingometer effects of Covid because they were able to let the data settle. They will continue to monitor space use and roll out similar spaces across the company. They are keen to reduce office space by up to 30% and to sell off outer buildings. The key takeaway was that the main draw of the post-Covid office is collaboration.