By Niki Fuchs, Managing Director of Office Space in Town
UK productivity continues to decline. Output per worker was 8.8% lower in Q3 2020 compared to the same quarter last year, following a fall of 19.9% in the first few months of the UK’s furlough scheme – the largest fall on record.
To get national productivity back on track, we should return to the office as soon as safety permits. This year has highlighted the shortcomings of working from home as a long-term arrangement, and it is therefore vital that we maintain the connectivity, collaboration, and comradeship which makes the office so popular.
A Lonely Workers’ Club
Returning to the office once it is safe will be a vital to boost to our ailing productivity, with increasing worker loneliness one of the main impediments to output since the beginning of the first lockdown. In fact, a recent study by the Mental Health Foundation revealed how widespread loneliness has become, with 1 in 4 adults reporting feelings of loneliness in the first national lockdown, up from 1 in 10 pre-pandemic. Moreover, these feelings have tangibly affected productivity, doubling workers’ average number of sick days.
So, welcoming employees back to the office would not only help to alleviate worrying strain on employees’ mental health but will also play a vital role in businesses’ recovery from COVID-19. An opportunity to resume regular contact with colleagues in a pandemic-proof manner would dispel the feelings of isolation which many workers have struggled with, providing a much-needed morale boost as UK businesses face prolonged uncertainty.
Two Types Of Connection
While technology has been heralded as the answer to remote workers’ woes, in reality employees have spent much of this year struggling to maintain digital links with their workplaces. Returning to an office environment would enable workers to remain in the loop and help safeguard the emotional bonds which keep workforces happy and healthy.
Embracing satellite flexible office space provides one solution to avoid keeping employees at home permanently, as the CRE sector as a whole is adopting the latest connectivity and cloud storage technologies at pace. Home-workers, by contrast, are forced to rely on their own facilities, which are rarely suited to supporting a virtual workspace. Indeed, 29% of workers identify their lack of equipment as the main downside of working remotely, with only 23% supported by employers to address these deficiencies.
A better investment for employers would prioritise equipping their offices with all the technology required to support workers safely and efficiently. Such support would improve employee loyalty, with 33% citing ease of collaboration as a key determinant of their loyalty to their employer. Tech-enabled offices can therefore bridge both physical and emotional distances between businesses and their workers.
Businesses may have difficulty charting their trajectory beyond the uncertainty of the pandemic, but it remains crucial to stay tuned-in to workers’ feelings. And many workers are feeling short-changed by the loss of development opportunities this year, with team members missing out on regular contact with mentors and experienced colleagues.
In fact, the pandemic has made shelving most shadowing and mentorship opportunities necessary, and employers should realise that online interaction is no substitute from a professional development perspective. Moreover, employees are prepared to vote with their feet, with 68% of workers who changed jobs in 2018 doing so due to a lack of learning opportunities in their previous roles.
Having workers who feel empowered to improve themselves will benefit businesses in the long term. Returning to the office, where in-person development opportunities can be provided in some form, should therefore figure in employers’ plans for the new year and beyond.
Finally, despite numerous predictions to the contrary, working from home has actually been detrimental to our work-life balance. So, businesses should bear in mind that we can embrace greater flexibility without compromising workers’ wellbeing, by returning to the office with a new approach.
Real flexibility allows employees to fit work around their lives, whereas working from home often forces them to do the opposite. One recent survey revealed that 37% of home-workers struggle to switch off from work at all, while a similar number (38%) suffer from anxiety and stress due to being ‘always on’. This is unlikely to be a coincidence, and this pattern signals a potential mental health crisis which we cannot afford.
Offering workers the choice of returning to an office environment would help remove the ‘false flexibility’ of working from home. We have already seen large corporates such as Standard Chartered make this move recently, with growing numbers likely to follow. A willingness to adapt will not only be well-received by workers but will also build extra agility into businesses.
Returning to offices which are properly equipped to support workers is a far better long-term plan than a wholesale shift towards working from home. Offices provide an irreplaceable platform to safeguard workers’ wellbeing, ensure they enjoy optimal satisfaction in their roles, and buttress their relationships with colleagues and employers. For all these reasons it is vital to return to the office, albeit with new ways of working, as soon as we can do so safely.
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