13 July 2020

Whilst working from home has undoubted and well documented benefits, there is no replacement for the office. Following a Colliers work from home survey of over 5,000 respondents in 25 countries, 82% said that they would like to continue to work at least one day per week from home permanently, but that they missed the collaboration that the office provides. Many businesses have been striving for more flexible working practices and this is the opportunity to make it a reality while maintaining structure, teamwork and culture.

Working from home has taught me some important lessons. Firstly, the need to minimise background noise on video calls means that mute is frequently on, which makes it difficult to tell if participants are fully engaged in the conversation. I have realised the importance of reading body language to assess reactions. Non-verbal clues such leaning forwards, nodding and eye contact cannot be achieved through video format, so we rely on spoken agreement or opposition. It is harder to ask open-ended questions and encourage debate on calls due to a worry of interrupting others speaking. Discussion and deliberation are fundamental to most Westminster based businesses and these are much better achieved by means of a ‘regular’ meeting. In my experience, video calling cannot be a substitute for many physical meetings due to reduced output. Whilst virtual reality technology is attractive, it is not developed enough to substitute personal contact – yet.

Whilst flexible working brings a larger talent pool in geographic and demographic terms, physical interaction cannot be replaced. Professional learning and development is important to many employees. A valuable and efficient way of learning is to listen to conversations and ask ad-hoc questions. The next generation are likely to have to work harder to create relationships and learn as fast if they are working alone more frequently. This may result in reduced job fulfilment and slower career progression, combined with a greater scope for undetected mistakes.

It is hard to create and maintain team culture remotely and impossible to build true and long-lasting connections with disjointed employees. A social environment in which to share a joke or two among colleagues has been extremely important to build relationships through my career. To create a positive business reputation, you need consistent high-quality output and creativity which is difficult to create and control with minimal physical interaction. Company and team culture are a consideration for most new recruits. This could quickly be diluted with full time home-working and emphasises the importance of effective workplaces.

So what is the solution?

The solution to these challenges is an adapted office to align with flexible working practices. Encouraging employees to work from the office for a limited number of days per week will improve the blurred boundary between work and life that is a struggle while working at home full time.

The office should be a place to feel a company ethos where employees can safely collaborate and be motivated. Offices need to be designed with home comforts, increased break-out space, together with more small rooms to incorporate quiet areas for increased video calling.

The pandemic has refocussed minds on the importance of wellbeing and air quality in the office and Westminster’s developers will have to consider this now, more than ever.

Quality will be more important than quantity.