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The return to work: how the mid-market is preparing

Justin Rix Justin Rix

Our research shows the mid-market is preparing for their staff to return to the office after a year of lockdown. Yet, Justin Rix explains how it may not be the same workplace that they left.

The world of work is not the same as it was before 2020. When lockdown began, businesses had to move to remote working almost overnight. At the time, most firms had only begun to consider the possibilities of such a transformation as a long-term option.

There's no doubt that lockdown has been difficult on all of us, but many have been surprised to find there have been advantages. Surveys have shown that 80% of employees don't want to go back to the office full time and most reported at least equal levels of productivity.

As we prepare for the 'return to the office', companies that don't continue to offer remote working options may find themselves unable to retain key talent. Not to mention, those that reduce office real estate and move to remote working will be able to drastically cut back on costs.

Yet, can businesses maintain their office culture and support employee development in a remote environment? Without that facetime, how can we make sure we don't throw the baby out with the office bathwater?

As the vaccine rollout continues on schedule and lockdown begins to ease at last, it's clear businesses have an important decision to make regarding their office arrangements going forward.

In this environment, we spoke to a range of senior decision makers in UK mid-market businesses to learn about their plans for the return to the office.


Businesses believe the return to the office shouldn't be 100%

Of the 603 respondents to our Business Outlook Tracker, 80% have offered remote working during lockdown. After a year of this, almost half (44%) of those surveyed believe having their people working from home most of the time going forward would be best for their business.

A quarter of the firms we surveyed believe an even split between remote and office working would be right for them, and 37% say they would perform better working remotely the majority of the time. 7% say going fully remote would be most productive, which is more than the 5% who believe returning to the office 100% is the way forward.

Still, despite 88% of respondents agreeing a mix of office and remote ('hybrid working') is the way forward, only 53% plan to increase their flexible working options after lockdown has ended. 17% don't intend to offer more flexible working in future.

This is particularly concerning as 62% of those we surveyed told us their employees expect to be able to work flexibly more often in the future. This could leave 17% of businesses struggling to retain key talent, so what's holding them back?

Concerns about the return to the office

The biggest worry with continuing remotely after the return to the office for most of our respondents was managing the work of junior staff (49%). Yet, as only 33% of the responding firms were concerned about maintaining productivity, it seems this may be influenced by an outdated sense of presenteeism or micromanagement.

The second-biggest concern was the provision of remote training (47%). This explains why 45% are looking to invest in more online learning and skills development for their people.

Likewise, 39% of firms were concerned about their team feeling anxious or isolated at home. According to the Office of National Statistics, home workers perform almost double the amount of unpaid overtime that office workers do, yet this was a concern to fewer firms (10%).

As such, it's encouraging to hear that 51% have increased their investment in supporting employee wellbeing in the last year. And 76% intend to invest at least the same amount in wellbeing programmes after the return to the office. 29% are planning to invest more.

Clients, culture and cons

Another major concern (40%) was whether the mid-market is able to keep up with the same digital investment as suppliers. It's all very well setting your team up with the latest video conferencing capabilities, but if your client only has a fax machine, you may find your relationship suffers from a lack of contact.

The last issue, which may be more difficult to resolve, is the loss of culture (40%). Remote workers are in a similar position to freelance contractors. They work for your firm, but are completely removed from their colleagues and a shared identity.

With so many 'pros' to increased remote working, but also a few major 'cons', it's no wonder most firms are planning to have their people work from home at least 50% of the time, but keep an office environment available for them to attend on a regular basis.

Your office footprint after lockdown

If your people continue working from home 50% of the week after the return to the office, this will leave half of your desks empty and unused at any one time. Immediately, you're unlikely to need as much office space as you once had. Subletting additional space can bring in extra finance, or you could even sell off unused space to decrease your outgoings.

Contrary to reducing office culture, having more of your employees in fewer offices can help break teams out of siloes. Not to mention, a 'hotdesking' environment where employees coming into the office just find any available seat, can increase collaboration. Your people may find themselves sat next to someone they might not normally work with, forming new connections.

In this environment, your team will naturally work from home when they need a quiet space to focus, but come into the office in order to attend meetings or collaborate with others when required. This means your employees will need more collaborative space to meet and work together, and far fewer quiet focus areas. As such, 51% of our respondents are evaluating how their office space may need to be repurposed to best support a new, hybrid way of working.

Whatever works best for your people when they return to the office, it's clear that new working practices will lead to a change in the layout of your office space. You should ensure you're prepared financially and logistically.

No one-size-fits-all solution

The contention regarding different approaches to the return to the office comes from the different needs of different businesses. It's clear that some firms will need their people close at hand to operate effectively, while in the majority of cases, remote working is advantageous.

The discussion now needs to be on what is best for each firm in each case. As such, it's vital for you to proactively engage with your employees, address their needs and concerns, and decide what's best for your unique situation.

It's entirely possible that remote working will be ideal for parts of your business, but not others. Or it might even be best for one employee to work remotely 100% and for another to be in the office full time, even within the same team.

This may be challenging, but the return to the office is also a great opportunity to reboot and rethink your entire organisation from the ground up, ensuring your way of working is future-proof and takes advantage of all the new opportunities technology brings.

For further insights on managing today's issue of the return to the office and planning for the workplace of tomorrow, visit our managing today, planning for tomorrow hub.

Managing today, planning for tomorrow Redefining your business value through unexpected change

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