Collaboration, not culture wars, will help us return to the office

Work at home (if you can). Get back to work (sorry, the office). Forget that, work at home please. Go back, gradually and carefully. Read the guidance. Businesses must work out what’s best. It’s on you. Fingers crossed!

These phrases illustrate the chaos surrounding England’s official office working guidance during the pandemic. I exaggerate in places. But each statement reflects a government position at a certain moment. Sometimes, ministers even took different positions on the same day.

Navigating this is tricky, especially if you’re not expert in workplace design, occupational health or HR. I’m more used to writing about 600-acre spaces than 600 sq ft ones, and I struggle to visualise how a shell will look when kitted out and occupied. “How many desks can you get in here again?” was a stock phrase used during recent forays into Bristol to check potential new office space.

What knowledge I have is shaped by conversations with helpful agents and dozens of viewings over recent years. Much of this was during COVID, which detonated drastic changes to everyone’s living and working patterns. Once, I nearly agreed a three-year lease on office space before government guidance shifted (again) to work from home. Not signing saved us from paying for a space we couldn’t use.

The process feels fraught with uncertainty and confusion. I know I’m not alone in struggling to find something that works for us post-COVID, as the environment around us remains in flux.

From this muddled standpoint, I’ve watched with interest as people on all sides of the vexed office debate state their case with certainty. As I write from Scotland (that’s flexible location working for you), respective positions around this debate appear to have hardened. Whether it’s work from home or return to the office, it’s taken a binary either/or context.

This is unhelpful when many organisations are looking at somewhere between those points (or hybrid, to use the jargon).

Office politics

Rather than discussing what we want our offices to become, we’ve started the summer in same place as last year’s badly handled ‘back to work’ ruse (remember what happened after that?). Ministers bounded into the debate by calling on workers to return to offices and threatening pay-cuts for those who work from home.

The Times (who recently consolidated office space at its London HQ) published a leader supporting a mass return. Its wider coverage included a piece from an unnamed PR calling for staff to return, saying: it should be the workplace, not the woke-place.

See what they did there? Instead of new ideas around what places teams need to thrive, we get a new front in the culture war pitting ‘common sense’ against warriors of woke. And what could be more woke than an empty office during lockdown? We need collaboration to build consensus and make this work. Instead, we get fixed thinking and name-calling (again).

Rishi Sunak’s interview with LinkedIn News sparked this renewed tussle. The piece makes very sensible points about younger workers learning from older peers at work. That reflects my experience in a newsroom as a young reporter. I learned so much from listening to colleagues handling challenging conversations that stay with me to this day. The fact that those newsrooms no longer exist in many towns and cities appears lost on media commentators pushing for the masses to get back to their desks.

But even if we accept that great things happen when people are together, it must be time to move beyond a presenteeism mindset that states people must be in an office every day to progress.

Meanwhile, as the guidance says, organisations must grapple with the messy reality and choose the path that works best for them. Many will decide that the future won’t be office-based.

‘New normal’ ≠ ‘old normal’

With another lockdown not completely ruled out, the binary debate is as tedious as it is unhelpful. I don’t want to add to it. But as someone whose team has doubled in size whilst grappling with this issue, I will highlight some points I think are missing from the push to get us back. I share these thoughts in response to what I’ve found and appreciate there may be some obvious things missing. If there are, I would love to hear your thoughts.

#1 – clarity on next steps: I get a ‘one-size fits all’ approach won’t suit every employer with staff returning to their workplaces. But mixed messaging (see intro) doesn’t inspire confidence for those committing to go back. Organising a return is challenging on top of the day job. I only want to do it once. Clearer guidance and access to support and practical advice is vital. It doesn’t appear that the government has updated its advice on YouTube since June last year, despite the guidance changing since then.

That would build credibility and trust in the encouragement to get back. Without it, only those with supportive networks and understanding teams stand a strong chance of working their way through the next few months.

#2 – (more) flexible provision: For employers wanting the ‘best of both worlds’, going hybrid may cost more than either/or. Teams won’t use offices every day, while cost of rent, rates and making them healthy and safe will increase. I’m reconciled with that, because it’s vital for us to have somewhere we can work together, develop ideas and treat as our own. But that won’t work for many employers or their teams.

The wider challenge here is that there aren’t many flexible options for teams who don’t need space every day where sharing with other organisations isn’t possible. An intermediate option, sitting between a full-time office and one to rent by-the-hour, could enable a faster return to office life that ministers are keen to see.

And is it naïve to expect a ‘lockdown clause’ on long-term leases if we can’t use an office if guidance changes (again)? Businesses in every sector are adapting to the pandemic in radical ways. Office providers I’ve spoken to say they’ve had little support from government during the pandemic. Somehow, they need to adapt to the changes happening around them.

#3 –Serious engagement on the future of cities and towns. This is the big one, which is absent from statements placing cities’ fates in office workers’ hands. We need an urgent conversation about reshaping town and city centres to keep them relevant after the pandemic. Cities have adapted for many generations to meet the needs of those who live, work and learn there. We found in recent research that people’s views have changed about these places during the pandemic. ‘Back to normal’ fails to acknowledge this. Given this shift, it feels bizarre to cling onto old ways of thinking about how and where we work.

The need to face up to this is more urgent because of the climate emergency, laid bare in this week’s IPCC report. We’re starting to see how local authorities are supporting their high streets and regenerating their town and city centres. But places won’t support sustainable, healthy, inclusive working if we press office workers to prop up a model that was already failing on many counts. To go further, faster, we must put communities at the heart of this discussion.

Opportunity awaits

This post contains thoughts I’ve been mulling over for months. It’s not intentionally grumpy. I can’t wait to spend more time with colleagues, clients and friends.

Returning to an office will be a positive step for us. It is also an opportunity to reshape how we work for the better. I appreciate and respect that others take a different view. As the guidance suggests, we need to work out what’s best for our teams and go with that.

So, in the spirit of collaboration, I’m keen to hear from anyone who’s facing similar challenges and would be happy to share what I’ve learned with you. If you know of anywhere with space for half a dozen creative comms professionals, I’d love to hear from you. If I’ve missed a trick, let me know.

One request though: please don’t sell me the virtues of one way of working over another. We need to move beyond that and find ways that work, together.

Whether you’re a team member, department head or a business owner, good luck with whatever you choose to do. I’ll let you know how I get on and am all ears for anyone who wants a chat.

Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash.