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Ask Lawrence: Getting Ready For a Return To The Office

26 Feb 13:00 By Lawrence Akers


If 2020 showed us one thing, it was that we are adaptable, innovative, and flexible.

In a situation where sitting together was not an option, studios who had previously said it was impossible to work remotely found a way to do it.  Literally weeks before our first lockdown March last year, I was speaking with clients who had said to me that working from home was ‘just not possible’ and yet these same businesses were forced into a situation where they had to adapt, evolve or risk not being able to operate at all.

As a result of that innovation, the creative industry was capable of keeping afloat of the pandemic crisis and while there obviously were some job losses, it feels like we are at a point where jobs are bouncing back and businesses are feeling a lot more secure and confident about what lies ahead.

The other impacts of this are more cultural; and this has been reflected in the many conversations I’ve had since working from home became a thing.

Some studios have struggled with having people working remotely and found that the lack of collaboration and direct communication has made it a challenge for them.  I even know of some companies that have set up mental health support for their team due to the impact of remote working.

Other studios have absolutely thrived in it and, in some cases, have decided that there will be an element of working remotely even when it is no longer required.

As part of my interview process, I always ask what people are looking for in their next role and historically, company culture has always ranked highly.  When people talk about that, it isn’t just about having a team that is fun and upbeat, but it is also about a team that trusts them to get the job done and allows them to do their work without micromanagement.

Since lockdown, this notion of life work balance has shifted and as a result, more people are saying that flexible working arrangements will form part of their ideal role moving forward.  There are lots of reasons why people may want this ranging from work at home parents to a reduction in travel time and even just the ability to focus and be more productive without the distractions that exist in any office space.

The next few months are going to be truly interesting in this regard as a new normal is established and I suspect it may prove to be a growing pain issue for many businesses.  While there may be a desire to have everyone back on site, the question now that will be raised is around what being all together in a room is able to offer the workplace that remote working hasn’t also been able to achieve?  

In this current situation where a pandemic still exists, business owners need to be cautious because not only do they not want to impact the health and safety of their workers, but they also need to consider the impact on their business if their team was struck unwell.  Additionally is the requirement to continually reassess their COVID Safe Plans; for example, as we approach winter, cold and flu season will inevitably strike their employees.  If someone calls in unwell with flu like symptoms, does that mean that the entire team who have been around that employee days before may need to have a COVID test done and isolate until those results come back negative?  Realistically, how many companies are going to request or enforce that?  My suspicion is that not many would, and if community transmission is low, I can also understand why their concerns around that would be very low.  

However let’s also look at the flipside here; it is understandable that a business owner may want their team together again, to build on that natural energy that comes from everyone being in the room and to be able to collaborate, bounce ideas, have immediate discussions and to build ‘the culture’.  For every person who has told me they’ve enjoyed working from home, I’ve spoken to another who cannot wait to be back in the office with their teammates once again.

So what is the solution to this?

The fact is that there is not going to be a clear cut solution that will work for everyone, and not every business is going to be in a position to offer this new ‘life work flexibility’ as we continue to take steps out of this pandemic.  While working from home has been a revelation for some people, we also need to recognise that life prior to the pandemic wasn’t so bad going into the office and socialising with an amazing team either.

Perhaps what is more important is to ensure that any anxieties or concerns employees may have around returning to the office are addressed so that they can begin to make that transition back confidently.  Accepting that some employees may even have a (dare I say) grieving period for the loss of working from home and to ensure that there are equally things within the office that remind them of how great it is to be back, generating that energy and engaging in the ‘new normal’.  It is unrealistic to expect to be able to work from home forever, so encouraging a mindset where ‘it is great to be back working together’ is going to help people step forward into the next stage of this evolution.

Let’s watch with interest as to what the next few months have in store - will we be returning to the way it was pre-pandemic, or will we be taking elements of the old, lessons from the pandemic and creating a new normal moving forward.