Do we really want to go back to the office?

To borrow a phrase from the TV satire The Thick Of It, 2020 has been a complete and utter omnishambles. Just the absolute worst! However, faced with the prospect of a global coronavirus pandemic, economic recession and several long and tedious months of lockdown, most of us have managed to muddle our way through. And the surprising emergence of ‘working from home’ (WFH) as our saviour in these tough times has been one of the few positive stories to come out of the crisis.

Bizarrely, though, now that the kids are back at school, and some companies are heading back to some semblance of normal operations, the Government is doing it’s best to get us ‘Back to the office!!’, in a quest to kickstart the economy and dig us ever-so-slightly out of recession.

But do we WANT to go back to the office? Haven’t we all got used to the immeasurable benefits of working from our own homes and cutting out the commute?

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of a return to the office…

The boom in homeworking

Pre-pandemic, every office had at least one of two people who religiously had a ‘WFH today’ reminder blocking out every Friday in their office calendar. And a few of us (myself included) have been full-time homeworkers for years,  flying the flag for WFH well before the current crisis hit.

But it took a full-blown global pandemic and enforced government intervention to truly switch most office workers on to the pleasures of working from home. Forced to stay at home during the lockdown, many people discovered for the first time that:

  • Working from home didn’t mean skiving and sitting on your arse all day
  • Actually, you could get more done and be highly productive without the need for a commute
  • Technology allowed us to chat, to have meetings and to share documents easily
  • Life had a slower and more sedate pace, improving our work/life balance and our wellbeing.

Having had six months or so to get used to these newfound benefits and freedoms, the average ex-office worker is now less than enamoured with the idea of ‘getting back to normal’ and plunging back into the office rat race that we all thought we’d escaped.

So, why do the powers that be want us back in the office?

Why go back to the office now?

In a nutshell, the return to the office comes down to one thing – economics. If we’re all sitting at home, making our own coffees and lunches, then we’re not spending our hard-earned cash on train travel, petrol or in city and town centre sandwich shops and cafes. And that’s not good for economic recovery or for oiling the wheels of small business survival.

There’s also the argument that going back to the office will be good for our mental health – getting us back to socialising, being around people and being ‘part of the team’. There’s some truth to this, of course – we would probably all go bonkers if we had to lead entirely solitary, online-only lives for a long period – but it’s also a conveniently helpful veneer to add to the more pressing argument of ‘Get them back in the office and spending some money!!’

The pros of working in the office

So, is office life as great we’re being told? And what are the various merits of our former workspaces when it comes to creating the best possible environment for fostering work, productivity and a highly engaged workforce?

Let’s take a look at some of the apparent benefits of office-based working, according to the pro-office lobby:

  • You’re part of a wider team of people – big employers love the idea of having the whole team together in one place. It builds team spirit, fosters connections and makes people feel part of something (alledgedly). It’s hard to recreate this if your employees are sitting at home on their own, struggling through yet another Zoom meeting, and stuffing their faces with cake/crisps/Jammie Dodgers.
  • You have proper face-to-face social interactions – as humans, we need to socialise and interact with each other, and that happens more naturally when you do it in person. The dynamic of a team/department/workforce is greatly affected by how we engage with each other when in the same room. So, for some people, getting people back into their office teams will be an essential part of their recovery plan.
  • Meetings become more interactive – sitting a group of people down to brainstorm ideas for the next quarter works way better when you’re all in the same room, rather than dialling in to Zoom and trying to work out why no-one can hear Carlos’ microphone. As a tribal species, we come up with new ideas more instinctively when we can see people, and follow the dynamics of an in-person conversation. 
  • You keep the small business community alive – by leaving our houses and going out into the world, we spend our money, we generate income and we help small shops, businesses and city/town-based providers claw back some of their lost revenues and cashflow – most of which was decimated over lockdown.

The cons of working in the office (all of them)

So far, so good. But many on the opposite side of the office debate believe these pros are only part of a more complex need to reinforce the underlying corporate structure. For bosses and employers, there’s still an inherent mistrust of homeworking – with some less enlightened individuals believing ‘it’s not proper work’ unless you’re thrashing out the last quarter’s sales figures in the boardroom at 9pm over pizza.

The detergent brand, Dettol, tried to convince us of the bountiful merits of going back to office life and were mocked and harangued mercilessly on social media for their trouble. When you’re using ‘Proper bants. The bosses jokes. Plastic plants.’ as three of the actual GOOD reasons to return to the office, you’re not going to be on particularly solid ground when it comes to convincing the average enlightened homeworker.

So, could that be why we aren’t all clamouring to get back into our corporate routine? What, exactly, are the downsides of this return to office life?

  • The time and cost of commuting – to get to our city/town centre jobs means commuting, whether that’s a train ride, a car journey or a quick 10 mile jog (for the triathlon bores). Most commutes not only cost you a LOT of money, but they also eat into your time, taking away hours from your day that could be used more usefully.
  • The drop in productivity – on average, I would have spent around three hours per day on my train journey to work when I was a commuter – and now, as a homeworker, that time can be put to more useful, productive or enjoyable ends. With three more hours to play with, I get more done, and still have time free to relax or be around my family.
  • The never-ending meetings – in the corporate world, your success often seems to be measured by the amount of meetings you can arrange. Although we’ve experienced plenty of Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings over lockdown, video meetings are usually shorter, more focused and less impromptu. When Nigel in Procurement decides you absolutely MUST all sit down to thrash out last year’s expenses, there’s no escape if you’re all in the office (should have been an email, Nigel!).
  • The endless bants and in-jokes – Dettol’s ad agency may believe that ‘proper bants’ is a selling point, but, for many, the merciful lack of office banter and in-jokes has been a saving grace of lockdown and homeworking. Yes, bants can still permeate into Slack channels and online meetings, but at least you’re not going to get home and find that some wag has superglued your stapler to your desk (“LOL”)
  • The enforced fun and staff workshops etc. – your boss wants you all to be part of a dynamic team, and part of modern HR policy seems to believe that this can only be achieved through ‘fun days’, ‘office socials’ and making everyone sit through the senior manager’s terrible pub quiz nights. Yes, being around those colleagues that you like is good fun, but there’s nothing less enjoyable than fun that’s forced on you by an aspiring middle manager who’s eager to prove ‘my team really just see me as one of the guys’.

A plea for a new hybrid worklife

So, are you in? Or are you out? Is the freshly sanitised and Covid-free whiff of the office calling to you? Or are you longing to stay in your box room/conservatory/desk nook at home and just get on with the work as you have been since March?

Personally, I’d argue that it doesn’t have to be such a binary decision. Many forward-thinking and empathetic employers are offering people the chance to do both – to work from home when they want to, but to also come into the office a few days per week to catch up with the team, have a few meetings and actually see another human being face-to-face.

Now that we’ve seen the value of cloud systems, video conferencing and working from home, it would seem daft to chuck that all in and go back to the office five days per week. Let’s try a hybrid approach to the working week – where some days you’re at the old homestead, some you’re at a client’s office and some you’re back at your office HQ. 

To my mind, that would tick all the right boxes, while keeping our working week fresh, interesting and as productive as possible.

So, yeah, let’s go back to the office occasionally, but let’s not just jump back to a corporate 1990s idealogy when there are far better ways to get the job done.

Going Freelance: Building Work Around Your Life

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If you’ve fallen in love with homeworking, and want to get some real control over your career and work/balance, now may be the ideal time to jack in your corporate role and start your own freelance business.

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