As the vaccination rollout is gathering pace and restrictions are easing, many business leaders are considering if and when to return to the office. While saving on office costs and commuting time is attractive for any business leader, there are some key factors to reflect on that may not be immediately apparent and could affect the success of the business in the longer-term. 

For many, working from home has been a godsend. The absence of stressful commutes, spending more time with loved ones, and the quiet solitude of a home office are just some of the benefits of not leaving home to go to work. From a business perspective, many companies lucky enough to continue working through the pandemic have saved on infrastructure and physical rental costs, so they have seen an uptick in profitability.

So why are businesses thinking about returning to bricks and mortar? What is driving this decision, and what are the long-term implications of this decision from a business perspective? Here I’ve examined five reasons why I think leaders should be considering a move back to working in a physical office environment.

Culture and New People

Building all-important company culture and solid engagement in this remote environment is incredibly difficult with existing staff, let alone new joiners. Data supports the hypothesis that employees who are more connected to their co-workers and employers are more productive and loyal. According to studies by the Smith School of Business and Gallup Organization, reported in Harvard Business Review, disengagement in work can be costly. The research revealed that disengaged staff had 37% higher absenteeism — much more difficult to measure with remote teams — and made 60% more errors.

Therefore, businesses must consider how important it is to their business strategy to foster long-term, committed teams who are all pulling in the same direction. They must then ask themselves honestly whether their teams are as engaged and connected working remotely as they were when meeting face to face.  

Physical and Mental Health

There is no doubt that working from home can be intense. You must intentionally create thinking time and separation between home and office life. There is no commute to prepare for or decompress from the workday, which is taking a toll on people’s productivity and overall health. A survey commissioned by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), saw 59% of respondents reveal that they felt more isolated from colleagues, 46% claiming they took less exercise, and 56% finding it harder to switch off as a result of working from home. 

These trends are not sustainable and can damage health and productivity if not carefully managed.

Serendipity

Working from home can easily encourage pre-existing silos to be exacerbated as people will increasingly collaborate with the people they currently work with to complete tasks. Bumping into other people or creating moments to talk to people outside of day-to-day teams is much harder to organize and is often one of the first things to go.

There are myriad disadvantages of siloed working, including duplication of efforts, a breakdown of communication, and lower creativity as teams lose the opportunity to casually cross-reference projects and ideas.

Even with a phased return to work, silos can easily continue as social distancing guidelines will limit the number of staff within an office, meaning managers might be limited to only having the same team in at a time.

Productivity

The early productivity gains originating from people working longer hours because of time freed from commuting have proved, in many cases, to be temporary. This increased work time was only sustainable for a short while, as evidenced by JPMorgan, among others, who have shown a drop in employee productivity as the pandemic has kept workers remote.

According to an April 2020 report by Wundamail, an over-reliance on video chat can lead to a plummet in productivity. Of the 20,000 remote workers surveyed in 2020 across the UK and US, 56% wished they spent less time on video calls altogether, calling for virtual meetings to be reduced. Interestingly though, 73% of respondents regarded video conferencing as getting “work-done”, which suggests that video calls, for some, give a dangerous illusion of productivity, when in reality, very little work is completed or produced.

Hybrid Working

Some employers may well be considering a hybrid route, where people are offered the flexibility to come in on some days and not others. Or, in some cases, a percentage working from home exclusively. This means that there will be a constant mix of people at home and work.

Realistically, it isn’t easy to balance half a team working at home and half opting to come into the office in the medium or longer term. How do you make sure that even with the best of intention, people that are out of sight are not out of mind when quickfire opportunities come in? How can you keep promotions fair and ensure inclination does not sway towards the people sitting in front of you who you can connect with more readily?

So much of what we do in this distributed work environment, others don’t see. They may see the result, but not the other little things that go into making a project happen. For employees, being at the office will make their contributions more visible to managers and senior leadership.

Business and work teams have been living off knowledge and relationships built over time in the physical office during the last year of remote working. This has enabled teams to continue to function and perform. This knowledge erodes over time, and the ease of communication built up through physical presence simply cannot be easily substituted by Zoom. Business leaders at this juncture need to think carefully about the secret sauce that drives their business and whether a dispersed team can deliver the innovation and drive necessary to take them to the next level.