Why Offices Must Adapt to Encourage People to Return

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Hannes Read discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work, and how we can change the office to improve the wellbeing of employees and encourage them back. 

A new study by Aviva has found that 47% of employees were less career-focused because of the pandemic. Just 14% of employees favoured returning to the office full-time. The underlying reasons for the findings include the declining wellbeing of employees following the onset of the pandemic. With that in mind, perhaps we should be less surprised at the findings of the Aviva report.

Secure, well-paying jobs have a strong link with broader personal wellbeing. People with secure jobs have been able to save more over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, and have generally had more favourable wellbeing outcomes. The trend of many people, particularly younger people, becoming more reliant on lower-paid insecure work has been a factor in a deterioration in wellbeing over the pandemic.

The impact of lockdowns on wellbeing has affected almost everyone. Those who are able to work from home have also had their wellbeing affected. Yet, amongst the optimism for socialising with colleagues in the office, the prospect of returning to increasingly long commutes is hardly enticing.

Collaborative Office Spaces: One Piece of a Big Jigsaw

Redesigning the office as a collaborative space where employees can network and socialise is one approach to entice employees into the office. The continued trend towards increased collaboration space in offices is identified in The Future Business District study involving Colmore Business Improvement District in Birmingham city centre and City-REDI at the University of Birmingham.

There are multiple benefits of collaborative working, not least amongst younger people, who have plenty to gain from building their connections and pick up good practice and skills that might be more difficult to learn when working from home. Still, encouragement for the collaborative office space could differ by age groups and personality types of employees.

People who tend to have more outgoing and extroverted personalities may be more likely to feel encouraged by more opportunities to network. Yet those who are less outgoing could feel that their wellbeing is best placed by working predominantly from home. Similarly, offering collaboration spaces alone may not be enticing enough for people with family and childcare commitments whose flexible working currently suits them well.

Four Ways to Improve People’s Wellbeing within the Office 

Employees should be at the heart of the discussion of the future office. There are a number of steps businesses and government can take to place wellbeing of people in the future office space.

  • Providing employees with a genuinely democratic voice in company policy for future homeworking, or office working. Votes can be held for large decisions, with the principle of one-member-one-vote being well established in co-operative businesses.
  • Providing jobs at a Real Living Wage and with Living Hours has significant benefits for job retention, wellbeing, and happiness of employees.
  • Reorganise employees’ working patterns to offer a four-day working week to best fit around their outside of work commitments and allay fears of burnout.
  • Government can reform statutory sick pay to be brought up to at least the OECD average, have no minimum earning requirement, and be paid at 80% of earnings similar to the furlough scheme.

Businesses, employees, and landlords are considering redesigning a collaborative office space to encourage workers back. Yet this alone may be unlikely to entice people to the office.

The implications of fewer people becoming career-focused and fewer people wanting to work from the office, as identified in the Aviva report, are still emerging. The fact that wellbeing is a significant driver behind the findings emphasises the need for an alternative approach to workplace wellbeing.

This blog was written by Hannes Read, Project Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham and was first posted on the Birmingham Business School Blog.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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