Where is your desk now? Work from home vs the office environment


I recently heard someone joke that running a business was mostly finding the right way to answer a constant series of questions. Despite the fact they were joking, for most of 2020, it’s a pretty fair assessment of what it has been like. As we head out of lockdown (well, at the point of writing, partially head out of lockdown), the question that is troubling most businesses is what balance to strike between working from home (WFH) and the workforce being back in the office.

Working from home has a lot going for it

If you look at it clinically and purely by the numbers, then WFH has a lot going for it. There are some clear advantages for employees, such as:

  • It’s cheaper to some degree, at least. Just losing the cost of a commute to work five days a week could well be a real financial boost. According to Lloyds Bank, in 2019, the average worker spent just under £800 on commuting to and from work. That is enough for a real treat.
  • It gives back a lot of time. Just the average commute time to accompany the cost above works out at the equivalent of about ten days travelling a year.
  • More space for the kids, partner, dog and themselves. Being able to adjust more to the needs of those around them makes WFH very attractive to employees.

For the employer, of course, there is a potential financial return. In theory, at least, having a remote team lowers your costs for:

  • Office space
  • Technology
  • Support services
  • Utilities
  • Insurance and other additional costs

It makes you wonder why some businesses are even considering a full return to work when WFH has so many obvious benefits. Well, it isn’t quite that easy. The numbers may well work out, but there is more to consider. People are a little trickier to deal with than the numbers on the balance sheet or the statistics. For many people, the office is also about social and career development. Management and staff development can be considerably harder to implement over a distance.

While Zoom and Teams meetings may be more time and cost-efficient for most people, they are not communication efficient. By which I mean the lack of physical contact and face to face meetings reduces our ability to interpret body language and other social cues. There I an efficiency concern as well. The social aspect of the office and the casual interactions are all part of working life for many of us and often make for a more integrated, diverse and therefore, more creative team. It would be a brave move to totally lose the office in favour of WFH.

One thing we do need to bear in mind as well is that there was already a move to remote working in many job roles. The last year or so has really focused everyone on something that was actually happening anyway, albeit in a slower, less conspicuous way. One perhaps unexpected result of the pandemic is that many recruiters are saying that candidates are now asking for, even expecting, contracts with a WFH element. There may well have been a paradigm shift in how people see the workplace. In which case, the workplace must surely respond if it wants to attract and keep the best workers.

Hybrid working

The most likely outcome of all this is that we will probably see more hybridity in work environments, with home and work becoming a part of a symbiotic relationship. The question then may not be ‘should’ the team return to the workplace as much as it should be ‘how often’ should the team return to the workplace?

Let’s take an example of the payroll function for a recruitment business. While certainly, it is great to have the immediacy the office environment presents, does it really need to be there all the time? Yes, of course, it is great to be able to pop over and see someone about a question, but that could just as easily be achieved online. However, that thought, being able to nip over to see someone, the chat around the kettle in the office kitchen, and the occasional corridor conversation are something that we all probably want to hang onto. Problem-solving and creative solutions seem to work best in the office. However, when it comes to the actual function of the job we are looking at, i.e., the processing of an accurate payroll, it doesn’t really need the office environment. In fact, as long as the data and systems are secure, it can be done perfectly well as WFH via a cloud-based solution. Cloud-based systems that do not tie you to a physical server mean it actually doesn’t matter where your workforce is, geographically speaking. As long as they have the technology they need and reasonable internet access, they can work anywhere.

Which leaves you to make the choice of the amount of remote working you allow, based on what is best for your team and your business.

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