A few years ago, I interviewed Professor Sir Cary Cooper one of the UK’s foremost thinkers on workplace issues. We discussed the UK’s productivity puzzle – why does the UK consistently lag other developed nations on productivity measures? Cary felt that the UK had a ‘management’ problem.
My thoughts have drifted back to that conversation in recent weeks as the Covid-19 crisis has shifted very firmly into planning the return to the workplace.
This means different things in different sectors. There are many workers – from delivery drivers to doctors – who have continued to go into their workplace throughout this crisis. And of course, work has continued from home offices, the kitchen table or the living room floor.
For those who usually work in offices, plans are being tentatively drawn up for at least a small number of people to return in the coming weeks and months.
The return to the office is a huge undertaking, with an understandable focus on safety and practicality. On social distancing measures and PPE. But also, on balancing those who need to be in the office as a matter of business priority, and those who would prefer to be in the office due to the challenges of working remotely.
Conversely, there are many office workers who have been converted to the idea of working from home. Despite the crisis they have enjoyed the lack of long commutes, increased flexibility, and more family-friendly working patterns. The crisis has demonstrated that many workers don’t need to go into the office to do the job – indeed many organisations have reported an increase in productivity.
All of this presents a significant management challenge. It will be essential that leaders and managers effectively communicate who will return to the office, and why (outlining clearly defined criteria). Ultimately it must feel fair and transparent.
Even if this initial return phase is navigated well, the hybrid office/remote working model presents the risk of of creating ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups. Managers will need to get used to managing blended teams with some colleagues rarely (perhaps never) being in the same physical office space.
This is all happening in the context of business transformation, with a raft of significant announcements in recent weeks. Of course, this will bring additional management challenges – particularly the emotional and psychological challenges of handling redundancies.
More positively, as Slater Gordon have demonstrated, the focus on business transformation opens up the opportunity to look at new operating models – reducing the danger of office presenteeism, while creating a greater focus on productivity.
The pandemic has accelerated the mass adoption of technology for people forced to work remotely. In many respects this has led to an increase in collaboration and innovation.
So, should this signal the end of the office?
In short, no. But offices do need to be reimagined and repurposed. Too often they have become soulless battery farms focused on tasks, as opposed to creative spaces which generate ideas and inspiration.
Enlightened businesses will therefore invest in adapting their office environments and in equipping their managers with the right skills to thrive in this shifting landscape.
This in turn will create opportunities to finally address the productivity challenge, enabling workers to deliver higher quality work whether that’s at home, in the new ‘office’ or hopefully, in the not too distant future, over a cappuccino in your favourite coffee shop.