With Covid-19 restrictions set to ease once more on September 20th, the coming weeks and months will likely see a return to the office for hundreds of thousands of employees who last turned off their computer and laid down their stapler sometime back in March 2020.
For some, returning to the morning commute and a day filled with banter and collaboration with fellow colleagues will excite; for others, however, habituated to the relative ease of a day at home, it may cause some frustration.
It’s likely, however, that flexibility will be the name of the game for some time yet to come, as employees gradually return to the office on a hybrid basis, with working from home still a regular feature of their employment.
Nonetheless, employers may find that they need to up their game to make the office a safe, engaging and welcoming place post-pandemic.
Return to the office
In general, most workers now want to get back to the office – at least some of the time – says Deirdre Costello, senior director, office leasing with JLL Ireland.
“Sentiment has definitely changed since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says, but adds that employees may need a few incentives to help them readjust and happily return to the workplace.
“Occupiers are looking to make their spaces as safe and attractive as possible to encourage collaboration and teams back to the office. When looking for offices, whether for the first time or perhaps you’re relocating, the ability to attract talent is crucial. Things like building amenities, local food and beverage offerings, and accessibility to public transport are what attract people,” she adds.
Indeed where remote working may have been less than successful, is when it comes to the social and inter-personal aspect of an office. While Zoom has filled a gap, it can be difficult, for new hires in particular, to build relationships without actually meeting people.
“We’re hearing that a lack of personal face-to-face time is having an impact on graduates, trainees and new hires,” says Fionnuala O’Buachalla, senior director, and head of tenant representation with JLL Ireland. “The opportunity to pop over to someone to ask a question has disappeared, replaced by a more formal Teams call or email, so there are real lost learning opportunities. There’s also a significant impact when it comes to promotion opportunities, the risk being ‘out of sight, out of mind’, leaving employees feeling undervalued and employers losing key talent.”
This is translating into higher turnover rates among employees who joined companies post-Covid.
“They’re not getting the opportunity to experience the true company culture or on-the-ground training, which is impacting their ability and perception of their job,” adds Ms O’Buachalla.
For reasons such as these, many employers are keen to hold on to their office space. While some companies, such as financial institutions like Bank of Ireland, are looking to reduce their office footprint in favour of remote working hubs and working from home, others are still keen to retain office space.
“As we head into the final quarter, we are experiencing a big uplift in inquiries and inspections,” says Ms Costello, adding, “We currently have five occupiers looking for over 150,00sq ft of space. There’s also plenty of take-up in the flex office sector, with companies looking for flexible space to grow.”
However, while many employees now see the advantages of office working, they have also enjoyed the benefits of working from home over the past 18 months or so, and are unlikely to want to give up on these entirely.
“Many companies [like ourselves] already had hybrid working in place before the pandemic, so this isn’t a ‘new’ way of working,” says Ms O’Buachalla. “However, post-Covid, most companies accept that there will now be some form of hybrid working when employees return to the office, just not necessarily for all roles. In most cases, companies are not reducing the size of their offices, but will occupy at lower densities to ensure a safer and more pleasant working environment.”
Working out how this hybrid model can meet the needs of both employee and employer will be the next challenge employers face.
“Flexibility will be key to retaining existing staff,” says Ms O’Buachalla, adding, “the question is what that flexibility will look like”.
Options, for example, could include three days in the office and two days working from anywhere; changing start and finish times and getting rid of the 9-5 to allow individuals to work their most effective way and avoid commutes; or increasing annual leave time.
“These are all great options to explore. We are seeing ongoing commentary on how to avoid the office being empty on a Monday and Friday and consideration being given to prioritising those days to people who travel most weekends, or small incentives for people who are in the office on a Monday and Friday,” she adds.
These incentives could be social perks or, given the popularity of getting a pet during the pandemic, employers could offer a dedicated day for bringing your pet to work.
“Something that would especially appeal to those who became a new pet owner during lockdown!” says Ms O’Buachalla.