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Do we need to return to the office? Sarah Leembruggen reflects upon the future of the workplace

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Posted: Jun 2021

As an increasing number of comms professionals return to the office, whether on a full-time or part-time basis, the time has definitely come for companies to navigate the varied preferences of their employees – there will be those who want to return, others who want to continue working from home (and not have to endure long commutes on the hot and dirty underground) and those who want a hybrid of the two.

For those returning, it’s going to feel a little strange getting back into a commuting routine and resuming face-to-face meetings, which (speaking from personal experience) is likely to be exhausting at first. After all, we are no longer used to so much interaction.

Looking back to the first lockdown, and the sudden need to switch to remote working, I got off to a rocky start. I missed being active and running around meeting people face to face. However, I have adapted. Video calls have been brilliant for keeping up with and holding meetings with people and we have created new routines in the team to keep us connected. We had no choice but to make it work but it turns out that this new norm is easy, time efficient – and I rather like it. The comms professionals I speak to share this opinion, and like me, are asking the question - is there any point in going back to the office?

Looking ahead one or two years, what will our strategic comms agencies and in-house communications teams look like? The case has been made for home working and its productivity, so how will this impact flexibility in the workplace moving forward?

I have spoken to lots of senior comms professionals about their experience with homeworking and, while they recognise its benefits, there is also a lot of commentary about the importance of the office space and making it a ‘creative and collaborative’ environment, with strong branding to be proud of, as well as reminding employees of how it feels to be part of an exciting business.

So will comms agencies and their in-house cohorts revert to working five days in the office once again or will they move to the ‘fully flex’ formula where employees go into the office for one or two days a week? This is what some agencies are talking about. If the management consultancies can do it, surely the ultimate communicators can…?

What is evident is that when everyone is working from home, you are all working the same way and pulling in the same direction. However, if you have some of your team in the office and some at home and you’re looking to put a new business pitch team together, who are you going to choose? The people who are visible and can engage in an ad-hoc brainstorm on the spot or those at home? How will you stay on top of your pitch proposal preparation when your team is half based in the office and across different geographies? In my mind, people at home will miss out on meetings, communication, ideas, and learning, which in turn, impacts promotions, pay rises and bonuses. We may be super-efficient at home but it’s an effort to keep remote workers up to speed.

It is different managing people who are working at home compared to people in the office. When I first started working from home last year, one of my employees pulled me up. I had not communicated enough and that was on me. What else do we miss? Learning slows down, especially when much of this happens by osmosis – creative ideas often come from thinking out loud and casual conversations either in the office or over lunch.

Are we going to end up in two-tier situation where the senior people are only in one or two days a week and the mid and junior levels are in every day, slaving away? If things get too flexible, employees start to lose their sense of belonging to an organisation. How do you retain your top talent, stay connected and motivated, stay on top of learning and make sure they are acting correctly when you are not there? It’s challenging, for sure.

Wherever we land, any form of flexibility and remote working means that you need to create strong cultures with strong values, have an office which is desirable to be in, and go on a promotional drive – remind people that it’s fun to be in the office again. It’s comfortable at home, so why should we all bother with a commute? In my mind, you should bother for your career, your learning, your pay, promotions, your future. You manage your career and yes, working from home is great and efficient but remember, you have an employer to impress and people to inspire, you want to further your learning and this is easier when you are sitting in the same room.

Don’t miss our Annual Salary Guide 2021, out next week, where we share our findings on how employees feel about flexible working; we also delve deeper into the subject in our newsletter. Sign up here.

The Works Search a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications. We have unrivalled matching abilities and known for finding the top 5% performers in the industry - the ones who deliver and make your reputation great. For more advice or market insights, do get in touch with us on 0207 903 9291 or email sarah@the-works.co.uk

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