In the 20 months since the first lockdown in 2020, there have been countless predictions regarding the future of work as businesses and industry experts did their best to work out what the workplace would look like. We’ve heard everything – ‘the office is dead’, ‘hub and spoke’, ‘collaboration’, ‘hybrid working’, ‘smart working’, ‘flexible’ working, the great resignation, the ‘opt-in’ office, amongst countless other things.

Following what has been an unprecedented period of working from home, many businesses are now reporting reduced communication, stifled innovation, slowing projects, a lack of engagement and staff leaving as the initial productivity bubble at the start of the pandemic has burst. Many people are now at a stage of severe burnout and businesses are beginning to suffer as a result, losing market share to those who choose to approach things differently.

But how can businesses address this and get their people back to work?

Dangling the office quality carrot

Some are dangling an enticing carrot, meanwhile others are using more of a stick approach. The net result is that office demand is increasing.

Speak to any office agent and they will likely tell you that they are busier than ever working with companies seeking high quality offices with good amenities, boasting light bright spaces that will create a modern, enticing workplace for their people. Such is the flight to office quality that some occupiers are even taking 25% less space but are spending 27% more on their rent just to provide a better environment for their employees.

From bringing in soft furnishings and creating collaboration spaces, to making room for individual zoom calls and improving soundproofing to reduce distraction, employees are being given a much better office experience than they have had at home. This dangling of the office quality carrot is helping many employers to entice their workforces back into the office which, in turn, is leading office fit-out companies to be busier than ever.

However, a return to the office, no matter how nice it might be, doesn’t suit everyone and we’ve witnessed this amongst many businesses polarised across a generational divide. Younger staff are fed up with the same four walls and many have lacked the appropriate space at home to work effectively. They’ve also missed out on much-needed professional development because they haven’t been able to learn from their peers. Their managers, on the other hand, who might be slightly older with families to balance, have found working from home to be much more comfortable, not to mention more convenient. This is challenging businesses as they seek to return their workforces to the office.

Beware the draconian stick

From an HR perspective, most employment contracts will still state that an employee’s place of work is at an office, five days a week, during normal hours. With this in mind, some businesses have adopted more of a stick approach, ordering staff back to their desks with threats of being overlooked for promotion, reductions in salary or even redundancy if they don’t comply the terms of their employment.

This is a very draconian approach, and employers need to be aware that this can lead to resentment and is contributing, in part, to the great resignation trend, as people go in search of more of a work-life balance.

So what is the answer?

Businesses and their employees now understand, from their experience of the last two years, that offices are not just places where you work. They are places where staff can go to pursue a goal with a common purpose, a place to share in a company’s values and brand identity, a place where great friendships are made, and ideas shared. They are placed where employers, in addition to working on their culture, have the unprecedented opportunity to create an office environment that provides a much better experience than at home where many have been secluded, anxious, scared and sometimes lonely, behind a mask of “I’m more productive at home”.

But what is the point in being more productive at home if there is no one there to notice the output, no one there to solve a problem or answer a query without having to resort to a Teams or Zoom call for face-to-face interaction?

Embrace hybrid working

Employers need to give people a reason to leave their sometimes-cramped homeworking set ups, to come to an office environment where the benefits of human contact will speak for themselves. A health and safety led desk set up, the ability to share stories, to interact, socialise and innovate. To have ‘cake Wednesdays’, to be able to share a joke, to tell a story and create those bonds with your colleagues before sitting down to work.

‘Hybrid’ is the phrase that seems to be sticking around as employers work out what their future workplace looks like.

But key to the success of this approach will be regularly taking the pulse of how individual employees feel about this model, how productive they are in relation to the company’s goals and discovering potential hurdles to business growth. Without this, hybrid working may flounder rather than become fulfilling and flexible. The conversation needs to move away from “I’m more productive at home” to “how are WE doing as a business?”

If the answer indicates any hurdle or inefficiency, companies will need to look at ways to lure their teams back together to improve that communication, spark that innovation or re-engage those connections.

David Thomas is Occupier Advisory Partner at Vail Williams LLP www.vailwilliams.com.

This article was first published at Ethical Reading