Leaders must be more creative if they want staff to spend more time in the office

Leaders must be more creative if they want staff to spend more time in the office

In the lead-up to the Festive Season, it’s inevitable that many of us will look back on the past year and compare our lives today with the challenging and anxiety-inducing lockdown events of a year ago.


From that health crisis to an economic crisis and the first war in Europe in 70 years, times are hard. But, there is positivity for me, from an unexpected place – working from the office (WFO).

While I agree that businesses have survived enforced remote working and that many are struggling to return to the office, I appreciate being with colleagues for meetings, the spontaneous chatter and our World-Cup stories around the office coffee machine more than ever.

Yet, many are content to continue to work from home (WFH) and save the time and money of the commute.

After all, they say, we are just as productive WFH as we are WFO if not more – given the distractions of socialising with work colleagues. I have seen countless stories of offices not getting much more than 25% full as teams stay on Teams.

Does this continuing WFH matter?

I think it does, but worry that we will not see or understand its impact for some time.

I think it will lead to colleagues feeling isolated, disconnected and overlooked for promotion, which favours the present and visible. They will not develop as much as they could.

They will not feel they belong to something bigger than the sum of their digital tasks. They will miss the opportunity to socialise, form new friendships and encounter those serendipitous moments that can make life so interesting.

Their risk of burnout is greater as the screen conversation – if it happens – misses the signs of unhealthy working.

So how do we prevent this WFH from becoming the default for those enterprises which tell us all they are NOT remote companies.

The answer lies with our leaders

If we as leaders want our people to spend more time working together in the office, it is our responsibility, not our employees, to organise and sustain more imaginative ways of bringing people back into the office.

The win is clear. Mental health, learning, collaboration and networking are some of the many good reasons why office work is so important.

Building a company culture depends on social connection. In office working helps build social capital. Leaders can’t zoom in on stress and they can’t develop people through Whatsapp.

This is not easy. Businesses that have dictated or demanded a return to WFO have failed to achieve that easily or often without significant resistance from their people. Big bold demands are quickly withdrawn and credibility is lost.

You have to sell it, you have to make it worth people’s while, because they’ve got out of the habit.

As leaders, we’re competing with saving costs on travel, time and our team’s belief that we can be just as productive at home.

Many businesses are trying to market the office as a place for collaboration, community and connection, but there is nothing more disheartening than working in an empty office.

According to a recent survey conducted by property consultancy Remit, in the first full working week of September, the daily average number of employees in England and Wales working from the office hit its highest level since May 2021.

But that high was only 31%.  In the Capital, office occupancy reached 50% on single days in the week to 9 September in the West End. Docklands continue to be loud proponents of “back to office”.

From our experience, we’ve launched a series of WFO initiatives that seem to be working…

  • Anchor days: having all of the team working together on the same days.
  • Collaboration events: teams working together on major issues or problems.
  • Social or learning events.
  • Breakfast or end of day socials.
  • Meetings in which no screen attendance is possible.

As an independent media agency, we’re committed to supporting flexible working.

Yet, I’m not alone in enjoying the stimulation and motivation from in-office working.

I believe our creative, spontaneous, sociable industry will lose something very special if we compromise our innate human desire to share experiences and learning while WFO.

Deidre MacNair is joint owner of independent media agency The Village.

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