The office is dead; long live the office!

Opinion piece published in Management magazine, 20/08/2020.

Widely questioned post-confinement, the traditional office, with its open-plan, in-person model is already being buried by futurists, contrarians, and more.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This (forced) period of working from home has shown that some activities can indeed be carried out efficiently remotely. Indeed, many companies have long enjoyed the benefits of not having offices, including a smaller environmental impact, less commuting time, and lower rental costs. However, the good old office model is not dead! Office life, energy and culture can be very fulfilling, and it isn’t crazy to think that it still will be in the future. Here are five reasons to reconsider the office, organized by height.

1) Work is a fundamentally human experience

Given the nature of the distance learning sector, Gymglish ticks all the boxes for going “full remote”. But while the crisis has confirmed our ability to work from home, a total transition to remote working is far from a company objective.

It would be simplistic to think that a company’s employees assemble for the sole purpose of performing tasks in order to achieve productivity. A company also consists of human relations, people helping each other, chatting, joking, meeting, explaining, managing, complaining, gossiping, creating tension and easing tension, debriefing, arguing, reconciling and so much more. A company is above all a social group – a microcosm of society. It is no accident that the French word for company is société!

2) Improve the office environment – don’t abandon it

To a certain extent, the workplace contributes to the soul of a company. But for this to be true, management cannot think of the office purely in terms of productivity and efficiency – which can just as well be optimized at home in a dedicated workspace.

The workplace is a living environment, a place where people should enjoy spending time and one that has a positive effect on each and every one’s well-being. One of the simplest and most important rules that we have set for ourselves can be expressed in square meters: the non-office area dedicated to meals, breaks, informal meetings and relaxation should go well beyond what is strictly necessary, and ideally be around the same as the office area (an approach that has proved to be particularly valuable coming out of lockdown). The more comfortable your space is, the more it encourages and nourishes human interaction.

Of course, the idea is not to get employees to stay longer, as some start-ups have been accused of doing, but simply to enjoy time at the office. Our experience suggests that most people do not want to stay at home 7 days a week. Believing in the importance of the office environment does not mean you cannot also work remotely from time to time, or even on a regular basis (say, a couple of days a week), depending on people’s personalities, capacities and the nature of their work.

3) Learning lessons from confinement

Working from home during confinement has resulted in some innovative tweaks to working that make sense to introduce permanently… to the office!

For example, why not introduce a designated space for employees’ children, equipped with books and basic educational materials, to cope with a possible lack of childcare or a strike by schoolteachers? Gymglish employees (and their children) are very enthusiastic about this possibility, which is a great way of enriching office life. Pets, much appreciated during lockdown for their comforting presence, could also be made welcome when possible.

Another example is staggering working hours: the health crisis raised awareness of inequalities and risks linked to public transport. The decision to adapt employees’ working hours to avoid peak travel times now seems like common sense.

4) Separating personal life and work life

Things that often go without saying sometimes need to be said: offering employees a comfortable work environment also enables them to leave it in good conscience when the day is over.

One problem with working from home indefinitely is the risk of being unable to separate private and professional life. Many people found themselves challenged by this issue during lockdown. The office-free model may seem attractive, modern and flexible, but in practice, it requires discipline and an ability to compartmentalize, which not everyone has. It involves a daily routine that doesn’t work for everybody. After 15 years of allowing remote working at Gymglish to cope with transport strikes, family matters and most recently confinement, almost 100% of our staff say they would prefer to come back to the office regularly during the week.

5) Alternating office and remote working 

By fostering team unity and a sense of community, office life can contribute to personal projects and career development. Managers are more attentive to employees’ career objectives and follow them more closely. Working on-site does not mean staying in the workplace 100% of the time. Companies will no doubt encourage occasional and regular remote working opportunities especially going forward – but these can also be outside a home office or co-working space. This might include travel, outside the city, nationally or abroad, over a set period of time (a working holiday). These breaks from the office also have an enriching effect on life within a company!

by Benjamin Levy, CEO of Gymglish, specialist in online language courses.

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