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The great ‘Return to the office’… friend or foe?

The great ‘Return to the Office’ is upon us, and with it comes a mixed bag of opinions, wishes and wants of the global workforce. With the likes of Goldman Sachs C.E.O quite importantly pointing out that working in person is essential for an: ‘innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture’; or Satya Nadella Microsoft’s C.E.O stating that ‘Digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection’ it would seem the shift back to office working is the logical next step… 

The ‘office’ has seen many changes to its layout and design over the last few decades, from ridding us of the ‘cubicle’ more insular style of working; to communal spaces, hot-desking, open-plan and team-based working. With the innovation of tech and digital tools like email, video conferencing, chat platforms, virtual presentation suites and so on and so forth, the working day transitioned somewhat smoothly from office to home when the pandemic hit and quarantines were enforced…

What’s next?

We are now left with the potential quandary of what an office is actually for in the world of 2021 and beyond? Is it just a platform for collaboration, a way to define the work-life balance and leave the house? A social outlet? A reprieve from children and the stresses of home life? A way for new employees to learn from those more experienced? All of these are, indeed, valid questions, and some will resonate more than others with different companies and employees. The only thing that we do, really, know is that – to quote Bruce Daisley former EMEA boss of Twitter – “The most successful companies are rethinking the office by creating the spaces we’ve longed for,” and that, perhaps JPMorgan’s plan to ‘micromanage rotations’, mix up teams and recreate the ‘incidental information exchange’ (Evening Standard) from pre-pandemic office conditions is probably a great place to start.  

A survey carried out by the ‘Conference Board’ found that ’55% of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) questioned ‘the wisdom of returning to the office’. 45% of Generation X (1965 – 1980) were apprehensive about returning to the office with only 36% of baby boomers (1946 – 1964) feeling this way. However, with the lack of spontaneous interaction and sociability when you’re WFH, as well as the difficulty in integrating and mentoring new hires, Zoom just doesn’t cut it. Uncomfortable slap dash home offices, and for some, guest appearances of their kids in important presentations or the inability to remove cat filters during calls meant that WFH wasn’t always ideal. 

Value of social interaction at the office…

As a workforce, or a species for that matter, we adapted, became accustomed to isolation and, for a while, forgot the value of social interaction. Behavioural research further supports this stance demonstrating that people value looking into someone’s eyes, hearing live what they have to say, seeing a smile, and smelling an individual’s scent (we do this quite subconsciously) as a means of interaction is far more valuable than the ZOOM or teams alternative. Perhaps, it’s that people haven’t understood, yet, quite how much they miss other people?  

Obviously, we cannot forget what we have – and still will for some time – lived through. Continued safety and health concerns are normal, and it is not surprising that workers can and will be uncomfortable to come back to the office. Whether on a full-time basis or just for a few days of the week, after almost a year and a half, it’s invariably going to take some getting used to…  We, have therefore scratched our heads here at CORNERSTONE, and compiled a list of both those benefits and concerns that we all will need to tackle, and some solutions to making this transition back to the office as smooth and pleasurable as can be…  

Benefits  

Social 

After-work gatherings and drinks have been pretty much off the menu for the last 18 months, but with the return to the office, they’re back on. You’ll finally have a chance to catch up IRL with all your work colleagues and friends in a more salubrious environment than a video chat over Zoom from your spare bedroom or kitchen. Given that everyone’s been working at home for such a long time, there are also bound to be new colleagues to meet in person for the first time.   

For the more socially minded, returning to the office is pretty much a win win!  

Mental Health Benefits  

Concerns – Commuting Issues – Help, products and tactics/guidance 

Since, for over a year, your commute probably just consisted of rolling out of bed and strolling over to your desk or kitchen table, it’s quite likely that you’ll have a fair bit further to go now to get to work. Aside from missing out on a bit of an extra lie in, whether you’re travelling by car or by public transport, you’re going to have to start spending money to get from home to the office and then back again. Not only that, because the pandemic isn’t over yet, you’re still going to have to take precautions to protect yourself, and others, from the threat of Coronavirus.   

So, the first question you could ask might be, is travelling by public transport safe?  

Travelling into the office is certainly going to be a change from pre-pandemic times with countless new rules and guidance for commuting by public transport now in force. In London, for example, whilst it’s no longer a legal requirement to wear a mask on the tube, or any other TFL run service, it is a condition of carriage, so, unless you’re exempt, you will still need to have one if you want to make a journey.   

The number of people using Public Transport has declined since the pandemic. Whilst numbers may be increasing, usage is nowhere near that of pre-pandemic levels, so you’re likely to encounter far fewer people than you did back at the beginning of 2020. Fewer people means fewer chances that you’ll encounter somebody with Covid.  

Imperial College to the rescue…

Additionally, Imperial College London have been testing the London Underground for traces of Coronavirus and, possibly thanks to a strict cleaning regime enacted by TFL, the body that oversees transportation in London, they have found no trace of the virus.   

Their researchers traveled via Tube and bus taking samples of the particles in the air, aiming to detect viral particles that network users breathe out. The team also swab surfaces people regularly touch – such as oyster card readers, ticket machines, escalator handrails and buttons, stopping at underground stations for an hour at a time. This suggests that, with the proper measures in place, travelling by public transport can be safe.  

Of course, one of the biggest factors in determining whether using public transport is safe or not is you. From making sure that you keep your distance, as much as possible, from fellow passengers to ensuring that you properly clean and sanitise your hands, everybody can play a part in preventing the spread of Covid.  

Masks…

Mask wearing is probably one of the most visible adjustments you can make. It’s important to do so to help protect yourself and others.  Invariably, you’ll see people who are not wearing masks. Some will, due to health conditions, be exempt, and it’s not always obvious that’s the case just by looking at them. That said, you might find that badges and lanyards have been issues to some people who are exempt. For the sake of these people, it’s even more important that you wear a mask as doing so protects others far more than it protects you.  

Mental Health Issues  

Mental health issues have certainly been in sharp focus during the pandemic with many people suffering from the lack of human contact during the various lockdowns. Returning to the office can certainly help to alleviate that, but it doesn’t come without some associated worries.  

The noise of the commute can be a little overwhelming after such a long break from public transport, especially the growing number of people who are suffering from anxiety related disorders. Whilst nothing can completely blot out the cacophony, a pair of noise cancelling headphones or earphones can certainly reduce the volume of the outside world and help to make the trip a little more bearable. For people who have been used to existing in their own space for so long, noise cancelling headphones can bring back a much-needed measure of solitude amongst the crowds you’ll encounter on your commute.   

Office Problems/Measures  

So, if there are concerns about the safety of the commute to the office, what about when you actually get there! 

Well, a number of companies are introducing a variety of measures to ensure their staff are safe. From instituting regular cleaning, where surfaces are frequently wiped down between uses, to ensuring social distancing from staff by changing office layouts to allow for more space, companies are doing their bit to prevent the spread of covid amongst their workforces. Some companies, especially in retail environments, are even employing the use of physical barriers, usually transparent, to prevent direct contact with people. Then, of course, there are masks which, in enclosed areas such as lifts, can do an excellent job of diminishing the impact of covid.  

Some offices are even fitted with thermal cameras so that they can detect the signs of covid, possibly before the employee even realises they’re infected. These measures, of course, go hand in hand with encouraging employees to carry out covid tests themselves. This is where employee responsibility comes in. Hand sanitiser dispensers are often liberally spread around the office in the hope of encouraging employees from unwittingly transporting covid from place to place. Your workplace may not even be operating at full capacity with timetabling measures in place for staff, meaning that not everyone is in the office at the same time. Fewer people in the office means less chance for the virus to spread! 

Aircon in the office…

The circulation of air is also quite vital to stopping the spread. Keeping windows open where possible should certainly be encouraged, but what about many modern offices which often have sealed windows? Well, the good news is that a great deal of offices will already have mechanical ventilation in place. As long as it uses vents to draw in new fresh air, it has pretty much the same impact as a naturally ventilated office. The only issue comes with air-recirculation units which don’t draw in fresh air from outdoors and simply redistribute old air from inside the office, and potentially spread covid along with it! 

 Essentially, our back to the office survival kit entails equipping yourself with masks (and a few spare just in case), hand sanitiser, water bottles, perhaps that new work outfit to get you in the right frame of mind and excitement that potentially just maybe we’re coming out the other side of this crazy time we’ve all been living.  

 

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