The tide appears to be turning in terms of attitudes towards the office. Kevin Ellis, Senior Partner and Chairman of PwC, notes that after evidence of mixed sentiment last summer, the majority of CEOs are turning back to being pro-office, and David Solomon, Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs, goes as far as to say that working from home is ‘an aberration’ that requires ‘correcting’. While hybrid working is still the most likely scenario, leaders are getting serious about a return to the office this summer as vaccines continue to roll out and Government tempts commuters with the promise of flexible season rail tickets. There is, after all, no substitute for a stunning office building in a great location in terms of setting first impressions, welcoming customers, attracting talent and motivating employees.
Historically, location, service and environment have played a key role in defining the quality of an organisation and the desire of customers to do business with them and employees to work for them. In the words of Harvard Business Review, ‘smart companies understand that workspaces are a business tool. An office environment reflects and reinforces a business’s core values, through the placement of different teams and functions and design elements that reflect culture, brand and values.’ Communicating quality through a digital interface is harder to do and to control; relying on remote collaboration tools such as Teams and Zoom for that ‘wow’ moment is difficult to achieve. There is simply no replacement for the magic of a great office full of talented and motivated people.
This is of course supplemented by the joys that come with working in a big city. Sir John Timpson commented this week that the longer lockdown continues, the more people will want to return to the office – thinking about how much more attractive coming back into town will be once pubs, restaurants and cafés, theatres, galleries and clubs reopen this summer and the streets of London come back to life. ‘People will want to join the fun, forget home working and get back to the office’. And it wouldn’t come a moment too soon, as our cities need us as much as we need them. Indeed, Head of Research at Centre for Cities Paul Swinney says that the future of central London depends on ‘these workers returning to their desks again’.
Being stuck in the same environment over the past year, seeing the same people, and doing all of our work, learning and socialising through the same screen are all blights on our human need for surprise, excitement and serendipity, and no digital perk can replace the camaraderie, events and opportunities for learning and career progression that take place in a thriving physical workplace, let alone the feeling of inspiration that comes with a beautiful office building and how it reflects your brand and the kind of standards you uphold. While the basis for this future office experience must be a seamless flow of information and network of systems that fully accommodate hybrid working, we can also look forward to the reintroduction of those life-enhancing locations, magic moments and services that elevate our days. With cautious optimism, there is every reason to look forward to the return of the city office.