In a new collective agreement, Telenet recently stipulated that working from home will remain possible up to 60%. This decision also has an impact on office space: the telecom operator will be closing its offices in Mechelen South. Last December, Proximus already announced to cut out more than half of its current office space in Brussels North. The company notices that office needs are changing, due in part to the coronavirus situation. At Proximus, they want to reinvent the workplace. The office will become more of a meeting place, instead of a daily workplace. At Unilever too, they believe that employees will never again return to a five-day workweek at the office. Numerous companies are currently rethinking their workplaces: What about our office buildings? What about working from home? How many days a week will our employees still work at the office? How can we restore social cohesion after a year of mainly working from home?
Back to the office: look before you leapA recent study by Liantis and iVox, surveying over 3,000 Belgian entrepreneurs, shows that only 1 in 8 is considering selling offices in the long run or using them in another way. 1 in 3 says they want to keep their offices as they are. More than half have no idea yet. Still, working from home also remains on the radar of these entrepreneurs. But if we can all return to the office, then what will hybrid work look like?
It seems to become a crucial choice: what kind of work is best done from home and for what kind of work do I need the office? The office itself is turning into an inspiring environment for innovation and co-creation thanks to spontaneous and informal interactions that are difficult to trigger in an online environment. In other words, the office is used for creating positive vibes, while we use our home office to work on tasks that require our undivided attention. Deloitte, for instance, seems to be conveying this strategy: their new office building in Oostkamp is ‘built for the future’ and acts as a meeting place, rather than a permanent workplace. Or as Telenet puts it: “In the long run, coffee breaks contribute to effective and efficient collaboration.”
But is it really true that people can work more focused and efficiently from home? A LAMMP survey between April and May 2020 among just under 400 employees in Flanders, shows that only 1 in 5 feels they work more efficiently without any coworkers or supervisors at hand. 1 in 3 says they can do their work with more discipline. On the other hand, almost half of the respondents indicate that the key trigger to return to the office is better collaboration with coworkers. 15% say they would like to have a better work-life balance and 11% want to be more involved with the company. Yet, 10% do not want to return to the office.
A workplace tailored to the user
There are several reasons to choose a different office environment: sustainability, cost efficiency, higher performance, etc. But what about the users and their needs, where do they come in? Proximus wants to maintain a campus in Brussels as a central meeting place. Are employees indeed in need of a meeting place, and if so, what should this meeting place look like? Or have some people grown tired of loneliness and developed an aversion of working from home during the COVID-19 year? Perhaps they would rather go back to the office every day? In LAMMP's 2020 survey, 76% emphasize the time they save by not commuting. Does this mean that people are not ready to face traffic jams again five days a week?
Intuitively, we might indeed associate the office with social interaction and innovation, explaining the choice for the office as a meeting place. But how do we decide which activities should be done at the office and which activities can be organized from home? Are creative solutions really that difficult to organize in a digital way? Or could digital solutions even boost efficiency? In the end, it is up to the user to weigh up which environment works best for which type of work. Research shows that working from home should be restricted to two and a half days a week maximum to avoid negative effects on social cohesion between employees. The question is whether this still holds true. Should we indeed aim at two days per week working from home? Maybe one meeting day a week already suffices for some people to recharge their social energy. Agreements and 'rules of conduct' between employees and with management too, thus become even more important in a hybrid situation.