On Thursday 19th March last year, there were just three of us left in the office. I turned off the lights and wondered what on earth the future held. It was almost impossible to conceive our entire company working from home.
Within days, millions of people across the UAE who were used to commuting into the office every day suddenly became remote workers. Businesses scrambled to adjust, providing their employees with the tools needed to maintain business as usual as best as they could. People adjusted to virtual meetings, setting up new offices in their living rooms, and frantically updating their internet connections.
A year on, we have made things work, and we are starting to see more and more businesses and organizations pondering the question: “do we still need an office?”
It seems a great many of us actually quite like the idea of working remotely, so why pay for an expensive piece of real estate that isn’t being used? Why not drop the lease, and re-invest that money into people or technology?
When considering the positive impacts of working from home, one of the easiest places to start is with time.
In Dubai, an average person spends about 39.32 minutes driving to work or an average of 42 minutes on the metro. If you stay and, or work in Sharjah or Abu Dhabi it's longer still. That’s a large amount of time that could be spent eating breakfast with family, for example, exercising, or even sleeping. Equally, it is with flexibility to work different hours than before and to wear perhaps more comfortable clothes.
However, as we ponder ‘To Office or Not to Office,’ my thoughts turn to company culture. How do we create a shared identity and understanding if we no longer have a communal space to come together? What happens when a new employee joins the company? How do they know who their colleagues are, where to reach out for support, or ‘how things work around here?’
I have friends who’ve joined organizations in the past 12 months both in leadership positions and staff roles, who are struggling to get a sense of what that organization’s identity is, what their values are, the pace and tone of voice of the company.
Trust in both the company and in the people around is built through getting to know one another better and sharing formal and informal knowledge. In other words, it is not just formal work tools - the Job Description, Induction and Training Programs and Team Meetings, it is the ‘water cooler moments’ or waiting for the lift when people meet and discuss ideas, problems and each other. In the process of sharing our thoughts, we reiterate who we are and what we value; we problem solve, and we innovate.
Thus, despite the benefits of working from home, we are still seeing many people preferring to work in the office when they are given the opportunity – young and old. It’s not just the convenience of getting away from the kids or the unstable internet connection, it’s the social interaction we are craving. We are social creatures we live in groups for a reason spending large amounts of time connected to others.
In my view, the past 12 months have demonstrated the ability of businesses and employees to work remotely and succeed. The argument that staff need to be in the office to be productive has been disproved.
Whilst I am of the view that certain occupations will not go back to 100% working in the office, neither will we stay 100% working from home. COVID-19 has enabled us to talk about greater flexibility and choice, and now I think we are in a position to meet in the middle. I believe we will continue to see a shift from managing by clocking in and out to management by results.
The Managers role will move toward ensuring that staff have the tools and skills required to succeed both in and out of the office and balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the team and the employee.
The future office is therefore in my view the smaller office with greater levels of hot desking and sharing resources, and providing employees with greater choice as to when to be in or out.