Vialex CEO, Keith Anderson considers how we return to the office and stresses the need for employers to involve and collaborate with staff in order to achieve the best arrangements and outcomes for everyone in the organisation.

Will we be able to fully return to the office? That is the question on the lips of every business owner as we consider the extent to which we reopen our business premises and encourage our staff to return now that so many of us are double vaccinated. While the guidance in relation to places of entertainment is far from clear, and the challenges faced by those responsible for policing the new guidelines or rules are daunting, at least it is clear that we are being encouraged to fully re-engage with them.

Some may think it is strange that we are being encouraged to go to the pub, or a night club, and at the same time we are being asked to continue to work from home, wherever possible.  The idea must be to kick start recovery for the “Night Time” Industries and to give us all opportunities for some well-deserved rest and relaxation, for the benefit of our mental health and general wellbeing.  What a good idea, but what about those of us in the “Day Time Industries”? Why are we different?

Readers will have their own thoughts, but I think there is a misplaced view that an office worker can be just as effective wherever he or she works. What we have learned in the last 18 months is that home working has worked for some and not for others, especially younger members of the team who have missed out on the opportunities to learn by simply being in the company of their senior colleagues.  Those younger people have also been starved of general interaction with their peer group, whether within the business in which they work or outside the workplace over lunch or even in a bar!

There may also be a misconception amongst our lawmakers (perhaps based on their own work experience, and who can blame them?) that work is not fun and not good for your mental health and general wellbeing.  If that is indeed what they think, it could not be further from the truth.

The adage “do you work to live or live to work” may pigeonhole many, but for most work is an important part of our lives and job satisfaction a lasting contributor to good mental health, self-esteem, and general wellbeing, together with leisure time.

The responsibility to create a safe environment within the office rests with those who lead the business

Now, if business leaders are in a quandary over a return to the office or not, then spare a thought for those employees who have no, or little, control over what may be expected of them.  For many, returning to the workplace will be a cause for anxiety and of course it’s not just the place of work but the challenges of travelling to and from there. 

The responsibility to create a safe environment within the office rests with those who lead the business, and it is incumbent upon them to listen to the concerns of their staff. Business leaders must take the initiative but guard against imposing unnecessary prescriptive guidelines from on high, and instead seek to achieve arrangements, and work patterns, in a collaborative way to achieve the best outcome for, and from, everyone in the organisation.

Mine is a legal services business and we have undertaken a detailed risk assessment of our offices which we will shortly share with colleagues for their input.  It will be a discussion document which will be updated from time to time to reflect current concerns.  While these relate most obviously to Covid-19 at this time, there will be other issues which will need to be addressed in the future and uppermost must be the health and wellbeing of colleagues, including our clients.

Ours will be a so-called hybrid model, as we know that some of our people will work best from home, most of the time, and others will work best in the office, most of the time.  We will leave it to them to determine which is best for them, confident that client service will not be compromised because we have the technology to ensure that will be the case.

In a previous contribution, I focused on the importance of mental health issues and that remains foremost in all our deliberations as we prepare for a return to the office.  What is clear is that if the office ever was just a place that staff travelled to every day to perform their duties, that is now no longer the case.  Instead, I envisage our office as being a place where colleagues are encouraged to meet for the purpose of sharing ideas and for collaboration generally. How many initiatives have arisen, or problems been identified and solved, by chance conversation in the workplace?

I count myself as one of those who has enjoyed working from home and has not missed the daily commute; however, I want to see my colleagues again and to meet with clients in a business and social context. 

I have no doubt that video conferencing is here to stay and that’s great, but we do need to meet in person, and not just over a pint or on the dance floor!

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