Recently, Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said “The question of whether it is safe to open is clearly a political one and seems to be driven by economic and social imperatives rather than public health.” Leaving politics aside, what this statement highlights neatly is that the Government is currently attempting to balance three competing objectives: public health; economic performance; and social needs. We think most organisation leaders are facing the same balancing act when planning a return to the office.
In an earlier blog we talked about some of the social imperatives that organisations might consider when planning their return to their offices as Covid-19 restrictions ease and we argued that for many the sociality of the office has real benefits to organisation outcomes. However, these social imperatives do not act in isolation but must be balanced with the health risks to employees and the financial risks to the organisation. In many cases the health, economic and social demands being placed on the organisation may work in opposite directions and some of these demands may be more apparent today than others. The result is the possible danger that all three imperatives are not balanced in the organisation’s long term interests.
For the Government, signs of the economic imperatives they are trying to balance are not difficult to pick up. At time of writing 8.7 million people are on the UK governments furlough scheme, a further 2.5 million on the self-employed scheme and currently that number is still rising. That represents more than a quarter of the workforce and is expected to cost up to £100bn. This is just one of many additional costs incurred in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This balancing act, being played out in the news headlines at the Governmental level, is also experienced by many organisations in a way that has a very real impact on decisions to return to the office. If infection risks were the only criteria that needed to be considered, few organisations would be considering a return to the office before the end of the year. But it is not, every leader will also be attempting to balance the health needs of their employees with the social and economic needs of the organisation.
From an economic perspective the pandemic has affected organisations in very different ways. Whilst some have thrived many others face mounting debt, a squeeze on cash and continued uncertainty about their future ability to operate. These contrasting fortunes are highlighted by a recent report that Zoom is valued higher than the world’s 7 largest airlines.
For those organisations thriving during the pandemic despite a period of forced absence from the office, economic concerns are unlikely to put extra pressure on leaders to return to the office any faster than the health needs of the employees dictate. Indeed, some Tech companies have announced that employees can keep working from home permanently if they want to. Yet we would question whether such decisions have fully factored in the long term social consequences, after all, these are organisations that have spent fortunes on building offices that they consider ‘cathedrals to innovation’ based on their impact on social interaction.
For organisations struggling economically, there will be a significant burden to reduce costs and one way to do this is to save on office costs. For many, the forced absence from the office has demonstrated that they are able to operate remotely and the combined pressures to protect the health of staff with the need to reduce costs has led to a number of indications that offices will be reduced in size in a number of sectors such as architecture and insurance. The return to office judgements being made by organisation leaders currently are complex because the triumvirate of potentially competing objectives – health risks, economic concerns and social exchange all need to be balanced. This is evident from the lack of unanimity across sectors such as banking where some commentators suggest working from home will become more prevalent whilst others argue that the social integration that results from the physical presence on trading floors underpins profitability.
Dangers lurk for those organisations making these decisions based solely on the experiences of the last few months where there might be a temptation to privilege decisions based on immediate health and economic needs over social imperatives that only become apparent over the longer term. Using the period of transition from full lockdown to the normal operations of the future (whatever they may be) as an extended period of experimentation could help mitigate these dangers. Seeing the present period of flux as an experiment (one we did not ask for, let’s be clear) yet one we could use to our benefit means first and foremost to take data driven decisions. An experiment can only work for us, if we control it. We might not be able to dictate the terms by which the virus becomes manageable, or how quickly a vaccine becomes widely available, but we can control what we know and how we react. If organisations do not have their own data, now is the time to collect it. Understanding how spatial layouts affect social interactions and these translate into employee needs, preferences and attitudes are examples for useful insights. If we think of each next step of the return to the office as one iteration in an experiment, where we collect data along the way to understand its impacts, organisations will be able to make more informed choices.