Bringing workplaces back to their prime requires a holistic approach

Enticing employees back to physical workplaces has proved challenging, but there are solutions writes Steve Elliott of BW Workplace Experts The pandemic radically changed the way we work and kick-started the proliferation of the hybrid model and widespread remote work. Now the picture has shifted once more, with headlines pointing to increasing return to the office policies introduced by organisations, with greater productivity and collaboration among their top reasons for doing so. Dubbed the year of the ‘Great Office Return’ by Virgin Media 02 Business Movers Index, 2023 saw four in ten companies mandating a return to the five-day office week and 92 percent enforcing some level of in-office requirement. However, enticing employees back to physical workplaces has proven challenging. According to CBRE, almost half of companies report their office attendance at 40 percent or under.

How can we make offices valued spaces once again? It starts with listening to workers to understand precisely what they want and need to get them back to the office. It is also about recognising that the design and layout of workplaces can themselves often act as barriers to both attendance and productivity.

Environment is a big factor when it comes to how we perform and feel at work, and if we already know what a worker wants before they come through the office doors, this lays the foundations for creating the best workplace environment possible. In a similar vein, we can also learn a lot about what makes a good work environment from what isn’t working for teams, and why.

Undertaking a research poll of 2,000 UK office workers, we found that 41 percent of UK employees feel more productive when working at home, while just over a quarter are more productive at the office, and close to a third feel equally productive at home or at work. This may be explained by the fact that in our research, privacy emerged as an issue for one in three people when in the office. Traditional open plan layouts, coupled with months or years working in the privacy of a home, means that offices need variety and a greater emphasis on independent working zones.

When working in the office, four walls and a desk will not meet the needs of today’s workforce. In fact, the most valuable spaces according to 34 percent are available meeting rooms, adequate amounts of breakout spaces and social spaces. Adding to this, 27 percent said that they also value wellness spaces (e.g. exercise or meditation rooms) and roughly one in 10 said access to outdoor space would influence them to go into the office more often.

This research paints a very full picture of what an office needs in order to be valuable, and it is clear that the most successful mix of spaces caters to multiple needs. The workplace needs to respond to the reality of how people spend their time in the office, from focused or collaborative work as well as socialising.


How we are working

What workers want versus what they are doing at the office is another crucial factor to unlocking the secret to better workspaces. We found that over half of office workers spend most of their time working at their desk, while just over a quarter are either talking to colleagues, having in-person meetings, working or brainstorming in teams. While the nature of what people do at the office will differ depending on vocation, the humble desk is a huge part of the workspace experience, so not forgetting to get the basics right is another lesson here.

For workers who are mandated, or want, to come in five-days a week, this is especially true. Being in the office full-time highlights even further the importance of high quality and people-centric offices, thoughtfully designed to provide a good variety of spaces and amenities. I would argue though that no matter how much time is spent in the office, every day should matter when it comes to boosting productivity and team experience.

A KPMG report found last year that two-thirds of CEOs envisage a full return to in-office work by 2026, right now though it is about finding a golden middle that works for both businesses and employees. Of the 2,000 UK workers we surveyed, a quarter are already required to attend the office five days a week. Of those working a hybrid approach however, the average required number of days in the office is approximately half of the working week – 2.43. When workers were asked what the ideal frequency would be, an average of 2.25 days was revealed as the hybrid sweet spot. This highlights that there is employee appetite to go back, but it is often within a hybrid context that retains some of the flexibility that they have become accustomed to in the past few years.


Meeting the needs of the workforce

The office needs to provide the balance and variety of spaces that people need and want. Well-thought out, high quality, people-focused design is critical. These should be places that people look forward to coming to, and which give them something that they cannot necessarily get at home, both in the physical elements of the workplace and by facilitating that vital sense of connection with colleagues.

 Reimagining office design in tandem with evolving employee demands plays a pivotal role within that, and a well-considered, holistic approach is the key to turning a corner and, ultimately, achieving a much-needed workplace renaissance – both for today and for the next generation.