As we reopen offices, there’s a huge opportunity to build back better
A view from Cilla Snowball

As we reopen offices, there’s a huge opportunity to build back better

In the latest instalment of Campaign's series, Cilla Snowball says reimagining the office is complex but should offer long-term benefits.

Serving on the boards of both the Wellcome Trust and Derwent London, I’ve certainly done plenty of thinking about the health and property implications of reimagining the office. 

Covid is reshaping the way we think about everything, accelerating change amidst profound uncertainty. The disorder will be with us for some while yet — and change will be lasting. 

Faced with a deadly, highly infectious, frequently asymptomatic disease, our only option is working out how to live with it for the upcoming weeks, months or years.

So reimagining the office is a defining imperative. How we navigate this speaks to the very heart of company values and culture. These are life-and-death decisions. We’d better get them right.

Six months in crisis management has changed the way we think about work and the office. It’s taught us how to operate flexibly, to entrust responsibility for when and where we work to employees and to accelerate the digitisation of how we organise, source, sell and distribute.

All good, but with the global economic damage running into trillions, Britain entering the deepest recession in its history, growth stalled, unemployment rising and trust in institutions plummeting, it is little wonder that the UK is resuming office life far more tentatively than our colleagues in Europe. 

We know we have to reboot businesses and get growth moving again, not just in our own industry, but also in those we depend on to function. 

We feel the collective responsibility to protect jobs and livelihoods. However, feeling our way back into something that’s forever changed takes a courage and conviction that’s hard to muster when trust is low and fear is high. 

No one-size-fits-all solution

The only way out of the pandemic crisis is working together, and not just on vaccines and treatments. Most non-trivial problems require collective solutions. 

And collective solutions are exactly what’s needed at a time when we have to prepare safe and sustainable plans for returning to work and resuming regular operations. 

There isn’t a silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution here. Every organisation is different and, within them, every employee has different circumstances. 

Reopening offices is far more complex than locking them down. But there’s a huge opportunity here to build back better, to coin a phrase, and to use this moment to create a new and better office and remote-working experience for everyone. 

And it has to be both, because most of us will end up doing a mixture of both in future – working on-site and off-site in a blend.

While we coped in lockdown, I’m not sure that many of us could sustain it for much longer mentally, physically or economically. 

I’m lucky to work in two organisations where everyone rose to the occasion and handled everything magnificently, but I know we all miss being together in person.

And that’s not soppy sentimentalism. Business is about relationships and there is no substitute for building relationships with colleagues and clients in person. This pays the bills.

Offices build momentum, set the pace and standard, bring people together, build culture, attract talent, promote the collaboration that sparks creativity, problem-solving and celebration. Doing all that on Zoom calls is possible, but it’s slow and unrewarding. 

Going back to the office is a massive step. And that’s why the business of getting people back has to be more of an invitation than an instruction – encouragement at an individual level, not a blanket mandate. This is a choice and it’s a big hurdle.

So we need to be deeply granular, supportive and compassionate when giving people the tools and information to encourage them back. 

In many organisations health and wellness always was a motivating principle, but it has to be the indisputable driving factor on everything now, informed not just by policy, but also by regular input from staff surveys on changing attitudes and concerns.

You need to do a lot of listening in an ever-evolving crisis environment.

A flexible workforce plan is now the sustainable norm

Some will choose to continue to work remotely. A proportion of staff will have to, in most offices, if densities don’t allow for safe physical distancing. 

For most organisations it’s about making the office available and desirable to those who can and want to come in, even occasionally.

Most people will be doing off-site as well as on-site work. And, of course, at the office it’s about creating higher-quality, adaptable space with improved air quality and ventilation, heightened health and safety, more space between desks and in communal areas, one-way systems, lift protocols, enhanced cleaning and hygiene.

It’s about tracking regularly and sensitively on what staff need and want, how their safety and wellbeing can best be supported, the equitable distribution of work, avoidance of burnout, asking the “How are you?” question widely and frequently and listening hard to the answer. 

It’s about having a flexible workforce plan that is no longer a one-off crisis response, but the sustainable norm. 

It’s also about an embedded diversity strategy that recognises and responds to the emerging evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate effect on people from BAME backgrounds.

Some companies are going even further on health and safety. Some large companies are installing doctors as their own in-house chief medical officers. 

Some are organising their own twice-weekly Covid testing for staff, others are antibody-testing all staff before their return to the office. 

Many are making greater provision for cyclists, car shares, staggered shift times and alternate workdays. 

All these initiatives (and this isn’t an exhaustive list) will help to build trust, eliminate fear and provide the seeds of encouragement to get back into the office. 

Once back, even for a day or so, we’re reminded of the benefits of being back and the main hurdle is overcome.

I said this is a collective effort and, however robust and resilient our individual offices and office plans, we can’t succeed without strong support from government. 

A genuinely robust testing programme, schools reopened safely, safe and affordable public transport, clear comms and decent childcare support are the absolute basics we need to navigate this next stage. 

In an evolving global health emergency we all have lots to do and tonnes still to learn. 

So reimagining the office will be a process of evolution and revolution for all of us. The stakes couldn’t be higher, nor the spoils greater for those who get this next bit right. Good luck to everyone.

Dame Cilla Snowball is a non-executive director of Derwent London, a governor of Wellcome Trust and a former group chairman and chief executive of AMV BBDO 

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