Should you get an office again after lockdown?

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Elle Rankin Co-Founder

As the co-founder of a business born in the midst of lockdown, a big decision within our leadership team has been whether we move into an office once ‘lockdown parameters’ allow.

Although there are key factors (operational and financial) that can result in a hard ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response to that question, the reasoning that you could return to the office doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

The infamous March 2020 global shift to ‘working from home’ revealed the positive and negative realities of a remote workforce. Of course, there had been organisations that had allowed a level of remote-working pre-covid, but it was very much the exception, not the rule. This overnight upheaval created an unprecedented but mandatory experiment as to how quickly organisations could accommodate, or even embrace, change. The result of which was an acceptance for some businesses that a wholly remote or hybrid option of working was, in-fact, preferable for them.

Additionally, employees had a sense of freedom not felt before and the chance to work in a new way. A 2020 TalkTalk study found that 58% of workers in the UK felt more productive whilst working from home. To the contrary, other workers felt the effects of a new phenomenon, ‘zoom fatigue’, and lack of focus due to being removed from the collaboration and culture of a workplace.

So, what is best for your business?

Office-based, strictly working-from-home, or a hybrid approach? The decision can impact profitability, scalability, productivity, and company culture equally in either direction depending on your unique set-up and how you proactively manage the route you take.

Consider the non-negotiables –

Can your team operate remotely?

Critical evaluation number one is whether your business could even operate remotely.
Typically, a remote model is suitable for marketing, IT, customer service and sales operations opposed to manual roles, e.g., manufacturing, engineering or lab-based positions, which cannot be transitioned away from a physical workplace.

Can you afford a permanent office?

Secondary is whether you can actually afford to have an office or permanent location.
If you are pre-revenue or a lean start-up, you may not have a cashflow that accommodates the significant impact of an office and all that comes with it (rent, insurance, utilities, etc). Until you have raised investment or reached a level of profitability, committing to an office prematurely may cripple your business.

If your response to question one was that you do in fact NEED a physical location, then you must work to factor this into your financial planning and even consideration into how much investment you need to raise. Low-risk and low-cost options are now readily available for growing businesses in the form of shared offices and contract manufacturing.

Are you unsure what costs your business can afford? Check out Runway’s piece on financial modelling.

But… what about X, Y and Z?

Our business, like many others, was in the lucky position that could operate remotely and could afford an office… but hadn’t yet landed firmly on either side of the fence.

The decision is rarely straight-forward (as with many business decisions), and you now must face more subjective variables.

Impact on profitability and scalability
The cost of returning to an office is just that, a cost.

By adopting a fully remote approach you commit to significantly lower overheads and therefore, in theory, a higher profit margin within your organisation. This profit can result in an increased return on investment to stakeholders or an opportunity to self-fund growth through re-investing.

In terms of broader scalability, an organisation that offers remote working will also benefit from a wider talent pool to hire from, increased diversity, a (potentially) cheaper workforce and no geographical or physical restraints to rapid growth.

On the other hand, if your workforce yields better results when working together or having an office to invite clients to, significantly increases sales conversion, then removing that function could have the adverse effect.

Impact on productivity
Now, this is a trickier question as it yields much more of an emotional response.

Given the events of covid, employees now have their own sense of productivity whilst working from home, and sometimes self-reflection varies greatly from the management’s perspective. Either way you phrase a google search, you will find articles, studies and reports that argue the pros and cons of productivity within a remote workforce… but, in reality, it all comes down to the individuals and structure in place.

Trust must be had in your employees no matter where they are based, and communication is hugely important here. You will know distinctly in your business if your team can thrive in a virtual setting or need to be removed from home distractions into the sanctity of an office environment.

See Runway’s article on ‘how to motivate your team remotely’ for actionable insight.

Impact on company culture
Again, this is something that must be nurtured whether in an office setting or virtually.

As a business founder or leader, you will likely have a clear idea of the type of workplace you want your business to be for all employees. No matter where on the scale of informal to formal you fall, this is something that must be managed and maintained across your teams – especially as your business grows.

Yes, it can be harder to create this culture in a virtual setting, but collaboration tools such as Slack, Teams and Zoom can be used effectively here. Additionally, I would advise that you facilitate periodic opportunities for face-to-face team building and socialisation for team members. This advice is also true for businesses that choose to be office-based however, as simply ‘having staff members together in a physical location’ doesn’t necessarily lend to organic culture in a workplace.

For each of these points, the individual pros and cons to your business will start to paint a clearer picture of whether you need to return to the office or embrace a more flexible model…

What is flexible/hybrid working?

Flexible (or hybrid) working is the approach that will allow your business to benefit from the best of both worlds. It can also be cost-effective and give employees more freedom (leading to a happier team).

You can also find a happy medium to the argument regarding organisational productivity, with one (pre-pandemic) report finding that a balance of working both remotely AND in an office resulted in a 13% increase in staff productivity.

A cost-effective approach that many businesses are opting for is to down-sizing their office locations and incorporate a hot desk model. This way, their office won’t necessarily fit all team members in at the same time, but clear scheduling allows for flexibility across departments. This could even be via usage of a shared/co-working space that rents desk space rather than full units. The key element here is that your business benefits from lower office costs, but still has a permanent physical location.

The results of the pro/con list

Hopefully the above has given you some food for thought on how to identify what the right approach is for your business. By working through a pro/con list and talking openly with stakeholders within your teams, you will be able to pragmatically evaluate the decision and move forward with confidence.

For us, although our team can physically complete all aspects of their roles remotely, we knew that our value as a business would only increase by being together. We have been conscious to proactively create an environment that supports flexible working and have negotiated leasing terms that also allow us to scale and grow into whatever the future may hold.

Performance management expert, Amira Kohler, summed it up perfectly in March 2021, when she said “Ultimately, flexibility will be key here as a one size fits all approach will not work.”

…and, what about the future?

You can’t get too stuck on the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ here. The decision that is right for right now may change in the future – and that is OKAY!

Be careful to align your financial decisions, and allow breathing room for evolution – i.e. negotiate a suitable break clause in your rental agreement. Just as you prepare for any eventuality in your business – plan continual reviews of your development and allow for flexibility within your decision.