When we eventually return to the workplace we can expect it to be very different, says Richard Kauntze of the British Council of Offices

There has been much talk about the “return to work”. It seems not a day can pass without a discussion about how best we do it, what challenges lie in the way and what “work” looks like when we get there. Recent government guidance, which closely matched that provided by the BCO some weeks ago, elaborated on how we can do so safely and securely. However, discussion about ‘returning’ to work is slightly false. Many of us – and I suspect most readers – have not stopped working.


In truth, the discussion is really about returning to the workplace. This was a point well made by Despina Katsikakis, head of occupier business performance at Cushman & Wakefield, in an interview with the BCO.

While politicians and journalists discuss “returning to work”, those of us at home often find ourselves working harder than ever before. Previously, some viewed “working from home” as code for a day spent slacking off. This experience has proved otherwise: the hours are longer; the pressure higher and the business needs more critical. Regularly, I hear people complain that they are now exhausted by their work in a way they were not before.

What we need is a return to the office; a return to work-life balance, to boundaries and to the softer elements of our careers – the unexpected encounters and coffee catch-ups

Much of this is because there is no differentiation between the workplace and the home. Leaving the office at the end of a hard day allows us to leave our frustrations and our worries at the door, protecting our leisure and time with loved ones. That ability to walk away has a very real impact on how we manage our work/ life balance.

>> Breathing new life into the old office

Consider also, and I know this sounds perverse, the benefits of our commute. For many the commute is an almost sacred hour of the day where we are able to indulge in our intellectual interests outside of work – a well-loved book or a passion project, for instance. When we first began working from home, I am sure we all delighted in the prospect of getting back lost hours; only to realise they had not been lost at all, they marked valuable time to ourselves.

What we need, then, is a return to the office; a return to work-life balance, to boundaries and to the softer elements of our careers – the unexpected encounters and coffee catch-ups.

While we may not be able to return to the office for some time, we can expect it to be markedly different when we do. Absolutely, there will be some immediate, obvious changes to how a workplace looks and functions to protect physical health, but perhaps the long-term changes are more interesting.

Covid-19 has shown the importance of community spirit. To respond to this, offices could host events, and even shops and restaurants. We may also see a further increase in collaborative, flexible spaces that allow teams to come together and bounce ideas off one another.

Lockdown has made many of us exercise more. This, combined with ongoing concerns about commuter crowds, means more people will walk, run or cycle to work. Offices will therefore need more bike storage, showers and locker rooms. Workplaces would also benefit from gym facilities that allow workers to maintain midday exercise habits formed during lockdown.

Workplace designs will also need to become even greener. The crisis has rightly led to questions about the environmental impact of constructing and running, offices. Clear progress is being made here, but this will likely be accelerated by covid-19.

Working in an office is a good thing. Not only do humans work best when they work together, but also when they have a clear divide between work and leisure. When we do return to the office, I suspect that most of us will be glad to be back.

Richard Kauntze, chief executive, The British Council for Offices