Given his job title, it is no surprise that Richard Kauntze is banging the drum for a return to office life. But, he argues, the benefits of a centralised workplace are really for society as a whole
Normality is slowly creeping back. We began by meeting in parks and gardens. Now we are doing so in pub gardens. Next week we can finally sit at tables in restaurants! Soon, as the months unfold and the vaccines are given, our reunions will be with clubs, theatres and all the rest of it.
As our cultural life returns, our office life will follow. Some doors have already swung back open but, for now, most desks remain vacant. Our return will be slow, unlikely to pick up until mid-summer, and we will not work in the same way as we did before.
Our mass experiment in working from home has, for the most part, succeeded – and certain tasks have particularly benefited. The Leesman Index, for instance, finds that more than 90% of office workers feel that working from home is appropriate for individual focused work, but only 56% feel it suits more informal social interactions. This seems about right. Some days we want to keep our head down, other days we want the buzz of being together.
Those most likely to have the best home working set ups – offices, gardens, an empty nest – will need to pack up their Bromptons, hop on a (now quieter) train and go back first
While working from home will remain, the office should – and will – continue to play an invaluable part in how we work. As outlined in an upcoming BCO research paper, The Future of the Office in the Post-Pandemic Work Environment, the office is the “centre and brain’’ of an organisation.
The paper, released this month, outlines how it is a place where a culture is created and maintained, where knowledge is best shared and creativity most inspired. Without an office, a company loses its edge.
And, as the paper states, without an office new and trainee staff have “almost no opportunity to learn by copying or, more subtly, by picking up… how to deal with clients, collaborators, other departments and suppliers”.
We should remember the invaluable, informal lessons that can be learnt in an office. We also should not forget the broader benefits. Many of us feel a greater sense of wellbeing when we work together, rather than atomised at home.
Of course, I could say more about the benefits of offices – that’s my job. But perhaps most important is the role they play in our social and cultural lives. Offices bring people together in towns and cities: hubs, full of great food, music, theatre and all things vibrant. This culture is vital to who we are as a nation. Without us coming together for work, we risk the future of these recreational venues that rely on a critical mass of people to make them viable.
So, we need a return to the office this summer, and that must be led by senior workers. Those most likely to have the best home working set ups – offices, gardens, an empty nest – will need to pack up their Bromptons, hop on a (now quieter) train and go back first. Doing so will give younger employees the confidence to follow, and set the tone for everyone else.
Our return to our desks will be good for our companies – and even better for our towns, cities and culture. It must begin soon.
Richard Kauntze is chief executive of the British Council for Offices