Returning to the office will help to address our growing productivity problem
by Niki Fuchs, Managing Director of Office Space in Town
From conference calls at the kitchen table to juggling homeschooling, lockdown has massively disrupted working norms for many people, with as many as 49% of UK adults working from home during the pandemic. While remote working has come with benefits, such as avoiding the commute and greater time with loved ones, there have also been a number of disadvantages — declining productivity chief amongst them.
Already 16% less productivity than our G7 counterparts, the UK saw a further drop of 3.1% in output in Q1 this year. To truly address this systemic productivity problem, a return to the office following Covid-19 is vital. Indeed, our health and wellbeing, our ability to separate our work and home life and to learn and develop as professionals – all elements that affect our overall productivity – are put at significant risk if we forget the office for good.
Fostering health and wellbeing
Our working environment has a crucial bearing on health and wellbeing, which in turn can vastly impact our productivity. Indeed, research from Harvard Business Review has indicated that air quality alone can yield improvements to output of almost 2%. And despite having greater control of our home environment, a lack of necessary infrastructure and equipment to protect wellbeing is clear — in fact, 64% of respondents to a recent survey by Office Space in Town reported that their employer offered no practical guidance to ensure home workspaces were health and safety compliant.
Without the ergonomic design of the office, optimised lighting and temperature and ventilation controls, physical health suffers and productivity, in turn, declines. The British Council of Offices has also reported significant increases in musculoskeletal complaints during lockdown, with deteriorating physical comfort sure to detract from normal levels of output. So, there is a clear need for the physical amenities and controlled environment of the office, which broadly haven’t been replicated for remote working.
Mental health also has a significant bearing on our ability to follow workflows, focus on tasks and integrate with colleagues to achieve company-wide objectives. Again, OSiT’s recent survey found that 29% of respondents suffered with loneliness, in line with country-wide reports of heightened loneliness from the ONS. So, it’s clear that without a return to the healthier working environment of the workplace, the UK’s productivity could suffer even further.
Separating work and home
A further burden on productivity is an increasing inability to separate work and home spaces. According to our recent survey, as many as 34% of people working from home lack a designated workplace altogether. With the lines between home and work becoming more and more blurred, this has an immediate impact of focus and productivity, with 42% of people reporting an increase in distractions. But it also raises long-term risks of serious burnout, with 37% of people feeling unable to unplug from work and work-life balance repeatedly compromised by this lack of separate spaces.
The stark difference in digital capabilities of the home and office environments also has a bearing on productivity, as well as workers’ ability to focus without the distractions. In fact, reports have shown that 72 minutes of our day can be lost due to poor connectivity and outdated technology — a challenge few among us have avoided during lockdown. With 29% of respondents to OSiT’s survey further citing a lack of suitable equipment, a return to ‘smart’ technology powered workplaces will be essential for more productive ways of working that maximise focus and minimise distraction.
Opportunities for personal development
One of the great workplace costs of lockdown and prolonged remote working has been professional development and learning, so much of which depends on face to face communication. Despite an overwhelming uptake in digital tools and video conferencing platforms, in-person collaboration remains one of the most missed qualities of the office. Shockingly, 40% of UK professionals feel that lockdown is adversely affecting their work — at least in part as a result of its impact on development opportunities.
For junior team members, new graduates and interns, a loss of in-person shadowing, mentorship and networking simply can’t be recreated to the same degree online and leaves the next generation of workers unable to learn and acquire the skills and experience they will need for the future. To prolong this by working remotely for good would be nothing short of catastrophic for the ability to teach and foster productivity in the next generation of business leaders, who want the chance to learn in person.
Returning to a new normal
Over the decades, businesses have invested heavily in making office spaces as productive as possible, creating healthy environments that foster focus and ease of operation. The ability to learn from mentors and gain experience on the ground has also been critical to training up the next generation of workers to be the best they can. No home office can replicate this. We must, of course, return to the office safely, but the impact on British productivity makes it clear that we must indeed return. Unless we do, the fundamentals that underpin morale, efficiency and motivation in our workforce will suffer and the UK’s productivity will only decline further.