For people who have spent the past year working from home, speculation now is growing over when and how they will return to the office. For some, it will be a relief to be away from children and domestic chores; for others, it will mean a return to unpleasant commutes and dry sandwiches at the desk.
In fact, many already are back in their cubicles. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of small and smaller companies have returned to a modicum of “normalcy.” Certainly, the daily commuter traffic testifies to this. The return is predicated on a host of issues, but mostly because these companies find remote working not the most efficient way to serve their business interest and at the same time have been encouraged by falling infection numbers. Always, of course, safety will have ultimate influence. Frequent testing and hand washing, plus adjustments to the physical office environment can reduce risks further.
But large companies and government departments have mostly continued to keep their staff at home. That said, business leaders are queuing up to give their views on the best possible outcomes. A survey for Microsoft suggests that 88 percent of top executives expect flexible working practices to continue. Some, however, have been quick to prepare their teams for a return to the office.
Banks and investment firms, most notably companies such as HSBC and Lloyds in Britain, have said that they will take the opportunity to cut back on office space and allow people to continue to work flexibly. Oil company BP has gone even further, and told staff to prepare for at least two days a week of working from home. Such companies have the deep pocket to keep investing in technology, and renew recurring licenses for online tools (something small companies with deeply eroded revenues find difficulties matching).
In the Middle East, we shouldn’t expect anything to change much before the end of Ramadan, the traditional marker of corporate change in the region. After that, potentially it could get interesting. The success of vaccination programs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among other places, indicates that it may soon be safe for a wider phased return to the office environment.
For example, we at 3M in Dubai have already re-opened our offices, but it’s a very gradual and phased return. The process we are following worldwide is a balance of an external environment to keep people safe, combined with a flexible approach to ensure that everybody feels safe. So far, occupancy levels are low in the UAE, as in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, South Africa and other countries.
When conditions permit for a fuller return to office spaces, every company will need to look at itself to determine what makes sense.
For those companies that thrive on collaboration, there is a definite advantage to having everybody on a team together – though in some ways, it has been better to have everybody on a Microsoft Teams call than the hybrid version of online/offline meetings from the past. There are, moreover, serendipitous discoveries of opportunity that come from people talking with each other informally – for example, learning of a business lead through a casual conversation over coffee in the break room. This simply cannot be replaced with scheduled online meetings. Such opportunity costs will ultimately be the incalculable business loss from the pandemic.
Yet others might find no appreciable difference in their business model from staying away from the physical office. Spotify, the music streaming company, has perhaps come up with the most radical of all suggestions, inviting its staff to work from anywhere, and still receive New York- or San Francisco-level salaries.
In an ideal world, with no safety restrictions, management has the ability to be understanding of individual preferences, provided that business goals and customer needs are met.
We should not be surprised that as many as 88 percent of business leaders expect flexible working practices to continue. Where many of the staff are itching to get back to their desks and meet in person instead of via a screen, their wish is not necessarily to do this over five days a week.
Flexibility must be the key for business leaders over the next 12 months and more. Like everybody else, I have learned to adapt. In 2019, I took more than 100 flights around the region, and was never in the Dubai office for more than a week at a time. The past year has taught me how to use my time smartly, and work remotely. Some people are good in the mornings; others prefer to work late into the night. Working from home offers these options.
The focus should always be on output and not on input, and how best to manage people. What we need post-pandemic is a flexible solution that works for all stakeholders, including staff, customers and shareholders. We can all agree that “work” may never be the same again. But how we contrive to regain and improve on past efficiencies is likely to still be a work in progress.
Robert Nichols, based in Dubai, is the managing director of 3M Middle East and Africa.