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The office is here to stay

The office is here to stay

1 September 2020
Screens separating work colleagues are now de riguer in the post-pandemic office.

In the short term, working remotely to prevent the spread of Covid-19 makes perfect sense. But the formal office is irreplaceable in many respects, from the transferring of skills to the mental health of employees. The office also contributes to the economy of the CBD and the greater Cape Town metropole. Here we build the (strong) case for why people will, and need to, return to the office.

As thousands of executives and their employees continue to work from home during the pandemic, many are asking the question: has work as we know it changed forever? While in the short term, remote working is an effective measure to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic, in the long term, the impact of having workforces in separate locations is likely to have more negative consequences than positive, believes Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID).

Cape Town companies appear to agree. Rob Kane, CEO of Boxwood Property Fund and chairperson of the CCID, recently informally polled CBD businesses to find that 25 % were already back in the office, with the remaining 80 % indicating they would reoccupy their offices by year-end.

Evangelinos says while technology has allowed for productive home-based work, this is no replacement for the office. “Working from home goes against human nature in many ways. Firstly, people get lonely when they are isolated. The office offers laughs, sharing, caring, problem-solving, support – all of which are extremely important to people as we are social creatures. Many people are feeling the impact of solo working. The novelty of not having to commute is starting to be replaced by a need to move, have somewhere to go in the morning, someone to talk to – the need for a change of scenery.”

Stats back this up. A recent survey by Giant Leap, one of South Africa’s largest workplace consultancies, revealed that 86 % of people wanted to go back to working in an office. While remote work was initially very popular, people are slowly realising that there is a lack of work-life balance. People also feel isolated and are experiencing difficulties in carrying out team tasks, with many missing their co-workers. This correlates with Weforum’s finding that the second biggest struggle for remote workers is loneliness. Issue number one is unplugging after work as boundaries blur and clients keep emailing well past the 5’ o'clock mark.

WORKING FROM HOME MAY AFFECT EMPLOYEES’ MENTAL HEALTH

A recent Guardian article delved deeply into the mental health issues associated with working from home. It referenced a survey by Jefferies that found 61 % of 1 500 respondents would return to work immediately if possible. Its other cited survey asked 5 000 HR bosses why their teams want to go back to the office. The overwhelming answer? Social and mental health issues like loneliness.

Cape Town organisational ecologist Leon du Toit says the office provides a degree of structure, rhythm, discipline and predictability. This gives managers a critical level of control over the delivery of work and it creates boundaries for employees to keep most of their work at work. However, while he believes the office will survive, he also thinks we could radically transform how we perceive the traditional 9 to 5, rewarding people for the value they bring, rather than the hours they sit at a desk.

There are, of course, other issues. Many people simply haven’t got a home set-up conducive to productivity. Then there’s the big childcare conundrum that has beset families: with public schools closed during the initial stages of the lockdown, and only fully opening up now five months later, working parents have had their hands full trying to balance homeschooling with work responsibilities. South Africa also has high data costs, and many people are not adequately connected. Then there’s load shedding affecting different staff at different times – large meetings become difficult to coordinate.

INNOVATION THRIVES IN THE OFFICE

Kane believes that the workplace is critical to innovation. “Particularly in the digital era, companies thrive when they are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves. With the disconnect that comes from everyone being separated, it is hard to imagine that innovation will thrive.”

Furthermore, he says when you really start thinking about it, over the long term, working from home isn’t natural and will eventually harm a company’s culture. “It is hard to imagine that we will still feel as bonded to the companies we work for in a year or two. As a result, our passion and motivation will start to decline. Will our company culture be able to survive and thrive? Will we be able to keep up our energy if we essentially have nowhere to go on a daily basis?”

Another negative of working remotely is the difficulty of transferring skills remotely. “The benefits of being in the same space as colleagues are vital for upskilling colleagues who are less experienced. Every day, there are hundreds of conversations and interactions that facilitate the transferring of skills. Overhearing two senior people solving a crisis, sense-checking an email quickly with a colleague, running a new idea past your manager; all of these allow newer team members to learn the ropes. This is far more challenging if colleagues are not physically together,” Kane notes.

BUSINESS SUCCESS AND THE OFFICE

These factors all contribute to a business’s success, and in turn, the success of the CBD and greater Cape Town economy. If workers don’t return to occupy office space in the Central City, a severe knock-on effect will occur on an already dampened city-centre ecosystem. Without the influx of office workers, more retailers and small businesses will suffer. This all results in a less vibrant CBD, which has ramifications for myriad sectors, including tourism and transport, says Evangelinos.

 “The office may evolve not as much as many think it will. The pandemic has shown that remote working is possible. However, the long-term effects have yet to be measured. We know it has made us miss each other. It’s shown our craving for connection. Our CBDs are also reliant on our offices. Retailers, residents and offices all exist together. Remove one from the ecosystem, and our cities may need to be reimagined and repurposed.”

IMAGES: CCID

Tags: Cape Town CBD economy the office will survive Rob Kane working from home working remotely mental health issues of working from home