The conference began with MovePlan’s Alexandra Stoica, Senior Project Manager, talking about the importance of flexibility and adaptability when refining the framework for the office of the future in the context of a post pandemic world.

A client she supported with a major merger between two large companies involving 400 sites globally and 30,000 staff, has not only managed to adopt a new hybrid model post-pandemic but also the change of adjusting to a combination of two very different cultures and environments. How were they able to pull this off? The answer is relatively simple, by communicating the needs, outcomes and aligned global practices. Workplace strategies and Change Management plans were put in place as well as a well-structured process with period stakeholders’ project meetings and workshops. It was no small feat for this group of professionals ready to tackle yet another initiative and plan a strategy shortly after a pandemic.

“The rules went out of the window and we had to try some new strategies,” Alex explained.

“Both companies are well-known and both had very different cultures. This was a major change for our people who not only had to get used to new ways of working but had to go through the change of adjusting to a new office location with new cultures and new direction,” she said, adding: “What works in one office won’t necessarily be applicable to the other. Both companies had established cultures – what does the new culture look like post-merger? Does it have aspects of both cultures? Does one of them design the culture and the other merge into that?”

Alex said MovePlan had to adopt a different approach when it came to managing this, taking into consideration the additional changes brought about by the pandemic, the cultural differences, and the global nuances.

“We needed a well-thought change management programme to ensure people’s opinions matter,” said Alex.

Alex said it was crucial to start talking about the changes as early as possible to resolve any issues.

However, she added: “Many of the challenges won’t appear until a fully hybrid model is in practice, so decisions need to be made quickly but carefully.”

Alex said colleagues were surprisingly positive about the new hybrid model of working two days in the office and three days at home.
“Consulting employees and agreeing what the future will look like isn’t an easy thing to do. We have a responsibility to address any anxieties people have about returning to the office and addressing those up front. It’s important to be aware of what employees are experiencing,” she said.

Alex said that technology played a central role in adopting change, explaining: “We do need to get used to the idea that smart machines will be our colleagues. We have had increasing demands for more automated technology. Apps that enable people to access a broad range of tools are key going forward.”

Do we still need offices?

There was an overwhelming consensus amongst attendees that offices still play a crucial role in the world of work.

Alex believes that while there is still a need for offices, the need to come to the office is changing.

“We used to think we need to be around in the office in normal business hours. Now it’s focused on output and delivery,” she said.

One attendee believed that office space is not necessary for collaboration, pointing out: “Right now we are collaborating. I work for a company where it’s voluntary to come to the office.”

However, another believed that the “pendulum is going to swing” and that people will return to offices.

“I don’t know when, and it will be different for every company, but energy costs will drive people back to the office,” he said.
MovePlan’s Regional Director Siobhan Byrnes agreed, adding: “I would say yes people will come back to the office, but not back to the five days a week. It will take a few years before we get into a new rhythm but this will be driven by purpose and intention.”

What is the purpose of the office?

Discussing what the purpose of the office is post-pandemic, Alex said there are various reasons why people use office spaces. This includes expressing culture, building relationships with colleagues and socially interacting.

“Mentoring our younger staff – the future generations of our business – is also key to coming to the office,” she said, adding: “From personal experience I learned much of what I know from others around me, which doesn’t happen when you work in isolation. The office provides real life experience to put what you learn into practice.

“The office is a reason to get out of bed and provides structure to the working week. For some, commuting is laborious and could be used for better tasks. But sometimes it contributes positively to a more positive mental wellbeing because the office generates a chance to collaborate.”

One participant spoke about the importance of providing different spaces within an office for different purposes.

“You may want a quiet area, an area for meetings, an area for conversations and maybe a break-out area to have a coffee with colleagues,” he said, adding: “The physical space has to change.”

What has changed since Covid?

Siobhan explained that MovePlan has always worked in a hybrid way, even before Covid. However, she said that now, collaboration is organised in a more intentional way.

“Our team meetings have increased ten-fold,” she said, adding: “We do need to create events where people come into the office but we need to do it more intentionally than before.

“When Covid kicked off we had to make a more concerted effort and also remember to pick up the phone. It’s using the variety of tools and using them in a varied and appropriate way, not just relying on one method like Teams because sometimes it’s not the best one to use.”

One attendee explained that they had introduced a policy to prevent staff from travelling to the office during working hours.

“We were losing those commute hours, so we had to come up with a policy,” he explained.

Alex spoke about the rise of so-called ‘quiet quitting’ and how the younger generation is adopting this.

While Loki Cheeseman, Project Director at MovePlan, looked at the other side to this – presenteeism – and how people want to be seen in the office with the threat of a recession looming in the UK.

How do we support people’s health and wellbeing?

Attendees discussed how to support those anxious about returning to the office.

A company CEO explained that he offered a soft approach initially, holding non-compulsory social events for staff.

“Once they came in, a lot of the fear went away,” he said, adding: “We still have a challenge with some individuals who are nervous.

We only have space for 50% of staff so our office is very busy, but we’re also busy on Teams.”

He explained how he had to challenge his own fears around hybrid working and adapt to having half of his workforce working remotely.

“We now have a Teams meeting where everyone has a few minutes to share what they are doing. As a CEO I’ve found it incredibly effective. It helps with my own anxiety from going from a busy office to lockdown to hybrid working. It reassures me to know what everyone is working on, and we are now more productive than ever.”

Another attendee explained that they always provide the option to join a meeting virtually and offer in-person activities for smaller groups to build confidence again being in-person.

“Over the months people started coming in and now a lot more people are coming in,” he said, adding: “The most important thing was having somebody to talk to and share our concerns or fears.”

Siobhan added: “In-person is great but people need to know they’re not going to be left out if they can’t be there.”

Loki agreed, saying: “Having someone there to talk about your fears and concerns is important and that needs to start with managers. What is blocking me from allowing my team from working in a different way? There has some been some real honesty shared on this about the fear of not having your team around you and not being productive.”

Alex spoke about an event organised by one client whereby puppies came into the office for staff to play with and pet while discussing important topics. “If you invite people to a team meeting in the office once a month it doesn’t sound engaging. People might think they can do it virtually,” she said.

An attendee agreed, adding that businesses need to include an element of fun to encourage people to engage face-to-face.

“If you are organising something face-to-face then you are building true connections. You can have a virtual pub quiz, but it’s not real. A real pub quiz should be a in a pub with beer. Then you are building these connections and bonds. Let’s not underestimate the value of fun in a company’s culture,” he said.

Alex said that despite entering 2022 with the “cloud of Covid over us”, the year held “greater optimism” as “businesses look to develop a workplace strategy that not only redefines the purpose of the office in the wake of the pandemic, but also creating that more redefined version to truly cover the workforce expectations.”