With latest set of lockdown restrictions lifting, we're back to the ongoing dilemma of ‘should we / shouldn’t we’ go into the office. At Embrace we’ve done our best to flex to suit the immediate government dictate. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve managed. That’s mainly because as we are a small and agile team and we can work from home and so we do, when we’re told. Having Covid-proofed our studio, we retreated back home for October and November, but have the right and sensible measures in place for its reopening.

When I did go into the studio in central London before lockdown 2.0, although it was nice to be out of the house and in the metropolis, I came home feeling somewhat deflated. London has lost its mojo and we need to get it back in some form, not only for the economy but for people’s sanity.

Many large organisations, including many of our clients, have come out and said they’ll have no-one in the office until at least 2021. Some have said they’re going to sell real estate completely and shape an entirely different way of working. Our Paris client business has said they don’t want people working from home and everybody will be in, all day everyday, but they had to U-turn in line with their government dictate. As an agency we’re somewhere in the middle and are going to stay that way.

Supporting the creative process

One reason we’re not about to jettison the central London office is the fact that we need we need real-life interaction. We’re a creative business and creativity thrives on spontaneity and the live sharing of thoughts and ideas. Office life brings random conversations and off-the-cuff comments that can spark inspiration and guide decision-making. Ours is is a highly competitive industry, and from a client perspective, real life meetings are a key differentiator between one agency and the next.

Of course, online tools can connect us, but you can’t build rapport or convey energy and personality over Zoom in the same way as you can IRL. Being in each other’s presence we pick up on facial cues, mirror gestures and can read the room. And the more we see colleagues and clients, the more they become part of our ‘tribe’.

Tech evangelists argue that platforms like Slack allow for the spontaneity and banter of real life interaction. But with uncurbed use it can come across as an eternal, company-wide meeting with no-agenda, becoming a dry ‘to-do’ source that lacks the warmth and conviviality of face-to-face.

Comfort zones and social spaces

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus crisis has given more people than ever a taste of the work-from-home lifestyle. A YouGov survey in September found that fewer than four in ten people wanted to leave their house to go to work. Comfort, productivity, avoiding the commute and ongoing fear of the virus were cited as reasons. But as the fear subsides, I hope more of us will gather in workplaces again.

In a recent speech, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England pointed to improved productivity and reported happiness among those working from home. But he suggested these effects were supported by a reserve of ‘social capital’ built up in the days before the pandemic, which could be expected to dwindle over time. This point was also made by McKinsey in their report Reimagining the Office and Work Life after Covid-19, which recommended redesigning workspaces to support the kinds of interactions that can’t happen remotely. So out with the cubicles and in with the collaboration zones.

If the future office is a sort of social space to meet and make decisions, before going home to do the job, this could mean significant savings for businesses. McKinsey pointed to a potential reduction of real-estate costs by up to 30 per cent. But it presents a host of other issues in terms of employer responsibility to workers’ health and wellbeing. The physical office is a great leveller in terms of access to resources, but everyone’s home working set-up is different. Some have the peaceful study with the ergonomic chair, while some struggle in cramped accommodation, with various domestic obligations competing for their attention.

The office is key to business success

The office real estate sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, with a slump in short-term demand and many firms reassessing the size of their premises. But a UK spending spree by the tech giants has offered hope to a sector in crisis, with announcements of further expansions to their prime London office spaces, even as employees are being told to work from home. Google has bought a satellite office close to its new £1 billion King’s Cross HQ, Apple is snapping up 40% of the office space in Battersea power station, Netflix is set to treble its office space in the capital, and TikTok is heading for a larger HQ above Farringdon station. Evidently, real life in the office is still worth investing in.

We all know work culture affects productivity and the bottom line, but on a more fundamental level, people need people. Interactions and real-life connections are how we prosper. The dictionary defines the word company firstly as ‘a commercial business’; and also as ‘the condition of being with another or others, especially in a way that provides friendship and enjoyment’. We need both aspects in order to thrive.