'Work is what you do, not a place you go'

Environmental Psychologist and workplace strategist, Dr Nigel Oseland, gives his perspective on the return to the office.

Almost two years since the first UK Covid-19 lockdown, there has been considerable discussion on the return to work and the workplace, including the when, where, who, why and how. ‘Work’ is often used synonymously with ‘workplace’, or even ‘office’, but in the workplace design and construction industry we emphasise that ‘work is what you do, not a place you go’ [1]. For many, it is indeed a return to work after absence due to illness or furlough. However, others have continued to work throughout the pandemic, with essential workers remaining in their usual place of work whereas office-based staff have mostly worked from home. My focus here is specifically on the return to the office and the workplace strategies being proposed for that that return.

Numerous feedback surveys, including my own [2, 3], have found that the majority of office-based staff intend to work in their employee’s offices for two to three days per week, with variation depending on gender, age and role. Consequently, the term ‘hybrid working’ was introduced in acknowledgment that during working hours some team members, who need to work together, will be in the office whereas others will be at home or elsewhere. Hybrid working reflects supporting simultaneous physical and virtual working, through the design of meeting spaces and technology platforms along with revised management practices. However, much of the discussion on hybrid working has turned to when people should actually be in the office, with some organisations opting for rotas of fixed allocated days.

Benefit of choice

Whilst a new phrase, the concept of hybrid working is not new. ‘New ways of working’ practices, such as flexible, activity-based, agile and smart working, have been implemented over the last 30 years with origins dating back to the 1970s. Initially, such workplace strategies were implemented by management consultancies and technology companies, but many other savvy UK businesses, along with Government departments, adopted this approach long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, these earlier solutions emphasised offering the choice of when and where to work. Flexibility over working time and place are one of the core benefits to the employees allowing them to manage personal commitments (such as medical appointments, home deliveries and schools runs) more easily, thus providing a better work-life balance. 

The rigid rota of time in the office, being considered by those new to hybrid working, diminishes the benefit of choice and flexibility offered by the original new ways of working strategies. Furthermore, the staff may disagree with their allotted office days and consider not being granted their preference as inequitable. For example, many office workers prefer to be on site Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (colloquially referred to as a ‘TWaT’ [4]) allowing an extended weekend at home. Further individual preferences mean that some staff would rather work in the office five days per week whereas others want to minimise their time in the office. Allotted days are therefore more likely to cause discontent, demotivation and undue stress in turn impacting performance and wellbeing. Ultimately, such a hybrid option may be rejected with staff protesting and following their own preferences or perhaps even choosing to leave the organisation in favour of more flexibility [5].

Nevertheless, it is important that team members regularly come together to maintain a sense of belonging and loyalty, to acquire tacit knowledge, to generate (and verify) new ideas together, to mentor junior staff and to socialise (which ultimately helps build trust). One option is to assign one day per week for team meetings, leaving the other days flexible. Mondays and Fridays are useful days for team meetings, as the objectives for the coming week and achievements of the past week can be discussed, and it helps balance out the number of people in the office across the week.

Desks representing worth

The preceding flexible working strategies, and most likely the new hybrid workplaces, often include desk sharing solutions a.k.a. the dreaded hot-desking. If the staff are regularly working away from the office, then they do not need a desk every day therefore the number of desks can be reduced. The team are supplied with laptop computers, rather than fixed desktop ones, and systems are put in place whereby the staff seek, or are assigned, a desk for when they are in the office.

Some staff fear not finding a desk or not being able to sit at their preferred one. Prior to lockdown, the required ratio of desks to staff was calculated using utilisation studies, monitored occupancy levels, staff estimations and manager verification. Such data, along with careful management, technology (like booking systems) and space planning, ensures that those visiting the office can readily find a suitable desk. Additional spaces are often included as ‘overflow’ desks, such as touchdown desks, informal meeting areas and quiet pods.

As well as the anxiety of not finding a desk, some people struggle with not having their own dedicated desk. This may be related to the desk representing worth, recognition and a valued role within the organisation; such views tend to be expressed by those feeling less secure in their job or employed in a more subordinate role. In addition, for some there is the inconvenience of setting up the desk each visit, not sitting near colleagues or friends and not being able to personalise the (shared) desk. This can partly be resolved by introducing clearly identified/branded home zones for each team where colleagues can gather when in the office. My recent experience working with office-based staff is that the centre of gravity has shifted from office to home. As such occupants are now more likely to accept desk sharing compared with pre Covid-19.

Grief model

Change managers involved in transitioning staff to a new working environment often refer to the Kübler-Ross model [6]. This originally referred to the typical five stages of grief after losing loved ones, but it is generalisable to other bereavements which – at the risk of seeming too flippant – appears to include losing a desk. The first two stages, ‘denial’ and ‘anger’, are mostly overcome by providing information and consultation on the proposed change and vision for the new workplace. During the ‘bargaining’ stage various options can be discussed, mostly related to protocols on using the space, desired behaviours and benefits. For example, not having an allocated desk is more attractive when offered in conjunction with choice of working hours and less travel to the office, saving both time and money. The final two stages, ‘depression’ and ‘acceptance’, require further consultation and assurance. Tours of similar spaces, furniture mock-ups and pilot studies all help people progress through these later stages.

The successful implementation of desk sharing is undoubtedly dependent upon good communication, consultation and change management to help overcome any concerns, barriers and a rudimentary fear of the unknown. My recent research [7] found that a significantly lower percentage of introverts and neurotics (measured using the Big Five Inventory) preferred hot-desking to more traditional working practices. Additional engagement, and sometimes alternative design solutions, are therefore required when transitioning such personality types to new ways of working.

Reducing the ratio of desks to occupants reduces the rows of empty desks and frees up space. In many new ways of working projects this allows the balance of workspace to be addressed. The released space is often used to introduce the alternative work-settings that may better support the desired work activities of the staff, sometimes referred to as activity-based working. Typically, more collaboration and social spaces, as well as spaces for concentration and privacy, will be introduced into a fundamentally open plan working environment.

Collaboration and creativity

Many surveys, including my own, conducted during lockdown, reveal that those working believe they are more productive but feel they are missing out on social interaction and collaboration with their colleagues [2, 8]. In-depth discussions with my clients indicate that perceived productivity is related to short-term goals, but some are concerned that long-term productivity gained through innovation, requiring creativity and brainstorming sessions, may be lost.

Furthermore, those who extensively work from home are more likely to suffer from loneliness [9]. As most people prefer to return to the office for two to three days per week, there is a valid reason to implement desk sharing, reduce the number of desks, and utilise the released space to foster more social interaction, collaboration and creativity. This, along with other facilities and services, makes returning to the office more attractive.

The surveys reveal that many of those working from home can work longer without distractions from their colleagues. However, others find the home too distracting due to lack of private space, or being interrupted by family or flat mates etc. So, as well as collaboration areas, any saved space should be used to create work-settings that facilitate work requiring concentration and confidentiality. For example, furniture pods and booths can support such activities without the expense of reconfiguring the office walls.

False economy

Putting it mildly, Covid-19 has had devastating effect on home and work life. However, it does provide the opportunity to rethink the design and planning of office space. As most office workers are now familiar with flexible working, the balance of office space can be addressed with more thought given to the spaces that are truly required in the office, for the staff and for the success of the organisation, as well as making the office more attractive than staying at home. However, several surveys of corporate real estate professionals have revealed that some organisations intend to reduce their office space rather than address the balance [10]. Implementing desk sharing allows them to reduce the number of desks, and corresponding office space, thus saving on property costs.

In times of uncertainty an efficiency drive is wise, but reducing office space is a flawed strategy and false economy. Over the last 20 years the occupational density (space per person) in UK offices has increased by approximately 40 per cent, with a loss of almost 7m2 per person across the building [2, 11]. This has been partially achieved through smaller desks located closer together in larger clusters. This over-densification of desk areas is not good for noise, personal space and cross-infection, and depending on the building services can also impact on thermal comfort and air quality [2]. This can lead to loss of performance, poor wellbeing as well as poorly utilised offices. Now more than ever is the time to invest in people, providing the best facilities, rather than consider the office a cost burden. Well planned, implemented and managed agile/flexible workplaces can meet occupant needs, and provide an attractive working environment, whilst being cost-effective.

The return to work and the workplace post-pandemic is one aspect of designing offices to meet psychological needs, discussed in detail in my recent book Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office.

- Dr Nigel Oseland is an environmental psychologist, researcher, workplace strategist, change manager, public speaker and author with 11 years research and 19 years consulting experience. Nigel is an internationally recognised expert in post occupancy evaluation, impact of design on performance, agile working, psychophysics and the psychology of the workplace.
1. Sir Gus O’Donnell (2008) Foreword in B. Hardy et al (authors) Working Beyond Walls - The Government Workplace as an Agent of Change. London: OGC.

2. For a summary see Oseland, N.A. (2021) Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office. Oxon: Routledge.

3.  For example, see Thomas, D. et al (2021) UK employers plot return of office workersFinancial Times, 6 September.

4. Sutherland, R. (2021) The TWaT revolution: Office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday only. The Spectator, 19 January.

5. For example, see Cotton, B. (2021) Is flexible working now more important than salary expectations? Business Leader, 19 November.

6. Kübler-Ross E, Kessler D (2014). On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Scribner.

7. Oseland, N.A. & Catchlove, M. (2020). Personal office preferences. Proceedings of Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Conference, TWR 2020, Frankfurt.

8. Baym, N., Larson J. & Martin, R. (2021) What a year of WFH has done to our relationships at workHarvard Business Review, March 22. 

9. Loneliness Lab (2020). We’re Designing Loneliness out of the Workplace. London: Loneliness Lab.
10. For example, see PWC (2021) Employers set to reduce office space by up to 9m sq ft - the equivalent of 14 skyscrapers. London: PWC.

11. BCO (2018). Office Occupancy: Density and Utilisation. London: British Council for Offices.

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