Building the foundations for the return to the office

The so-called “return to the office” has dominated much of the discourse over the last few months, as companies debate whether they should demand workers resume full time on-site presence or adopt a hybrid model.

Much of the conversation has focused on the cultural benefits of office versus homeworking. The focus is on mentoring younger workers, improving collaboration and fostering company cultures. Sometimes it shifts to discussing the broader economic issues: what a wholesale, permanent, home-working economy means for city centers and other business districts and the businesses set up to support commuters when they’re in the office.

The role of the office itself

Rarely does the debate look at the implications for the office itself. Yet often, significant changes are needed, even if employers succeed in returning to five days a week onsite. There are increased health and safety measures to factor in, from social distancing to contactless secure entry systems, enhanced cleaning measures and questions around breakout areas and communal kitchens.

Then there’s the technology to consider. Employees have spent 18 months using their own technology and connectivity to a greater or lesser degree. Even those that their employers have fully equipped have been relying on home broadband for Internet access. The quality of domestic connections often exceeds that of commercial networks. While this was the case before the pandemic, the contrast will be much more significant when they switch back to being in the office.

It’s not just connectivity and personal devices. The solutions, such as Zoom and Teams, that many have become comfortable with have shown everyone how easy it can be to collaborate remotely. Not only will this expectation come back into the office, it will also undermine the arguments of those that preach full-time presence on-site.

The office and the employee experience

These considerations are made more complex by broader macro trends, in particular the Great Resignation. More employees than ever before are prepared to walk, creating significant labor shortages and exacerbating what was already a fierce war for talent.

To retain this vital talent, the employee experience is critical. Within that, the role of the office and its value to the employee value proposition (for both attracting and retaining talent) suddenly becomes much more important. Why would you choose to work for an employer that not only demands full-time, in-person attendance, but expects you to commute to a soulless, uninspiring and technically challenged office block? It is an easy decision when other employers offer a more attractive workplace experience, whether that’s hybrid working or an office more in tune with what employees are looking for.

It’s clear that if employers want to attract and retain talent, then they need to offer an outstanding employee experience. To do that requires an understanding of the moments that matter to workforces. Among those is the ability to interact and connect with people, both physically and virtually. A frictionless digital experience underpins that. While most seem to understand this principle, do they realize the value that the office, or rather the new, collaboration-focused office, delivers? And, perhaps more importantly, do they know how to design these workspaces?

The ideal office for now

Many will think it is easy. Take down some walls, swap cubicles for hot desks and have more houseplants in designated creative spaces. In other words, reference some pictures of Google’s offices and hit “repeat.”

This is a misguided approach. Google’s offices, and those of other forward-thinking, usually tech-focused companies, are designed to promote collaboration, communication and flexible models of working so that staff can work in ways that meet their needs. These businesses have realized that these workspaces can only be enabled with the right technical infrastructure.

So, having the correct networking and connectivity means a seamless transition from desk to breakout area, with no disruption. It’s an end to blackspots, irrespective of the physical architecture of the floorplate. It’s having audio and video equipment that means people can enjoy a high-quality experience without interrupting those working nearby. It’s fully connected meeting rooms that don’t require drawn-out and contradictory processes to operate the equipment, whether voice, video or interactive. It’s completely secure, without complicated sign-in systems.

The reality of implementing office changes

This is not straightforward. We are talking about integrating the Internet into corporate networks far more tightly than ever before. It is challenging work, which will require an overhaul of security and an understanding of how employees are going to connect, but it is vital that it is done. Whether enabling remote workers to log in to meeting rooms to collaborate with onsite employees or opening up town halls to employees in multiple locations, businesses have to ensure networks can cope with a variety of endpoint connections with no degradation of service to deliver that quality experience.

It is work that can be started now, however. Even those employers with fixed, long-term leases can start preparing for more collaborative workspaces without doing any physical building work. If they put in place the right network infrastructure, security policies, unified communications and collaboration solutions, they will have done the hard work by the time they get to a point of being able to fit out physical spaces for more collaborative ways of working.

It is also work that needs to be done to allow the business to react to changes quickly. It might be sudden lockdowns, transport and supply chain crises, adverse weather or civil unrest; whatever the disruption, those businesses with connected, collaborative workspaces will be able to adapt faster. They will be able to adjust both their offices and their technology to accommodate waves of high and low utilization. That could mean quickly and easily adding or taking away additional security and H&S measures; switching in-office meetings to fully virtual events and vice versa; or effectively shutting down and reopening offices rapidly, with little disruption. Those companies still using pre-pandemic approaches will struggle to achieve the same flexibility and, importantly, business continuity, with anywhere near the same ease.

This is all achievable, but it is more straightforward with the right partner. From initial consultation to identify the right strategy, to planning and deploying the integrated solutions needed, through to managing the network, ensuring the end-to-end experience is in place and setting up and controlling meeting rooms appropriately, the right partner can put in place everything needed for evolving ways of working. Indeed, whether choosing a hybrid, fully remote or on-site approach, having a partner with the knowledge of both the underlying infrastructure and the unified communications and collaboration tools needed will significantly increase the likelihood of successfully implementing these new types of workspaces.

To find out more about the office’s role in new working models and see how it all fits into the digital workspace, take a look at our latest ebook on the topic. Alternatively, if you are wondering where to start, get in touch with our dedicated workspace consultants to begin your journey, and have a look at the sort of network and unified communications and collaboration solutions our customers use as the foundation of their office spaces.

Stephane Minana
Stephane Minana

Stephane is a Unified Communications Solution Director covering solution positioning, business development and go-to-market strategies for the European theater. He has extensive knowledge of many facets of the IT industry through his experience working for consulting firms, vendors and IT and telecom service providers.

Stephane has been with Orange Business Services in Amsterdam since 2008 and has engaged in several service incubation and business development programs for security, consulting, enterprise application management, and in the last three years, unified communications.