Rush hour, eating at the desk, uncomfortable clothes: the return to the office is a golden opportunity to get rid of the things we hated about it – and to add some that we’d love
What will the post-pandemic office look like? The comedy troupe Foils Arms and Hog gave us one vision of the future in a sketch posted on YouTube last week. It was as chaotic as you might expect: one employee arrives into work in a dressing gown (“I’m still getting used to working in the office”), staff struggle to cope with non-virtual meetings (“You’re the host! Tom’s outside! You have to let him into the meeting!”) while a wife and dog burst in unannounced. “I’m taking the rest of the day off,” one office worker says to another before realising: “Oh no! I’m here until 5!”
Laugh all you like, but what was encouraged and accepted in the working-from-home scenario won’t fly from September 20 when the phased return to the office begins.
But think of the bright side. Our situation presents the perfect opportunity to cast off all the archaic, outdated and downright unappealing facets of office life.
The typical Irish office has long been identifiable from a few standard-issue items: fluorescent strip lighting; a watercooler that was a hub for gossip; rows of beige cubicles; a grey carpet that would strike despondency into the heart of anyone; a fridge containing three cartons of milk (at least one of them gone sour) and some weird Tupperware box that smells of “best not go there”. Over the last year and a half, none of it was mourned.
“We’ve been having massive conversations for the last 18 months, and there has been huge messaging around the idea of ‘Let’s do things differently’,” says Professor Maeve Houlihan, director of UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business.
It does mean that bosses may have a job on their hands enticing workers back to the office.
“Good luck to any employer who thinks staff will all want to rush back to the office,” says Jane McDaid, founder of Thinkhouse, the youth communications agency known for its progressive office culture. “Workers have learned about balance, about pace and about efficiency. At Thinkhouse, we’ve learned that creativity can come from solitude as much as it can come from being together — so I think that striking a balance between working at home and working on site is the best thing to aim for. Choice and flexibility are key.”
With all this in mind, Review has created a list of suggestions for how the new Irish office could work.
We’ve let some of our ideas run on the whimsical side and occasionally taken a leaf out of the books of some of Ireland’s most famously aspirational workplaces. But after more than a year where we have worn slippers to job interviews and had the family cat at meetings, surely some of these changes aren’t that beyond the realm of possibility.
1. Put the brakes on the rush hour
There aren’t many workers who would miss traffic gridlock, being crammed like sardines on the bus or dodging a stranger’s armpit on the Luas.
“Travelling to see clients and travelling to workshops and seminars is likely to become a lot more discretionary,” says John Deely, an occupational psychologist with Pinpoint, a Dublin consultancy.
“Some things will definitely still be done in person, but when it comes to things like recruitment or pitching for business, I don’t think it will all go back to how it was.”
Surely now is the time for office bosses to look at staggered starts and finish times. In fact, why not go the whole hog and allow flexitime so that people can get a little bit of non-work living done during a working day? Which brings us nicely to…
2. Allow time for life admin
One of the best aspects of working from home is being able to stick on the washing machine, pay a bill and get other pesky elements of life admin done during the working day. In the old set-up, all this had to wait until the weekend.
A dedicated afternoon each week where workers can head off and get their banking/dentist visits/personal finances in order would be a morale booster.
It would also mean that weekends would be free for proper enjoyment, not catching our tail. This would surely result in a more restful two days off, and therefore more productivity.
And you wouldn’t necessarily have to be at home to get some of these things done. At Google’s Dublin office, almost everything a person could want is on-site: a gym, pool, post office, dentist, doctor, masseurs and even a nail salon.
Vodafone’s Dublin campus has a 24-hour gym, retail store, newsagent, dry cleaner, sandwich bar and restaurant and on-site hairdressers, beauticians, physiotherapists, podiatrists and reflexologists.
3. Clean up hot-desking
In Vodafone’s pre-pandemic set-up, nobody had their own desk. Workers at their Dublin campus picked their laptop up from a locker and chose a place to work, meaning that they could be sitting beside anyone — including chief executive Anne O’Leary, who reportedly doesn’t have an office.
Given our hypersensitivity about hygiene, the hot-desking set-up will not appeal to some — at least not without more stringent cleaning — but there’s much to like about its fluidity.
“We are seeing an increase in demand for open-plan hot-desking options for companies who would normally insist on a private office space,” says Machaela O’Leary, campus manager at Talent Garden Dublin, a co-working space. “We have upgraded our space to have social spaces for teams to come together to facilitate brainstorming sessions or creative days. The mindset of one desk per employee is gone.
“What companies need is to create a culture where safety is a priority. Even with high levels of vaccinations, employees need to be assured that their safety is at the heart of every decision being made.”
But what about working amid other colleagues’ mess? In pre-pandemic times, Thinkhouse held a ‘feng shui Friday’. Once a month, three hours were dedicated to decluttering and clearing out the office, followed with the reward of a shared cultural, sporting or fun experience.
4. Make pets welcome
The family pet has been a big part of WFH, so why not have a similar situation at the office? In the Old Normal, about a fifth of workplaces in Ireland accepted pets in the office, according to research by the online job board CV-Library.
In another study, carried out by organisational psychologists at Central Michigan University, individuals were placed into groups of four, with and without dogs, and each member was charged with a “crime”. In groups where there were dogs present, members were 30pc less likely to report each other, suggesting dogs promote trust among teams. A further study found members of groups with dogs rated each other higher on measures of intimacy, team cohesion and trust than in groups without dogs.
5. Ditch meetings about meetings
If we’ve learnt anything in the last 18 months, we now know that brevity gets great results. “We’ve shortened our classes [at UCD] to 45 minutes to allow for air circulation and I think a lot of people are looking at shorter meetings,” says Professor Houlihan.
And what about all those pointless meetings where everyone is simply looking into their phones? Should we get people to hand their mobiles in at the start, like they do at pub quizzes? “If it feels boring and long… well, it’s the wrong meeting,” Houlihan says.
6. Hire an artist-in-residence
Mindful of the fact that the arts have been hamstrung throughout the pandemic, Houlihan suggests that offices bring in people from the sector — especially those who have spent their careers thinking outside the box.
“They can help us no end [in business] as an artist-in-residence can create a bit of spaciousness and quirkiness,” she explains. “I’m not talking about them being a juggler all day or anything, but artists can sit with people and have conversations that aren’t easy to have.
7. Instal an in-office pub
Laugh all you like, but it worked for Airbnb. The architects Heneghan Peng designed the property rental platform’s Dublin office’s reception area to look like a typical Irish horseshoe bar. There was a happy hour every Thursday. As best as we know, it didn’t harm productivity one bit.
8. Lose the beige cubicles
Several tech companies are ahead of the game on this. In Dublin’s Silicon Docks, Facebook’s HQ was designed by Daniel Libeskind and fitted out by fellow architect Frank Gehry. Pre-pandemic, employees could enjoy breakfast in the Urban Picnic café before the work day started, and then it’s on to a space that is corporate, cool, industrial and arty all at once. On each of its six storeys, it’s possible to find cafés, break-out spaces, beanbags and sofas, as well as prayer rooms, yoga classes and spaces to practise martial arts. Proving that it’s a multicultural and inclusive space, flags from 72 countries (for each nationality on the staff) hang from the ceiling.
9. Have a proper lunch hour
Al-desko dining — scoffing down a Centra sandwich or M&S salad with eyes glued to a phone or computer screen — featured heavily in the old way of office life. Encouraging employees to take their full hour and leave the building would be a great improvement.
Pre-pandemic research indicated that 62pc of American office employees ate lunch in the same spot where they worked. In Ireland, we were not much better: over 50pc of us ate al desko, according to a consumer survey.
Laura Archer’s book Gone For Lunch: 52 Things to do in Your Lunch Break offers great suggestions on how to make the most of that afternoon hour, from going to an art gallery to doing a quick meditation.
10. Hold yoga and wellness classes
YoFlicks (Yoflicks.com) offers businesses advice on implementing yoga and meditation programmes into the workplace, thanks to an online library of curated courses.
Managing director Lisa Wilkinson cites research that shows organisations with highly effective wellness programmes have significantly better staff retention than those that don’t. “An internal assessment by Johnson & Johnson found that the return on their wellness programmes have been $2.71 for every dollar spent.”
11. Change the watercooler culture
Depending on who you ask, the gossipy water-cooler culture is an occupational hazard or a great way to make friends and influence people. It will, and should, feature heavily in the new way of doing things.
“One thing we’ve realised is that working from home has affected populations very differently, particularly those younger people who are earlier on in their career,” Houlihan says. “Practical things like walk-and-talk meetings that happen outside might be a good idea.”
Deely agrees: “One thing about working in person is a degree of social capital — you will find yourself walking to the car park or to the local deli with colleagues and had the sort of engagements that you would previously have taken for granted.
“That social capital is important in terms of what’s going on in the sector, and it’s really important for younger employees at a foundational stage in their career.”
12. Dress differently
You may be loath to admit it, but the business-up-top/bedtime-on-the-bottom sartorial look has worked well.
We might not be wearing jogging pants and slippers into the office, but can we ditch the ridiculous shirts, ties, blouses, slacks and pencil skirts and toe-pinching footwear — and at least pretend that our workplace wardrobes live in the same century as we do.
13. Introduce a soundproofed room
Every office should have one. We have all spent too much time involuntarily earwigging on colleagues’ personal chats over the phone — let’s give them a space to have those conversations in private.
14. Have fun together
At Brown Bag Films’ Smithfield office space, the company — before Covid, at least — boasted a social committee, a health and well-being committee and a charity committee that organised events for staff throughout the year. Think office parties, karting, on-site massages, catered breakfast mornings, charity cycles and bake sales. Before March 2020, 70 free pizzas were delivered to staff on Thursdays, and there was free beer and ice-cream on offer regularly.
Or, if it’s more straightforward fun you’re after, you could take a leaf out of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s book: he reportedly installed a slide in the aviation company’s HQ (with a ‘no gobshites’ warning on it, just in case).
“For those comfortable about coming together, it’s time to schedule a Covid-compliant shindig,” McDaid says. “We’ve already planned our first party back and I cannot wait. We’ve been through an enormous, collective upheaval and come out the other side stronger. It’s time to celebrate, dance, laugh and hug — if we can.”
15. Create a home from home
Not only is Twitter’s Cumberland Place building one of the most environmentally friendly in the world, it’s packed with fancy green features, from motion-sensitive lights to roofs that recycle rainwater. Inside, things are even fancier. There are micro-kitchens on every floor with unlimited sweets, meals, snacks and barista-style coffee machines (the company has provided barista training so employees could make their own professional-standard flat whites). Add in a table tennis table, games console and table football in the commons area, and it really is more than a home from home.
Intriguingly, Twitter has previously said that many of its employees will be permitted to work from home permanently even post-Covid. At the very least, it will be interesting to see what the long-term take-up is on that offer.
Will other companies follow their example and make the office a more welcoming space? There has never been a better time to try.