Is the return to the office working?

In this blog, Alastair Jeffery reflects on industry reports, a space audit and goes back in time.


The Covid-19 pandemic caused enormous upheaval to FM teams, staff and organisations as a whole. During lockdowns, the shift to remote working enabled new ways of working for many people and forced the issue for many organisations. Pre-lockdown the majority of remote workers were probably in the IT sector, with multiple clients and offices meaning support was required from anywhere. Personally, I have been able to work remotely since 1994 and remember when getting a new one of these was a treat!




Technology has moved on substantially since then of course, and I have worked in organisations where regular home working in an office-like environment has been the norm since around 2005. So why has it taken lockdowns to force other organisations into similar practices?


I think there were a few factors at play:


Trust – if you are not at work, are you working?

Performance – how do you measure and manage performers remotely? Tangible measures are often hard to develop, meaning a formal performance process/system needs to be managed. This can cause a requirement for management development in organisations where low-touch has previously been the policy.

Collaboration – what mechanisms can be used to replicate in-person collaborations? In a world of back to back video calls, how do you have those corridor chats which are so valuable? Actively managing this takes time, culture change and probably requires a technology investment.


Some job roles require physical attendance. How do you manage the people that work around them?


So, if organisations were forced recently into maintaining remote working, where are we now?

I believe that the factors above are still valid, and some organisations are just starting to look again at this. Since the perceived return to the office, institutions and commercial organisations alike have struggled to manage their attendance; many have struggled to even understand their attendance.


I have just completed the first phase of a space audit with a client, which started as validating the understood space data, quickly growing into establishing if the management perception of low attendance matched the reality. This client has an agile advised policy of 40% attendance. The audit showed that the occupation (desks which look to be sometimes used) was 53%, however attendance was just 21%. This implies a lot of spare space (47%), and a lot of underused non-spare space. These figures are not unusual in the industry.


Some approaches to agile/hybrid working are:


Blanket work from home policy for all staff, during and after the pandemic:

This is the extreme end of the scale, mainly adopted by a number of high-profile US software companies. The advantages are staff flexibility, zero commuting, work and recruit from anywhere. The disadvantages are low/zero occupancy, downsizing of estates, disconnected people/teams, staff potentially remote from customers.

For existing stable teams this can work well. For new teams, new staff members, changed teams if needs actively managing. And how many teams really stay stable for long?


Closure of buildings during lockdowns, opening up afterwards – hybrid open policy

This gives provision for all staff to return to their offices and desks, whenever they wish.

Being unmanaged, utilisation is low. Teams will do different actions to suit themselves, which can cause disruption through lack of coordination, such as multiple teams being onsite on the same day but leaving other days empty.


Closure of buildings during lockdowns, opening up afterwards – agile/hybrid advised policy

This method provides recommendations regarding attendance (typically 60%). Advantages here are a balance of attendance against staff flexibility. The disadvantage is that most people will avoid Monday and Friday attendance, leaving organisations with a maximum possible utilisation of 60%.


Closure of buildings during lockdowns, opening up afterwards – hybrid enforced policy.

Mandating attendance on particular days will drive up utlisation, but it does not consider individuals. How do you work around the Monday/Friday issue? Mandating certain teams to attend on those days creates inequality. Cycling attendance through the week causes disruption to individuals with other commitments.


Closure of building during lockdowns, mandatory attendance afterwards

This is the other end of the extreme, mandating attendance ensures building occupancy. This is not considered a very ‘modern’ approach and allows no flexibility for staff, which can demotivate staff and dissuade new hires from joining.


What are organisations to do? Short term it appears they are selecting a hybrid policy and hoping it just pans out. The short term objective of enabling remote working, now opening up buildings, is enough to do without looking at the more difficult options for the medium and long term.


This is not easy because it requires examining what people need to do, how they do it, who they work with and what methods work best. Policy is one part, the human element is more important.


There are numerous reasons why staff may not want to return to the office:

  • Working remotely “works”, why change back?
  • Habits have been formed over a two year period.
  • Outside work activities have changed or been easier.


In the beginning travel cost reductions felt like a saving, now people are used to it a return feels like a cost increase.

Some staff may have found ways to get away with reduced productivity or workload during lockdown, and have a fear of being found out or having to do more. Not all staff are self motivated.



In conclusion I’ll draw on a report by Lessman which suggests three steps:

  1. People: Put employees’ purpose first
  2. Place: Go big or they will stay at home
  3. Time: Do it now, and with urgency


So doing something now is what will drive results. Try things, monitor outcomes, make changes. Not everything will work. However, doing nothing will drift further from original expectations of performance for both people and buildings.

Technology factors

You need to have a good idea of when people want to attend or when you want them to — and which resources they’ll need. A solution for managing room reservations, desk booking, and wayfinding is a great way to enable this.

Once you have utilisation information you can allocate space in a way that serves your employees’ and teams’ needs.


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