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Same old office; whole new challenges for office managers.

October 13, 2020 / United Kingdom

There’s huge variation in how businesses are managing the back to office transition, ranging from now to never, with further complexity thrown into the mix by September’s second wave of restrictions…

Most businesses sit somewhere in the middle. PwC opened all their UK offices in July, for example, hoped to have 50% of their 22,000 employees back in the office by the end of September. Which was just around the time those plans had to be reversed.

Even if businesses embrace flexible working – perhaps moving towards flexible office space rather than vast multi-storey buildings – bringing thousands of people back is a huge challenge.

Early measures have been implemented. Sanitisers have been installed, rigorous cleaning rotas have been scheduled and social distancing reminders have been plastered over the office… but what comes next? 

How can office managers support the eventual back-to-office transition long-term? 

Managing a few hundred employees is relatively easy but thousands? Not such an easy feat. 

That’s especially true in cities. In 2019, 58% of UK office workers preferred to spend the majority of working time in city centres – so big employers tend towards huge, central office spaces. 

That’s often why 3.7 million UK workers spend two hours or more commuting – many by public transport (58% of Londoners commute via public transport). 

That’s frustrating and time-consuming normally – but now, there’s the added COVID dimension. Will employees feel safe commuting for hours on crowded public transport, given current government guidelines on social distancing? 

For office managers, keeping people engaged, happy and feeling safe doesn’t start and end at the physical office boundaries. It extends to the entire working day.

Take Mandi, on a typical day before COVID.

  • Mandi gets the bus to work, then grabs coffee for the team from the café outside her building. 
  • She pushes through the door with one hand, balancing coffee in the other, then wedges herself into the lift with eight colleagues. 
  • She has an early meeting. She signs her team into the small meeting room and hands out the coffees. 
  • The meeting lasts until 13.00 – lunchtime. The office empties as everyone rushes to the canteen. Mandi squeezes onto a crowded table. 
  • The afternoon flies by. Mandi’s collaborating on a big project and keeps popping upstairs to colleagues’ desks. She grabs an apple from the communal fruit bowl as an afternoon snack.   
  • Home time. Mandi leaves her paperwork on her desk for tomorrow and catches the bus home.   

Now take Mandi today. Her COVID-secure day might look something like this:

  • Mandi orders a ride on her expense account, to avoid public transport. 
  • She arrives at the office and the doors automatically open. She takes the stairs – the lift’s already at two-person capacity.
  • She has an early meeting. She enters the huge meeting space and puts in a team coffee order online, for contactless delivery. Her team signs in verbally using voice recognition technology.
  • The meeting lasts until 13.00 – lunchtime for her team. She enters the canteen following the new floorplan and spots a table easily. 
  • The afternoon goes quickly. Mandi’s collaborating on a big project, so everyone’s working in a new, collaborative space. There’s no communal fruit bowl – but her expenses allowance allows her to order an afternoon snack for delivery.  
  • Home time. Mandi orders a ride home, then collects all her paperwork from her temporary desk, leaving a tag to let the cleaners know to sanitise for someone new tomorrow. 

Office managers have worked hard – are working hard – to help businesses navigate the back to office transition. The truth is though, with a new wave of restrictions and uncertainty the work’s far from over. Making long-term office work viable demands a total rethink.  

This blog is part of The team that Eats together initiative, a content series exploring what normal looks like now, and how to enhance the working world to meet evolved employee expectations.

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The views and opinions expressed are based on the research conducted and they do not intend to present an official policy of Uber or any of its subsidiaries. Examples of advice mentioned in this article are based on open source information and assumptions made within the article are not reflective of Uber’s position.