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Mix Roundtable: The home vs office debate

We bring together the finest industry minds in Manchester to discuss the hottest of topics right now: the home vs office debate – are our homes set to the the new office for the foreseeable future?

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8 min read

There are, of course, differing attitudes, views and solutions for this – we’ve even seen this from our own regular correspondents, with one looking at the debate from a design point of view, one from an end user’s point of view and a third from workplace specialist’s angle.

So how subjective is the office vs workplace debate? Is this something that should be tailored to individuals, never mind individual businesses? Also, when it comes to home working, what can we learn from the traditional workspace and how should we be adapting our homes for work life? Or is it the other way around? Should we be concentrating on making the workplace more like our homes? Think safe and secure and comfortable.

We begin by asking our guests where and how they are currently working, how that is working for them and what their hopes are for the immediate future. 

Franky: Some of us are still working from home and some are now coming back to the office. We’re very much in this transitional phase – we don’t know whether we should be back in full-time, so we’re trying to tick both boxes right now! We are very aware of the fact that we can’t work from home five days a week any more – we’ve reached a bit of a limit with that. We need a level of collaboration and we also physically need access to samples and things like that. So, I’ll come in maybe three days a week and we have people dropping in periodically.

Rachel B: My regime at the moment is to work from home full-time. We did open up the office after the first lockdown, when things did start to ease. We’ve since completely closed our office until 21st June. We do miss it. For me, the balance of working from and going into the office will be great because I have two young children – and that flexibility will be a massive benefit to both me and my husband, who is also in the industry.

After I had my first child, I was working from home one day a week – and there was a stigma surrounding that. I felt guilty – even though I was able to get so much more work done from home! People still had that thought that you weren’t working if you were at home. I think that, now we’ve been forced to work from home and it’s been proved that it can be done, it’s opened up the idea of flexible working and takes the pressure off those people who do have commitments away from work.

Anna: We’re quite a large company and what we’re currently trying to do is to encourage everybody to work at least a little bit from the office – to see each other again. It does very much depend on the individual though – if you’re not that comfortable, then you can work from home, but if you need to meet a client or you need to go through samples, then you do have the opportunity to go back into the office. I’m definitely using that opportunity to go back into the office at least a couple of days a week – it’s really nice to see faces I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s great to see what people are working on and what’s happening throughout the office.

I think it’s really easy to go into your own silo – and lose that collaboration and interaction. I think there is still very much a need for the office – and we’re also seeing this across our clients. I think spaces do need to work a lot harder now, to become more agile – but there is definitely that need for people to come together.

Rachel W: I agree with all the points that have been made. My routine is still very much transitional. Our studio has remained open throughout the pandemic – and we’ve had a system in place where you can use the studio if only a certain number of people are in etc. I agree with Rachel that this will be a real game changer in terms of working while having small children, and the flexibility this now offers.

Our biggest challenge in terms of this transition is that, although we all want to be back in the office, all want to see each other and collaborate, our clients still aren’t doing that – and are still heavily reliant on Zoom and Teams calls. Our studio is not set up to allow six or seven people to be on separate Zoom calls, simply because of the noise factor. So, at the moment, we’re all staying at home to make those calls because we know that, if we come into the studio, we’re just going to disturb everybody.

Personally, I really miss seeing everyone – although I do think it’s a real shame that it’s taken a pandemic for people to realise that you can have this balance!

Neil: I’ve got to say that managing people via Teams or whatever has been quite hard. It’s been especially difficult when you are dealing with contractors, who have various different departments, and getting them together to talk has been tough. There are as many bad things as good things from all of this – I feel that there needs to be a minimum of a 50/50 split.

I personally feel the need to get back in front of people. When looking at the design of offices now, we’re constantly thinking about options and places to go that aren’t just at the desk – and that’s going to be a big factor in new office designs going forward. That’s exciting. We’re looking at bringing in more facilities for wellness and for people to be comfortable. The way we work is undoubtedly changing – but there is undoubtedly a place still for face-to-face interaction.

There’s been a lot of talk about the downfall of the office – but we’re actually finding that, yes, a third of the workforce might well be able to work from home, but the other two-thirds now need a third more space. The reality is that the size of space needed probably won’t change that much – it just needs to be different.

Catherine: As we are a manufacturer, we had to originally close all our sites and many of the UK employees were furloughed as we weren’t producing any doors for a period of time. On the gradual return, our factories had to change the way they worked as a result of the pandemic to ensure the safest environment possible for our employees. From the office employee point of view, everyone was very quickly set up to enable home working, with managers discussing the individual needs to ensure the environment was as best as it could be to ensure both comfort and productivity, so support with screens, ergonomic chairs etc. 

One thing I did in lockdown was to change the space I was working in at home. Over time, I created a much more functional space that allowed me to use my chosen space as an office, a gym and a place of relaxation. 

We ask Catherine to tell us about the changing residential market from Masonite UK’s viewpoint.

Catherine: Last year, residential home improvements were bolstered by stay at home requirements, driving a significant upturn in DIY projects. With more people spending more time at home, residents wanted to see an improvement in their own space.

House builders and commercial renovations struggled to keep pace due to restricted labour and disrupted supply chains. Some renovation companies experienced restricted access to homes and commercial properties.

The start of 2021 has seen home improvement activity continue to be buoyant, along with a backlog of work for contractors. The commercial activity may take time to recover and would require more employees moving back to office work. Social housing and residential public sector spend is focused around fire safety and preparing for a carbon neutral future. The big question is what the size of the impact will be once restrictions are fully lifted and the UK public is allowed on holiday or to travel. We are expecting to see a potential shift in priorities away from home improvements and towards the travel and leisure industries – the question is the size of the impact and how long it will last.

As far as the future is concerned, we are trying to get back to the office, but we’re such a big company and as such we’re treading extremely carefully. We need to manage any wellbeing and mental health concerns we may experience for any of our employees during this transitional phase. So, we’re gradually doing a phased return to the office here in the UK. I’ve experienced that, with Teams and Zoom, it is tough to read how people are feeling and whether they’re really missing that interaction just from a screen.

Rachel B: I think younger people have missed out on a lot – that whole experience of learning on the job and being mentored has been completely wiped out for them. Also, we’ve got younger people who flatshare and really want to come into the office because they simply don’t have a suitable place to work at home. I think we’re going to see a shift in the residential market as well as the office market as people change how they work.

Neil: It is undoubtedly tougher for younger people – and it is no wonder that a lot of them are struggling.

Rachel W: It’s not just the kids either – I think virtually everyone has suffered to some degree throughout the pandemic.

Lucy: I think, as designers, we’ve become so used to being in a studio environment, where you can simply turn around and ask a question out loud or chat with colleagues. Sending an email or picking up a phone just isn’t as easy or instant.

We sent everyone home just before the first lockdown – we’d started to see how crowded the trains were, yet people weren’t wearing masks, and we assumed it would only be for a few of weeks!

Neil: We all thought this would blow over and everything would be back to normal pretty quickly…how wrong were we?’

Lucy: We continue to work from home – and we also have the coffee houses, of course, which we’ve been able to work in very remotely. We were also out of lease on our space and so started to work remotely – and quickly realised that, despite missing each other, people were working really well from home. We then took a new shared space back in October, but by this time we had worked out that the ‘hard work’ – the focused, technical stuff – was being done brilliantly at home, and it was the collaborative stuff, the ideas and the meetings that we were missing in the office. We’ve given everyone an opportunity to be flexible and to choose how they balance everything.

Franky: I feel that the whole purpose of having a base to go to work will force a movement that was already starting to happen – the creation of a hub more than a workplace. The way we’re now seeing things shift is that it is becoming more like a private members’ club, and you are a member of this club – but you’re getting paid to be there! You go in and you can have your lunch there, then you can go and focus somewhere for an hour, then you can go for a run, then come back and have a team meeting…it’s an exciting place to go to and everyone wants to be a member of this exclusive club. This is what employers should be striving towards. We need MD’s and FD’s to turn their spaces on their heads and buy into this vision.

Even in a single industry, people are individuals, with individual wants and needs. Flexibility is key – even if that means one person working the majority of their time from home while another chooses to be office-based. The office, as Franky and Neil suggest, needs to offer much more than a desk and a chair, while the home working space should be – as Catherine alluded to – more functional, ergonomic, acoustic and private – a Home Sanctuary. Oh, and it certainly helps if you own and operate great coffee houses!


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