Aiken PR

The Briefing

Does the workplace matter…

by Claire Aiken


While some will have developed a digital mindset and provided an online offering, for many others walk–in custom will remain core to their success. If we do not return to the workplace how will those dependent business survive?


Just over three months ago, around St Patrick’s Day, thousands of workers across Northern Ireland changed their way of working in response to Covid–19. Many companies didn’t wait for the government to announce a lockdown, but instead took the initiative to move early, putting in place measures that would allow, normally office–based, employees to work from home.

With good broadband, secure VPN lines and a myriad of virtual meeting platforms to work with, we quickly adapted to working from hastily–constructed home offices. We took the advice that we should lend structure to our working day; we should set a routine, we should have a dedicated workstation, we should keep business hours, we should get dressed, etc.

In a few short weeks we proved that we could work efficiently and effectively from home with gains in productivity, creativity and even sales, reported in research by Gensler, YouGov and McKinsey.

But as most office–based workers and their employers will know, this is not enough. There is something missing.

Humans are social animals and, while remote working may make us more productive in some ways, for many it does not fulfil our needs as beings and therefore full–time remote working means that most cannot fulfil their potential.

While a return to office–based work will be much different to that which many have known previously, with the introduction of anti–contagion measures putting a halt to much of the old normalcy of the working day, the new workplace is still somewhere we can commune and where social cohesion will thrive.

For no matter how much virtual video calls have allowed us to stay in touch, the strain of missed social cues, verbal or in body language, and lack of nuance, make it difficult to maintain our company’s culture and our shared purpose and mission.

Also, somewhat ironically, while the internet may have connected us, in a world where the majority customise their consumption to reflect their own views, there is a tendency to lose a wider perspective. It is only by being in one another’s physical presence that we can strengthen relationships with each other, collaborate successfully and widen our perspectives to reach both our personal potential and that of the business we work for.

Speaking of wider perspectives, it is not only for our own sakes that those who can return to the workplace should, but also for the sake of the economy and society in general. Covid–19 has brought into sharp relief both the extent of the ecosystem in which a workplace operates and its fragility.

Just as interdependency is key in keeping the virus at bay, so it is key to the successful resurgence of the economy. Individualism, in terms of the virus, is gone and, as we are reminded daily, each of us is morally responsible for the infection risks we pose to others through our own behaviour.

In this regard then we, as social beings, must act in the best interests of our communities. In a similar fashion, individual businesses, must act in the best interests of the wider economy in order to keep communities afloat and help them thrive again.

This goes beyond the ecosystem of our own businesses; think of the locale in which your physical workplace exists and its role in supporting businesses around it. The public transport you take to get there. The cup of flat white you buy from the hipster coffee shop on the way in. The sandwich bought from the local deli or store at lunchtime. The hairdressers, dressmakers, florists that rely on office workers for custom.

While some will have developed a digital mindset and provided an online offering, for many others walk–in custom will remain core to their success. If we do not return to the workplace in whatever capacity health and safety allows for, how will those dependent business survive? What affects some parts substantially affects the whole. It is incumbent upon all of us to play our part in supporting the build of a healthy, equitable and sustainable society as envisioned by Healthy Cities.

We collectively need to weigh up the moral, economic and health concerns of returning to the workplace. The phrase ‘new normal’ has been bandied about liberally but as yet we don’t fully understand what it will eventually be. The hybrid model, being developed by many companies, which will see a mix of office and home working may well become the norm.

Whatever it is, we do know that the health and wellbeing, both physical and mental, of employees will be at the heart of its success, necessitating all employers to adapt new measures to reassure and provide confidence.

And while we all get to decide as consumers and workers and company executives how much and when and how we are going to do things, in deciding we must look beyond the individual and consider the needs of our society. The wider web in which a workplace exists is vulnerable when disrupted, and that impacts upon us all.