On Feb 23 2022 / by Wyoming Paul

Interview with Kursty Groves: Return staff to the office with a magnetic workplace

The transition back to the office after lockdown is a hot topic, and getting it right is an art that not many organisations have perfected yet.

Kursty Groves is a UK-based workplace strategist and advisor to FTSE 100 companies, high growth SMEs and Government Departments. She is also the founder of Shape, a consulting firm that specialises in co-creating the best places to work.

We spoke to her recently about the changing role of the office, best practice for managing the return, and why this situation presents an amazing opportunity for companies willing to do the work.

WP: Hi Kursty, thanks for speaking with me today!

To dive right into the current situation facing employers: after two years of lockdowns, there has been a huge shift between people working in the office full-time, to getting used to working at home.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about the best way to proceed, and employees want to have more of a say about how and where they work. What do you think about the whole situation?

KG: Thanks for having me! I think that before Covid, the idea of remote working wasn’t on many people’s radars. Then all of a sudden, lockdowns started and employees were able to think about how they work best when they’re doing their individual work, and many companies saw that when people worked from home, productivity actually went up.

That created this real hype of everyone thinking ‘oh my god, remote working is the future!’ Nobody is going to need an office, and that will save so much money on real estate costs. In London, for example, it’s something like 10 to 30 thousand pounds per desk every year.

And then all of a sudden we started getting Zoom fatigue, people experiencing burnout, the lack of boundaries between work, home and life. We also saw that there are diversity issues, in terms of more senior people having a great work from home set up and more space, and at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who are house sharing and they’re literally perching on the edge of their bed on a laptop.

There are so many different experiences, which created this real disillusionment around working from home. We realised that actually it’s not the answer.

So now we’re thinking, okay, how can we have the best of both worlds? How can we design a world of work where we can take away those moments of being able to balance things, like being able to answer the door if the plumber is coming to fix a leaky pipe, and not be expected to be in the office that whole day because of presenteeism, while still being able to get to the office when that’s where we want to be.

So I feel like we’ve gone from, 'Yeah! Working from home is everything! It’s amazing!' to actually 'It’s terrible, get me back into the office ASAP' to the realisation that actually no, there were so many things that were wrong with the office, now we’ve got a chance to reinvent the future.

And what does that look like? Well, it’s some form of flexible working, and that form needs to be specifically suited to your company and your people.

I believe we have a massive opportunity here, but it’s a big shift and it’s definitely going to take time and patience to get it right.

WP: Absolutely, that slingshot effect is so interesting. But getting flexible working right can be a real challenge, and it’s something a lot of companies are struggling with. Do you have any advice on how to do it well?

KG: Yeah, figuring out hybrid working is a huge problem that organisations are having. Keep in mind though, that any approach to hybrid working should always be an approach, not a mandated policy. The approach also needs to be on a case by case basis for each workplace, to figure out what works best for individuals, teams and the organisation.

One of the main things is to get your leadership team on the same page, not only around flexible working, but also your organisational strategy for the next few years and what role your workspaces play in that.

This means understanding the work flow of your organisation, why people come together and work apart, how they communicate, and reflecting on what has been learnt throughout the pandemic.

I think a big part of the problem is that there is a lot of confusion, and a lack of understanding about what’s going on. If your organisation believes the office is a core part of how you work, that’s great! But the reasons for coming into the office need to be clear and agreed between leaders and employees.

It sounds obvious, but a powerful thing is to create a simple chart that shows the different alert levels, and then what that means for your organisation.

That piece of communication can then be shared across teams so people can actually understand and self-organise around those moments when they need to come together for practical projects or day-to-day work. Relentless communication is key.

WP: If I’m creating a flexible working model, is there an end point where that model is 'done'? Or is it something that keeps evolving?

KG: We definitely need to have that experimental or evolutionary mindset. We need to experiment with the return to the office, and it will keep changing depending on what’s going on out there in the rest of the world.

We are living in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - and people are realising they need to be flexible and agile and change the way they think about people in business.

I don’t know many organisations who have nailed it yet, simply because it takes time and things are constantly changing. This is something that’s going to keep evolving.

WP: One of the things that companies are really struggling with is that some employees don’t want to return to the office at all; why do you think that is?

KG: From an employee’s perspective, there are lots of different levels to it. There can be nervousness or anxiety around things like health conditions and vaccinations, as well as change fatigue and burnout, and also for some people, realising that remote working is much better for them.

Making an effort to understand your people and how they feel is really important, and one of the best ways to do that is just by talking to them about their experiences. This will really help you to get a better idea of how to design your work environment from here on out.

WP: If an organisation is struggling with getting people back in the office, are there ways to motivate them to return?

KG: I like to say the hybrid workplace should be magnetic, not mandated. Ask yourself, how can we make the office a destination? Think about the different experiences and personalities, and the reasons and barriers for coming in.

For some people, it’s just great Wi-Fi. Others come in for practical facilities they don’t have at home like a good printer, desk or meeting rooms. For others, it’s about connection and feeling a part of something bigger than themselves.

It helps to map out all of the reasons people come together, and then figure out which ones are better online versus on-site. Then, you can really dial up the on-site gatherings and put some effort into them. This is an awesome opportunity to rethink and refurbish your space so that your office gives people what they need.

Free food is always a winner too. It’s a nice extra way of showing you care for your people, as well as creating an opportunity for people to socialise.

Thinking about all these different touch points will make the office experience more rich and varied, and the more positive experiences you can create for people when they are transitioning back into the office, the better.