Originally featured on Management Today.

As many of us take on the commute and venture back into the world, how do we manage the opening of offices that have stood so quiet for so long? The answer will not lie evenly for all.

Our view has been that we will open slowly and give our staff every chance to come into the office, but only if they want to. This decision was based on an employee survey in which around 20 per cent of staff said they were interested to put a toe in the water and test out a return.

Setting up the space correctly and working through rigorous risk and safety assessments to ensure we can work safely have been quite an endeavour. There are costs and obligations involved, but there is a balance in everything.

After six months of lockdown, it seems right to give our staff the chance to rebalance home and work life by encouraging them to commute, work some or all of a day in the office, and then get back to enjoy home without it also being their primary place of work. But we are also mindful of continuing advice from Government and health officials. Our stance is that we are only going to open if it can be done completely safely and without adding to the risk of further infection.

Our teams have remained amazingly resilient through lockdown and adapted quickly to providing consulting and creative services to our client base using technology and video. I am proud of that and thankful for their commitment, and I believe that productivity in terms of output and efficiency has not suffered.

But I am concerned that we may be losing things of value at the softer end of the productivity curve. Our staff are not learning through day-to-day contact with their colleagues, and Teams or Zoom calls, while efficient, are wearing and time-consuming. The isolation has not been good for mental health and in some parts of the organisation there were several who were finding it difficult to balance work and home life. A safe return to the office is aimed at providing a valve to relieve some of these pressures for those who want some respite at a time when we are able to venture outside.

There are currently many opinions over what coronavirus means for office life. Some foresee it as a catastrophe for the office real estate market. The fact is we simply don’t know. The big question now facing all senior managers is how to develop flexible working in whatever new environment that awaits. There are many considerations.

Our staff certainly expect greater flexibility; I for one agree that it should happen. But to what degree and when should we agree that we are in the new normal so that we can adopt a new flexible working regime that’s fair and works for all? It’s clear that at the moment people believe that after all we have been through flexibility may simply be a right, which in itself suggests difficult management tests ahead.

Some employers have suggested that their staff should now be back in the office following the reopening of schools. This should free up many more people to decide how they want to balance home and work life, but there are many reasons why some cannot currently return safely and those views need to be heard. The right thing to do is to consult and understand what one’s staff want and are comfortable to do and take decisions from there, particularly with the potential of further spikes or waves of the virus across a difficult winter.

Again, one of the reasons to open up the offices now is precisely to give those who want to return a taste of life in the office again, before they may be forced back into lockdown. Test the environment, see what works, change course and allow for different thinking. We will see how the virus progresses across the winter before taking long term decisions about the future of working life. And in the interim, provide as much reassurance as possible to staff that everything is being done to make the office environment safe and thereby allow people to venture out slowly in their own time.

Each business will make its own decisions about how best to provide the right framework for its staff – and importantly how to communicate with them to ensure they feel supported and safe. I believe in communicating regularly and openly, aiming to include and bring people along.

The notion that we are going to now stay at home and never make human contact with others in business and society is not a credible long-term position. COVID-19 has accelerated our understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of flexible working.

There may be some changes ahead to the physical space at work, now we must consider how best to manage the risk of the virus and begin to find our way back into the world.