Back to the office: how to preserve the positives

The idea of going back to the office as a physical space brings mixed blessings. Many of us have adapted well to the pandemic – so well, in fact, that a return to how things were previously no longer seems as attractive as it once was.

  • A global survey of workers indicates that 74% would like to see a hybrid of office-based and remote working in the future
  • 80% see employers as having the main responsibility for creating a better working world
  • Three in four employees think it’s important to retain flexibility over their working hours

Our return to the JDA offices has raised important questions for us in terms of culture and design. We’d be fascinated to hear if our experience resonates with others.

I feel our own experience is useful as part of the debate around how we should use workspaces more effectively, and how the psychology of a workplace culture might influence decisions about physical office accommodation.

The unexpected benefits of lockdown

The pandemic helped us bring our workforce together more tightly in ways that had eluded us previously. With our sites in Liverpool and Manchester, we were always aware of the differences between the two, and looking for ways to strike the right balance between independence and interdependence.

Lockdown was a leveller. With all the team working from home, the geographic specifics no longer counted. We saw a kind of cultural blend occurring, and from it, we could shape a single employee brand.

This sense of cohesion was a definite morale-booster in the middle of the pandemic, and it helped drive a clear sense of purpose.

But while energy levels and optimism remained high, we were also aware that a totally remote-working arrangement across the board wasn’t viable in the long term.

Along with many other organisations, architects learn from each other, bounce ideas around, get involved in discussions and even arguments. These things drive creativity and contribute to excellence in problem-solving. They require a shared physical space to collaborate, share knowledge and create their best work.

This wasn’t simply a top-down awareness. The biggest push for getting back into the office was coming from employees.

Preserving the positives

Of course, the experience of the pandemic hasn’t been entirely positive, and we could have made some better decisions – communication wasn’t always easy to get right. But the positives are there, in our renewed sense of purpose, cohesion and a unified workforce.

The task now is to preserve these positives, while meeting our employees’ desires to move back to some form of office-based working.

How to design and plan for hybrid working

The problem with hybrid working, as a notion, is that it already risks becoming over-used.

As more and more businesses and commercial spaces realise they can’t simply expect to return to how things were, they’re looking for a route through the middle.

Hybrid sounds attractive because it involves a combination of home and office working. But how realistic is it in practice? Experience tells us the physical arrangements are secondary to establishing positive psychology that supports your workplace culture.

If you don’t have a cohesive vision for your business that reflects and expresses the needs and desires of your workforce, you can’t expect to simply adopt new working arrangements and guarantee their success.

That isn’t hybrid working, it’s just rearranging the furniture.

The answer to how to go back to the office in a way that will work for everyone is in looking at the inner as well as outer needs of your end-users.

It’s not about break-out areas, safe spaces or precautionary distancing. It’s about understanding the kind of community that you’ve created in your workplace, and how to work with it for the best possible outcome.

Treat it like a brief, and look at it as a problem you can only solve by gaining a real depth of understanding about the culture you’re representing and serving.

You wouldn’t expect to simply impose a solution on a client, and the same principle applies to your office accommodation and working arrangements.

How the return to office brief can work

Begin by designing a new set of spaces that best meet the teams’ needs. We’ve found that people are returning to the office for specific meetings or discussions and therefore they need collaborative spaces.

But you’ll probably also need individual spaces for people to focus on their work if they’re not using home as this kind of quiet space.

Flexibility of use and flexibility of space can begin to really meet the demands of the post-Covid employee – we’ve seen this at our own offices and at our clients’ premises.

Your culture should come first

You can’t determine the culture of your workplace through its location or how you fit it out.

Surroundings can indeed contribute to positive workplace culture and offer psychological benefits, but the culture has to exist in the first place. If you want or need to return to the office, put your workplace culture first, to create the firm foundations for a positive future.

There’s still plenty of work to do to maximise the opportunities for transforming office spaces and working environments. But with clear thinking and strong commitment, we can all begin to blend physical space with the cultures we’ve created to make a lasting, positive impact.

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