Can offices bounce back post pandemic, or is home working here to stay?

The 2020 pandemic ignited a revolution in workplace practices, with more people than ever before finding themselves working from home.

But what implications has remote working had for office culture and what does it mean for leadership and building cohesive, focused teams of employees?’s roundtable, in partnership with leadership training provider Natural Direction, looked at how the professional services sector should respond to a radically different workplace landscape.

The discussion was chaired by joint managing director, Alex Turner.

Martin Coburn – owner and managing director of Natural Direction and the Win Academy said he could not see how companies can build a coherent culture when their staff are only visible to each other via screens.

He warned home working is slowing down the learning process of more junior members of staff, who are not interacting face-to-face with senior colleagues.

“One of the partners at Deloitte told me he reckons its taking 18 months to get where it would typically have taken six months if they were working in the office,” he said.

“You learn through osmosis, because when you’re around partners and senior managers you learn how to act and behave.”

Mike Thornton, office managing partner, Leeds, RSM, also highlighted remote working’s negative impact on learning.

He said: “If you don’t have colleagues together working in teams people don’t learn as quickly.

“So over the last 12 months we’ve stepped back from letting people have as much choice about where they work.

“It’s not a scenario of saying people have to be in the office every day. But it’s important to help people realise that at the end of a three-year training contract as an accountant they want to be ready to fly the nest.”

Tanya Holt – partner and head of regions, CMS, agreed it is important for junior members of staff to have direct contact with seniors, even if those senior staff are more comfortable with working from home.

She said: “It’s the seniors who feel a bit more like, ‘I can do my job, I can do it at home, so I don’t need people around.’

“But as leaders we need those people in, because they are the ones who are teaching the juniors. So it is important to have everyone in the office – even if not all the time.

“We’ve had ‘anchor days’ where people have been initially reluctant to come in. But afterwards they’ve said that it has felt great. It feels so inclusive to be together as a team.”

Andy Ward, market senior partner, Leeds and Bradford, PwC, said: “Post pandemic we found graduates and school leavers were dying to get into the office and make friends.

“Once we cracked the first intake of staff doing that, it’s almost the responsibility of leaders of the business to make sure we are there as well.

“People recognise the value of being in the office. Sat on your own in a flat doing audit work is not particularly enjoyable – it can be quite lonely.”

Karen Arch, chief people officer, BHP, noted staff wellbeing can be difficult to monitor when employees work remotely.

And she pointed to the nature of the office proposition playing a key role in incentivising people to return.

She said: “We’ve got a brand new office that has been built in Sheffield. It’s open plan. Our managing partners sit in open plan.

“It’s suitable for neuro diversity, so there are quiet areas. And there’s a prayer room.”

Matt Pollard, regional head of Yorkshire for Large Corporate, Lloyds Bank, picked up on how higher quality office space can tempt back staff.

He said: “In Leeds we’ll be exiting Lovell Park shortly which is a building put up in the late 1980s, early ’90s. It’s in the wrong part of town, it’s not fit for purpose and it’s not attractive to bring people into the office.

“We’re moving to Wellington Place. It’s going to be really interesting to see if that investment will drive more people back in to the office – we think it will.”

Faye Esgate, reward manager HR, Leeds Building Society, said everyone has individual circumstances which explain where they most prefer to work.

She said her organisation’s experience suggests younger people are more happy to work from home, with the high cost of living in or near city centres being one deciding factor.

Andrew Batterton, office managing partner, Leeds, DWF, said some employers may fear implementing rules about office-based working, because they worry that insisting on people being present could result in staff leaving.

He asked whether this was simply the inevitable outcome of a more transitory professional environment.

“I don’t know whether it’s a case that horizons have changed and we have to accept as employers that people will move around,” he said.

“But at the end of the day it’s still an office. Yes, we’re trying to make little changes here and there to make life in the office better, but it’s a business. We’ve got to derive profit and we’ve got to pay people.”

Louise Smith, managing director, transaction services, Interpath, said younger people don’t necessarily have the best provision to work from home, especially in terms of space.

She said: “I remember during Covid, you’d be on Teams calls, and where you had two people sharing a flat one would be working from the kitchen and the other in the bedroom.

“I do think there’s a definite importance to attracting people into the office, making it a fun place to be and giving them a reason to come in and collaborate.

“But it’s a hard balance to strike if you say it’s mandatory to come in the office two or three days a week. Because if you dictate, the reaction often is, ‘well I’m not doing it, I want to do what I want to do.'”

Chris Lyons, regional director, Michael Page, said his company was using “anchor days” to balance remote working flexibility with collaborative office-based working.

He explained: “About nine months ago we moved to being more specific about anchor days. Three days a week everyone is expected in.

“We had a little bit of pain the week we implemented it, because people had to change child care or get a dog sitter. But it has transformed us. Those three days in the week feel like 2019 in terms of the dynamism of the office culture.”

Simon Harris, senior office partner, Leeds and joint head of real estate, Eversheds Sutherland, said: “We spend a large portion of our lives in the office, so it’s important people feel a sense of community and feel togetherness.”

Addressing whether a company can build a culture if staff only see each other on screens, he noted the younger generation are often very comfortable with relating to people remotely.

He said: “I look at my kids and see the way they interact with their friends and it has evolved. My son likes playing computer games and he’s interacting and talking to people from all around the world.”

Deborah Warren, legal director, Clarion, said business culture will remain important whether staff are office or home based.

“Everyone has to buy into the culture and buy into people being key – and then live that and lead by example,” she said.

“It’s about having staff who are so significantly engaged they feel comfortable in their environment to look at how the business can be improved, provide ideas, then see their ideas being acted on.”