Is some office time needed to equip the future workforce?

What do you miss out on when you don’t go to school, university, or the office? When schools shut down twice in 2020, it prompted much debate about the long-term impact on children of not having contact with teachers and peers. Yet the same question has not yet been asked about the workforce and what it means to never go into the office. 

Almost two years into the pandemic, companies have by no means reached a definitive answer for the right way to work.

Many firms, including EY, are still testing and refining their approach for the long term as they listen carefully to the needs of their people and clients. With potential implications for workforce development and firm cultures, there are still big questions to answer as companies seek to strike the right balance between time spent in the office and time spent working remotely.  

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Putting the ball in your court

EY research shows that when many of us returned to the office last year, financial services firms that did not mandate a set number of days to be in the office left it to individual teams to decide on the best structure for them. 

More than a quarter of the biggest financial services players adopted this approach prior to the work-from-home instruction, and publicly announced plans for ‘completely flexible’ working. Some firms even said they would reduce their overall office space.

Teams must use this flexibility wisely and responsibly - deciding when is best to meet in person and when to work from home. 

Culture is a consideration, as an increasing percentage of the UK workforce will be made up of those who never experienced the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. 

Last year, I saw first-hand what it meant to employees at all levels to meet in person again. Contrary to the belief that only junior staff worry about missing out on opportunities to learn from senior colleagues, we were all buzzing after our board met physically for the first time. It was a joy to come together in person and discuss matters in a way that’s challenging to replicate virtually.

Adults need interaction for the same reasons children need to go to school. If you do not see your boss handle a difficult conversation with a client, can you as easily learn how to conduct (or not conduct) that conversation yourself?


Embracing the mundane

Unless companies consider carefully how they are equipping their people with the experiences they need to be successful, missing out on day-to-day in-person learning opportunities risks impacting the skills of the future workforce. 

Studies show going to school is important for a child’s long-term development. Students often learn more from going to university, mixing with peers and academics, than simply what they read in textbooks at home. 

The same logic holds true for professionals, wanting to remain competitive in the future employment market. Spending time physically with those you work with is an important way of absorbing even seemingly mundane skills and information that can prove invaluable. 

The hunt for talent is becoming fiercely competitive. As financial and other professional services companies look globally to identify skills they need in their workforce, how will potential employees ensure they stay relevant and competitive? 

Now we are able to be back at our desks, part of the answer could be as straightforward as sitting next to your colleagues a couple of times a week. The key will be to strike the right balance – embracing the benefits of flexible remote working, with the collaborative learning opportunities that come from working together in person.


Anna Anthony is UK financial services managing partner at EY