The majority of us have two workplaces now – a digital office and the physical workspace. 

The problem is, few organisations are providing clarity to their teams over the role of each of these spaces. Even fewer are thinking how each could be redesigned to provide individuals, teams, and the entire organisation spaces in which to do their best work. 

This is a challenge businesses need to address, and the stakes are high. It’s worth reflecting, after this year’s recent National Work Life Week, on the current state of work today. 

We’re in the midst of the ‘Great Resignation’ with millions of people shifting roles, reevaluating their priorities and, in the process, changing the fabric of thousands of organisations. Meanwhile, after experiencing the benefits of flexible working, workers won’t return happily to the pre-pandemic status quo of 9-5 office work. 

The only thing today that has a higher impact on job satisfaction than flexibility is remuneration.

With flexibility a priority and workers willing to leave their jobs if it’s not offered, it’s more crucial than ever that leaders get the balance between the physical and digital office right. 

Digital should be the default. Disconnecting work from the physical office enables the flexibility that workers demand, as well as the ability for businesses to recruit beyond a defined geographic area. That means attracting more candidates, which ultimately results in a more diverse, higher performing team. Meanwhile, being digital first helps retain those groups that prioritise flexibility most, helping build organisational resilience even as we face challenges like the ‘Great Resignation’. 

But making digital the default requires the right infrastructure. Video conferencing has been a move in the right direction – and we should always offer a video option to meetings moving ahead – but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. 

The digital HQ doesn’t just enable meetings or provide a piece of software for a specific task. It’s a key part of the employee experience. It drives both deep work and certain social interactions. For example, channel-based messaging can be used for leaders to hold ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions, or for employees to create digital book clubs or share parenting tips. 

This builds stronger connections beyond direct teams, and enables the workplace to become somewhere in which wider interests can be cultivated. In this sense, technology is increasingly a key element when it comes to building a company culture. 

Airwallex, a fast-growing FinTech platform, is just one business that realised this quickly. Airwallex has embraced the digital HQ, integrating everything from hiring, to global communications, and existing tools, into a single channel-based messaging app. Focusing on transparent, open communication of vision, goals, and long-term objectives via this platform has helped Airwallex to empower its tech-driven culture across 12 global offices. As a result, everyone is aligned and moving in the same direction, wherever they are.

But digital-first isn’t only for hyper-agile, high-growth startups. And it’s not only tech employees calling out for the flexibility that it enables – it’s everyone. But to build better digital offices, and unlock the flexibility they enable, we need leaders to listen, and take the initiative.

The digital-default requires commitment for it to work. If senior executives are spending every day in the office, other employees will feel they should too. The result? Flexibility and digital-first in name only. This is the worst of both worlds. 

Digital in name only results in a two-tier system in which office-workers gain greater access to leadership and, inevitably, bias arises. Meanwhile, those who need or desire flexibility, whether parents, or those with care duties, feel punished for embracing the flexible, digital approach that, on paper, the business offers. 

This is why, rather than forcing employees back to offices, let’s, as business leaders, commit to spending more time working from outside the office. 

Research suggests executives are three-times more likely to want to return to the office full-time than non-executive employees, and those needs shouldn’t be ignored. 

But promoting a balance between office and home days at every level, and ensuring communications, meetings and more default to digital is crucial if we are to avoid creating unfair, unbalanced workspaces. 

So what then, is the physical office for? It still has a purpose, and it won’t disappear – but it will become more democratic. 

It’s time to relegate exec-floors to the past, and banish the rows and rows of desks and monitors. In the post-pandemic world, if you’re coming into an office daily just to stare at a screen, something’s gone wrong. 

We need to reclaim ‘Office Work’ as a social, collaborative, dynamic activity. And our physical offices should shift to accommodate this. More space for in-person get togethers, conversations, creative brainstorming, workshops, and less for desk-based, individual work that can be completed more effectively remotely. 

Beyond that, as we move ahead, organisations might consider smaller satellite offices, closer to people’s homes. Or, with the savings from less intensive, flagship centralised offices, invest in providing employees with better tools for remote work. 

With more employees calling for flexibility amidst a year with record numbers of job vacancies, businesses have to get their digital and physical office strategies right to support and secure great talent. 

By investing in collaborative digital infrastructure, encouraging leadership-from-home, and rethinking the priorities of the physical office, businesses can build more effective, equal, and attractive workplaces to the benefit of everyone.