by Tanisha Krishnan and Chris Hood — November 2020 — It is the peak of election season in the United States, and with it comes the myopic polarization of argument for one political issue after another. Balanced reasoning of the pros and cons of any particular issue are replaced with an often-caustic focus on just one side of the argument. So rarely in this process are the relative merits of various points of view placed alongside each other, instead individuals take firm stances to the exclusion of other points of view and head towards extreme positions. This is not helpful to those of us who have to make choices.
It is somewhat disconcerting that this trend towards polar opposites is seeping into the dialogue about the future of our workplaces post-pandemic. It seems most articles and research are desperate to conclude that one is either for home-working or for working from the office. Articles and papers are written and provocatively titled to push self-interest, create angst, and sharpen the divisions.
Is it not possible that we can suppress the binary nature of this debate and begin to talk in more nuanced and useful shades of grey? The future of our workplace is certainly not that all people are going to work from the office all the time or work out of the office all the time, but there is likely to be a mix and the challenge we have is to help businesses forecast what that balance is likely to be.
This article is based upon real data from a series of recent projects to help illuminate the mechanics of this conversation. These are not average numbers across large global surveys but are actual votes by individuals who are made aware that their feedback on their preferred future workplace options will be used to drive their company’s respective strategies. The results are stunning in that the level of consistency demonstrated across three different companies that happen to be in three completely different industries is not what we expected to find. It appears that the common element across the three is “humanity” and the similarities as to how individuals internalize their preferred work week scenarios such as: getting their work done, reducing the stress of commuting, reduce time-wasted, being more productive, improving work-life balance, growing their knowledge and building and maintaining social connections with their colleagues.
In Figure 1, for example, are three charts which illustrate employees views as to how often they worked from home pre-Covid19 (grey bars) and how much they would prefer to work from home post-pandemic (colored bars)
Figure 1: Graphs showing how 3 different organizations voted their preference to work remotely after the Covid-19 situation had been resolved vs how much they worked remotely before Covid-19. Across the 3 organizations there is a large appetite for employees wanting to work more remotely with an average of 82% of them wanting to work at least 2-3 days remotely.
Who is taking sides?
Clearly there are a number of groups that have a great self-interest in employees returning to the office in large numbers:
- Architects: to design more buildings to accommodate the growth of white-collar jobs.
- Interior designers: to design the inside of offices in accordance with the businesses needs.
- Real estate developers: anxious to fill-up their commercial office inventories.
- Real estate brokers: who make their livelihood from the transactions when space purchases or leases occur.
- Furniture manufacturers: who thrive when companies are expanding or moving and wish to change out their furniture inventories.
- In addition, there are all those service industries which thrive on the presence of offices: cleaners, sandwich shops, adjacent retail, hospitality etc.
- Managers who feel the need to observe employees all day every day in order to manage them (yes… they still exist, even post-Covid19).
- Organizations that own large portfolios and currently have empty buildings.
On the other hand, there is one primary force on the other side of the argument:
- People (we shall discuss their drivers later).
It is clear that, in addition to the personal convenience and satisfaction that working from home represents for some people, there is a growing group of people that can also recognize the value of allowing individuals to self-determine their own workplace personas. These include:
- HR managers, increasingly recognizing the value of more flexible hiring arrangements, less bound by commuting considerations and more interested in developing the goodwill of their employees.
- Companies who recognize the self-reported productivity benefits they have seen from remote working.
- Environmentalists who calculate the combined impact on global footprints of reduced enterprise footprints and reduced commuting.
- Cities whose transportation systems and infrastructure were previously taxed almost to breaking point at peak commute times.
- And many more…
The fact is that if employees are given the choice to self-select when and where they work (even within certain boundary limits) the resulting shift in where time is spent is likely to be quite different than pre-pandemic an example shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: A simplified graphical representation of where people worked, and what kind of work they did, prior to the pandemic contrasted with their post-pandemic preferred choice. While their characterization of whether they engage in more focused or more collaborative work remains more-or-less the same, there is clearly a shift away from office-based work towards working away from the office. This is real data from a live project, and we are seeing similar results across other projects.
So, what is the place we used to call the office for?
The “undeniably good”
We have begun to develop a list of those things for which the office has an almost undeniable role which is difficult to replicate in the virtual world.
- Playing host to customers: presenting their credentials in their controlled environment and with a level of hospitality that aligns to the brand.
- Access to unique, large, expensive, or shared equipment (such as in a lab).
- To enable “living creativity” serendipity and innovation associated with high value initiatives.
- To provide a place for highly valued workers who thrive on social connectedness: we might move this to the “debatable” section.
- To enable work activities that require complex, instant, fusion of knowledge to address high-value fast-moving challenges.
- Activities that are confidential, sensitive, or governed by regulatory requirements. In some cases, these are non-negotiable, but it is remarkable how some of the non-negotiable issues have in-fact been renegotiated during lockdown.
- Building new relationships has consistently been claimed to be easier to do face to face than in virtual: we have not yet found the virtual equivalent of sharing a coffee prior to a meeting. Similarly, the same concerns have been raised for bringing on new staff into existing teams. Making the connections can be easier in the flesh as new starters often struggle to understand people’s availabilities, soak-up the existing work culture and behavior expectations and build a strong bond with their colleagues.
There are then some activities which could be done “really well” either way. We have seen examples of companies doing all the things in the list below as well (in some cases better) virtually than they did previously but we readily accept that not all businesses have been able to achieve the same results and some might simply be unwilling to try.
- Virtual teamwork with people in or outside your organization in remote locations. The necessity to drive virtual development of ideas or product has caused teams to rethink their old processes, and in many cases, they have improved things, perhaps never to return to the old ways. This is not to discount the benefits of face-to-face interaction but to reassess its incidence and application. Paradoxically team members often seem to find their other teammates more accessible, available, and responsive when virtual.
- Activities that require people to learn from each other and share knowledge in an unstructured way. This perhaps one of the most common pushbacks for virtual work, particular with the mentoring of new workers. There is no doubt that overhearing things and observing events face-to-face in real time is very instructive, but we often have very short memories. If we are honest our recollections have a habit of seeing the office as a bustling, interactive space, are often not very accurate. 35-40% occupancy rates pre-pandemic in many businesses were very common and consequently the amount of interaction and knowledge transfer was not always what we imagined. We have adjusted though. Attempting to address this issue, opportunism has provided some new opportunities for improved mentoring. The process is no longer face-to-face but neither is it constrained by distance and presence, with invitations to a greater array of virtual interaction sessions allowing for new and broader ways of learning. Thus, virtual work does not preclude mentoring or any other form of knowledge transfer but neither does this proposition seek to eliminate face-to face engagement it simply seeks to balance it: the best of all worlds.
- One of the most eye-opening aspects of the pandemic is the way we seem to have embraced a wider world. For those companies with a wide vision, the limitations of distance have almost evaporated providing organizations with new horizons as to who might constitute their customers, their employees, and their suppliers. Many businesses are no longer constrained by physical distance and are therefore free through the wonders of modern technology to partner with each other and to form new relationships, previously unimaginable.
- To provide a place for highly valued workers who thrive on social connectedness. While we acknowledge that there are plenty of individuals who thrive on the social nature of the office: they look forward to getting up each morning and enjoying the banter, we must ask what happens when the people they normally talk to aren’t there. If some of these same people have elected to work from home more often, then the office that the social butterflies knew may not offer the same appeal anymore. In this case, the solutioning might look at other workplace options such as co-working centers closer to where such individuals live. Their new office maintains a social vibe and they reach a wider circle of new friends and disciplines, who could even offer advantages to their work.
- Many years ago, in the first days of tele-commuting as it was called then, the Harvard Business Review published a thoughtful article arguing that remote workers were, on the whole, better managed than those managed by sight or presence. The author argued that managers no longer had the crutch of sight to lean on and they needed to become more focused on deliverables and outcomes. This had the impact of helping them to focus on those things that were most important and stripping away the trivial. By and large we have seen during the pandemic managers taking more care and concern for their employees, being engaged and involved without micro-managing their employee’s roles. These would be good qualities to carry forward no matter what final balance of office-based versus remote work transpires.
- To provide a place to work for those whose home-working experience was not good. We know there are individuals in this category, but we don’t believe that bringing them back to the office as they knew it is the only option. In all likelihood, the office to which they return is not the office they left. Attendance is likely to be lower, assuming the company embraces some sort of choice in workstyles and the oft repeated concerns about office productivity, the ability to concentrate, the rigors of commuting may still exist. In these cases, the use of co-working centers may rise as an option, and the employee may just need encouragement and “permission” to test other options.
As much as the FM and the design world have attempted to build the very best offices, the data suggests that they often fall short when it comes to providing a productive place to do focused work. The Leesman Index has been, for years, assessing the importance and effectiveness of various roles of the workplace including its ability to support focused work. This almost always ends up being at the top of the list of negatives and, of course, is one of the appeals of home or local (co-working, public spaces etc.) working. Most individuals seem to believe that it is the focused work that they undertake that is most important and they have, for the most part found that working away from the office helps them to control their environment better, to manage interruptions and to avoid the inefficient use of time (commuting, questionable meetings, finding people and things). The data from our three companies, consistency references home working as a contributor to their productivity for most people. Ironically, in one recent focus group, a scientist remarked about how much more productive the office had become- now that there was no-one else there.
Not everyone has the ability to work effectively from home, but most people do. As purveyors of workplaces we can approach this from two directions;
- Acknowledge that there are difficulties for some people (sharing flats/ apartments with other people out of financial necessity) and provide them with a workplace solution back in the office or in another local workplace option.
- Lessen the importance of them being close (highly commutable) to the office which may provide more lifestyle and cost-of-living options allowing them to make different choices about their home location…..not everyone needs to live in central London or Silicon Valley for example.
This is what we mean by a balanced solution
The definition of the workplace ecosystem should perhaps not be driven by the views of a few opiniated leaders (visionary or traditional) but ideally, it involves a thoughtful discussion about what the world has collectively learned during the pandemic, what employees and managers are thinking and what challenges do we see ahead of us. There is a mounting body of evidence (see Nicholas Blooms research: https://siepr.stanford.edu/research/publications/how-working-home-works-out ) that self-determination of workplace can have very positive productivity benefit. Professor Bloom’s study for Chinese travel company Ctrip demonstrates, through a rigorous academic study, that the ability for employees to decide where they work was a great motivator of performance with enviable business outcomes.
The fact that challenges or niggling doubts about the future remain after the pandemic is to be expected. It is quite acceptable to try to go back to life prior to Covid19 provided everyone thinks that’s a good idea. Equally so, it can be energizing to build workplace solutions that are new and built around updated employee preferences or new and improved processes. Failures during the pandemic don’t mean that all the new practices don’t work, it might just mean that more work is needed to improve some of the new ways of doing things.
Figure 3: When asked how often they would like to come into the office post Covid19, employees across different departments voted in every line of business to work from home more. This has implications on the amount of office space required and the overall carbon footprint of their operations.
Either way, balanced solutions arrive because the organizations have carefully weighed all the evidence out there. They have considered the merits of working exclusively from the office and equally the 100% virtual option. More likely though they have deliberated on the right mix of all the workplace ecosystem options… they have amassed useful and relative data to support their decisions and are contemplating the best of both worlds. What is the ideal mix of workplace styles, to whom do they apply, and what are the consequences on “the office” as we used to know it?
In next month’s edition we will be carrying these thoughts into a more focused discussion as to the implications for the company workplace. We will bring forward a quantity of data to frame an understanding of the Post-pandemic office and what it’s newly refreshed purpose might be. In the meantime, we call upon all writers, editors and publishers to try and move the discussion away from the sensational and towards the balanced. Let’s begin fact-based discussions and avoid the sensational headlines. Surely, we can otherwise attract readers to an intelligent discussion!
About the authors
Advanced Workplace Associates