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The Role of the Office After Covid

July 26, 2021 4:45 PM | Lisa Whited

Times have changed.  

Since COVID-19 caused a mass exodus from offices in March 2020, 47% of employees who have been working from home would rather quit than go back to the office full time. However, many employers want their people back in the office – and many bosses want them there five days a week. In what could be a rude awakening for company leaders, 94% of employees say they would like to work remotely 1 to 4 days a week.

Employees’ resistance to returning to the office is not surprising. People proved that they could be productive while working remotely; money is no longer the only compensation employees expect from employers. They want choice of when and where to work.

And there are good reasons to change with the times.

Employees experienced improved productivity while working from home. Prior to the lockdown, primary complaints about the office were 1) noise, 2) constant interruptions and 3) no quiet places to focus to escape distractions. Working from home gave people the peaceful, productive spaces they craved. Of course, not all home working situations are equal – home-schooling parents and employees with roommates did not have quite the same experience.

Approximately 40% of jobs can be accomplished remotely at least some of the time. Leesman, an organization which measures workspace performance globally, has one of the largest databases on workplace effectiveness and workspace performance. Leesman has data showing that employees ranked their productivity while working at home at 83% whereas they ranked productivity while working in an office at 64% (pre-Covid).

Most employees indicate they want to spend some time in the shared office – socializing, collaborating, and connecting with colleagues. They believe that the office can better support activities that require learning and brainstorming. The results of a recent client survey showed that 60% of respondents would use the shared office for collaboration and 72% would use their home office for heads-down work. When in the office, 53% indicated they also needed places to focus and do independent work.

Bricks and mortar aren't all they are cracked up to be.

Here are some known facts about office space:

  • Before COVID-19 workstations and desks were empty 40% to 60% of the time.
  • Private offices were empty 73% of the time.
  • Commercial buildings contribute 39% to carbon emissions.

Office spaces are often vacant because many of the tasks performed by knowledge workers allow people to be mobile – they are in meetings, off site with clients, sitting in spaces with colleagues talking and brainstorming, or sitting in a quiet area (when they found one!) using their laptop. Employees no longer need to be tethered to one place in an office and they often welcomed that ability to roam. Employees were instinctively finding their own means of escape, not from work, but from working conditions.

A possible solution: shared space.

What do new work habits and empty spaces mean for the role of the office in the future? If employees can embrace the idea of sharing workspaces with other people, then there is a world of possibilities for businesses. Let’s pause right here – because this one idea of sharing desks often opens a tsunami of objections.

We share many things in our day-to-day lives. We share bus, train, and plane seats. We share library books, church pews, restaurant tables and shopping carts. In our homes if we live with others, we share kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms. In our offices we share meeting rooms, lunchrooms, and restrooms. There are four things we never share: our toothbrush, our bed pillow, our cellphone, and our desk.

Once we recognize that we do not need to have a workstation assigned to us, and if we are provided a variety of spaces to choose to work from (including private focus rooms in the office, window seats, sit/stand desks, library zones, lounge areas, and home offices) then we can reimagine a workplace that has a smaller footprint, and allows us to better connect and collaborate with colleagues.

Having a desk assigned to you in 2021 is not sustainable. It is as crazy as expecting the supermarket to provide you a shopping cart with your name on it for your use only. I hear the cries of, “What about the photos of my family?” and “I want to personalize my surroundings!”

Your family and friends matter, of course, but how about putting their photos on your screensaver? You want to express your personality? Awesome – create a personality wall that includes images and information about all of your coworkers in a space where more can view it (this expression can be physical, and it can be digital).

We know that 80% of people worldwide are not engaged in their work (Gallup Poll). Research shows that connection to purpose is an intrinsic human motivator. It may not be glaringly apparent where you are employed, but you are part of a company that is working hard to make a difference for others. The vision and mission of the organization that you are devoting your waking hours to should inspire you and make you feel like you are contributing to that goal. This is why installing story walls in an office is such a great way to provide a visual reminder for anyone in the space. Story walls are not “brag” walls to attract clients and customers; they are creative expressions of how the company is making a difference with its work – illustrating the organizational values and purpose – and exist solely to inspire employees.

Less space translates to lower cost and a smaller carbon footprint.

Remote work can result in significant overhead savings for businesses. A global insurance company recently determined that it could save 82% of its real estate expense by embracing hybrid work and downsizing its real estate portfolio. As commercial buildings contribute so much to carbon emissions, both in their construction and in their operation, using less space can also be good for the planet.

Imagine this: an office that is beautiful, one-half to two-thirds the size of its previous version, and where people leave the space at the end of the day feeling more energized and engaged than when they arrived. Envision a business that exceeds profitability projections, has its highest retention and engagement numbers, and contributes to achieving a net zero outcome.

That stuffed bear collection on your office bookcase? Sorry, that needs to go. Not only is it collecting dust, but wouldn’t a little kid somewhere in the world benefit from having a lovable stuffy?

Rethinking the purpose of the office can engage employees, build community, and improve your bottom line. Now is the time to create the world of work that is better for the planet and great for people.

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Lisa Whited is founder and chief transformation officer of Workplace Transformation Facilitation based in Portland, Maine. She is also a senior associate for Advanced Workplace Associates, a global workplace change management consultancy, based in the UK. Lisa’s first book, “Work Better. Save the Planet will be published in the summer of 2021.

Find links to Lisa’s presentationsBuild Community and Drive Innovation with Remote Work” (Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce Growth Basics for Business, June 2020). “Is the Hybrid Work Model a Sustainable Model?” (WorkInSync, July 2021).   Check back for a link to her ACE presentation last month.

Lisa will participate in a panel on The Modern Workplace August 25, 2021 at the MaineBiz Small Business Forum.

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