The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. At work, however, it has accelerated a culture shift that was already in motion. When employees were forced to work from home, many experienced new levels of flexibility that were nonexistent pre-pandemic. As companies reevaluate their workplace strategies, many are finding that their employees are not willing to return to the traditional 9-5 office setup.
The pandemic has transformed how companies create and use space, how employees experience their work environments and where and how people work around the world.
At the onset of the pandemic, we spoke with hundreds of corporate real estate leaders at multinational companies who represent millions of employees. These leaders had to mobilize their employees to work from home within 72 hours with no contingency plan in place. They had four priorities in common: enabling their employees who craved face-to-face communication to collaborate safely; a real estate strategy with flexible terms that can scale up or down based on evolving needs; real data on what teams need and how they are using space; and prioritizing both the physical and mental safety and health of their employees while providing a safe place of work. What emerged from these conversations was the fact that the world of work as we knew it would never be the same. Future generations will never experience “the office” as we have seen it evolve over the last several decades.
The new role of the office
The new world of work has social and cultural implications that we are only beginning to comprehend. It is no surprise that 98% of workers want to retain the option of working from home in the future, given the accompanying benefits such as lack of a commute and more family time. While many were quick to embrace working from home, full-time remote working has its downsides, and what was once a perk has now lost some of its appeal. When working from home permanently, half of Israeli workers worry about job security and team cohesion suffers. According to a recent survey, the ability to have unplanned interactions has dropped an average of 25 percent; for employees who collaborate in close-knit team environments, the decline is as high as 40 percent.
The same survey found that the ability to maintain social relationships has declined an average of 17 percent. People are beginning to miss the social nature of the office and realizing that a team culture cannot be maintained through Zoom calls. Employees are suffering from the mental and psychological effects of the pandemic, which are being exacerbated by a lack of work-life separation. Remote work is having a negative effect on productivity, as well. Going forward, as employers reevaluate their workplace strategies, they need to factor in the impact of remote work on their employees’ output, with an equal focus on providing solutions that give employees the ability to work from a place that is most convenient for them.
The importance of the office has been realized and its role is being redefined. As employees have more choice about where and how they work, the office must serve a clear purpose. Office spaces need to be collaborative, both comfortable and inspiring, and lend themselves to a more integrated work-life balance. Employee experience is now more important than ever.
Rather than simply a workplace, the office has become a place where workers can collaborate and have spontaneous interactions. Physical human interaction sparks creativity and being together with colleagues creates a sense of inclusivity and community. The ability to talk to a colleague over lunch and exchange ideas, the casual communication over a cup of coffee that contributes to the emergence of creativity — these are the critical parts of the workplace and company culture that can not be replicated over Zoom. We recently found that 90% of people want to return to the office at least one day a week, but only a fifth of them want to return five days a week. There are distinct advantages to both remote working and working at a dedicated office. The future of work involves a hybrid of both models, a combination of environments and a new work culture with total flexibility at its core.
Safety at the workplace
While collaboration and innovation are critical for the workplace, ensuring a safe and healthy work environment is of paramount importance. Companies want sustained business performance and employee engagement in a safe environment, and at the same time, 76 percent of employees have expressed a desire to work from satellite or coworking space closer to home in the future. A ‘hub and spoke model’ is emerging, where companies operate several offices closer to where people live so that workforces have more choice and are kept in a safe working environment. Large tech enterprises with offices in Israel such as Microsoft, Facebook and Intel are adopting such practices as they spread their Tel Aviv workforces across newly-rented offices, demonstrating the need for increased space.
Building a new work culture
To adapt to the new world of work, companies are now rethinking their real estate strategy and two things are clear: no company can work exclusively either at home or at the office, and employees who have the option of working at an office close to home will choose to do so. While traditional HQs still have their place, commuting long distances is draining for time-poor employees and businesses are adopting more flexible models that include allowing their employees to work from workspaces closer to where they live, either independently or in small teams, or to continue to work from home several days a week.
Workers now value their work-life balance even more, but they have also come to appreciate the benefits of the office environment, so getting the balance right is crucial. As employee wellbeing and satisfaction become the highest priorities, their working preferences must be a pivotal part of any workplace strategy. This is vital for talent retention and keeping a motivated workforce, and will subsequently yield increased productivity. Work culture now requires ultimate flexibility and the workplace must have a true purpose.
As employees rethink where they want to live, how much time they want to spend at the office and at home, and who they work for, companies will need to shift their focus to creating safe physical experiences and corporate culture around an increasingly dispersed workforce. The future of work is happening right now and businesses need to adapt quickly.