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Flexibility as the ultimate employee benefit in 2021

The pandemic's radical disruption of office work has shown that people need different environments for different tasks

The year 2020 has been an extraordinary one that none of us could have predicted, and while we have all been growing accustomed to our new normal, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for change. Company leaders are reflecting on and reshaping their business model and real estate needs, and employees are also re-evaluating their own needs, including paying closer attention to the benefits their employers provide.

Across the globe, work schedules have been upended and teams have likely worked from home for the last nine months, some for the first time ever. But what companies are now recognizing more so than ever before is the advantage of injecting a greater level of flexibility into their business. The subject of flexibility at work is also a central part of conversations about employee wellbeing. While working from home has had its perks – no commute time and more time to spend with the family – employees have also found it hard to maintain a sense of community with colleagues, remain focused on their company’s mission, and come up with innovative ideas. People are craving a sense of belonging – engagement and the ability to connect, see and talk to each other. For this reason, the office remains crucial for human connection, collaboration and productivity. In a recent survey we conducted with brightspot strategy, we found that since the pandemic began, unplanned interactions have dropped an average of 25%, and, for employees who collaborate in close-knit team environments, the decline is as high as 40%. We also found that the vast majority of people (90%) want to return to the office at least one day a week.

For employees, it is not about one way of working over another; being fully remote or commuting daily with a 9-5 routine. What people want is flexibility and a better work-life balance, a trend we have experienced at WeWork for the last decade, but which has been accelerated by the pandemic.

In the midst of what’s likely to be the most transformative year for ‘the office,’ employers are taking the time to understand what employees really want. With the era of presenteeism over, companies should look for flexible solutions to give employees what they need and want. For example, the pandemic has highlighted that remote working is not the same for everyone, and people require different environments for different tasks. That’s why an increasing number of businesses are opting for a hub-and-spoke model, which features a smaller, central headquarters alongside satellite offices. This workspace model provides a choice to work from home, the office or a new “third space” for people who may not be able to go into their official office, but are looking for a safe place to work from for a short period of time.

While there has always been an appetite for this level of autonomy, until now, employees rarely experienced it. The pandemic has encouraged employers to trust their employees to work from home and therefore enabled them to explore new avenues and working solutions. Not only will this greater choice and flexibility give employees a sense of independence, but it will help support a happier workforce with increased levels of productivity. A recent survey found that showing trust in employees resulted in 76% of employees feeling more engaged in tasks, and a recent study conducted by the University of Oxford found that having a happier workforce increased levels of productivity by 13%.

In light of the current climate, flexibility in the workplace has become a no-brainer. Something that was once viewed as a short term solution to the pandemic has now become part of a permanent shift towards a working style that supports and empowers employees. I believe that companies who are able to recognize the benefits of greater flexibility and adapt to this ‘new normal’ will be the ones who are able to achieve long-term employee satisfaction and will see both their business and workforce thrive.

About the Author
Sharon Bachar is the Head of People for the EMEA region at WeWork.
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