Office Expectations Are Changing – Is Your Company Ready?

This recent Staples Workplace Survey found workers have rapidly changing expectations for the office environment. The following executive summary outlines what employers need to know to keep workers happy and their businesses thriving.

What modern workers consider “the office” is sharply different from just a few years ago according to the most important finding of Staples’ recent Workplace Survey.

Employees are spending less and less time in traditional offices and are instead now opting to customize their workspaces to their needs. In increasingly competitive markets, employers need to pay attention to the rapidly shifting desires of employees to attract and retain the talent they need to succeed.

Give employees flexibility

Only 32 percent of respondents to the survey say they spend all their time working in an office. Generational differences further underscore this issue – millennials say they only spend 67 percent of their time in an office. It’s clear that the younger generation doesn’t want to be tied to one location. Employers need to recognize this and ensure they’re supplying them, and all of their employees, with the tools to do their jobs from anywhere.

However, there are still tangible efficiencies and intangible benefits to people working in physical proximity and millennials especially still care about how their workplace looks and flows. In comparison to Baby Boomers, the younger generation is more willing to take a pay cut if it means working in a nicer office, or consider quitting if their workplace design is too outdated and inefficient.

Companies need to find ways to incorporate flexibility into the workplace – both in terms of workflow and physical space.

The most obvious way to provide flexibility is the ability to work remotely. Long seen as an occasional perk for certain kind of jobs, the ability to work away from the office is increasingly becoming an expectation.

Forty-three percent of employees see the ability to work remotely as a must-have, according to the survey. This is particularly prevalent in finance and technology, where 51 and 57 percent of workers respectively consider it a necessity for their jobs.

Working remotely mostly means working from home, but a growing trend is co-working spaces. Places such as WorkBar provide membership-based working spaces that tend to be a combination of freelancers, remote workers and small companies. Approximately 14.6 million US employees are working from such spaces, and that number is likely to grow. Twenty-five percent of millennials say they’re doing so at least occasionally. According to Harvard Business Review, people in co-working spaces tend to rate their workplaces more favorably than those in traditional offices, citing benefits like more job control and a feeling of community.

Flexibility can also mean not having a permanent or assigned workspace, even if  someone spends most of his or her time in a physical office. Nearly a third of employees work in a setting that offers “agility seating” or “hotdesking,” where workers can sit in a different space every day resulting in increased communication and better relationships with colleagues. This trend is especially prevalent in healthcare, finance and technology companies. And it can pay off in surprising ways – 71 percent of survey respondents say it deepens their connection to their employer.

 Put employees’ well-being first

The expectations employees have for their employers aren’t limited to workspaces, however. As workplace flexibility and design increasingly blurs the line between personal and professional, more workers expect the company that employs them to take their well-being into account.

In fact, 80 percent of survey respondents believe their employers have a responsibility to keep them mentally and physically well. Many companies aren’t meeting this expectation — “stressful” was the most common negative attribute employees gave their workplace in Staples’ survey. People feel that stress at work not only affects their personal health and vitality but also inhibits professional learning and growth.

That stress has real implications. In fact, 44 percent of survey respondents say they’ve had to take a “mental health day” due to workplace stress, costing their companies valuable work effort and productivity.

It’s an area where companies need to make sure they’re listening to their employees. After new technology, the top items on employees’ “wishlists” were food and drink options, a fitness center, private/personal space and ergonomic furniture. Clearly, health and wellness issues weigh heavily on workers’ minds and a company that pays attention to these desires is more likely to win the talent war.

Fill the gap between what workers need and what your business offers

Companies who are not already allowing employees to work remotely will have to be prepared to offer it to keep up with the competition. While 43 percent of employees say the ability to work remotely is critical, only 38 percent of employers allow it. If employers can’t, or won’t, allow employees to work outside of the office regularly, then they should at least provide flexible office environments that encourage employees to be there.

There are of course, some tradeoffs to flexibility that should be planned for. Employees who work from co-working spaces or have agility seating likely have fewer options for personalizing their space, and don’t have the structure that comes from having a permanent workstation. Companies should make sure employees have ways to make these spaces their own, as well as other tools to stay connected and productive.

Time to close the conversation about the open office?

However, one type of flexibility that workers are NOT looking for more of, is the open office. Despite some findings that such a layout can increase collaboration, the survey found that open office designs lead to frustrating distractions that leave workers craving privacy.

Thirty-seven percent of those who work in an open office setting say the layout has them feeling distracted (as opposed to 28 percent in a closed office setting). A lack of private spaces is responsible for the most common distractions such as overhearing co-workers’ conversations and personal phone calls, and working near areas with high levels of foot traffic. Unsurprisingly, 55 percent of employees say they’ve gone outside to take a phone call in order to have privacy.

“The open office may have gone too far and could ultimately get in the way of itself,” says Modupe Akinola, Associate Professor of Leadership & Ethics at Columbia Business School. “These distractions have the potential to hinder productivity, increase stress, and drive employees away from the same offices that were designed with the intention of fostering collaboration.”

Those who say they’ve taken a “mental health day” are also far more likely to have experienced said distractions, further underscoring that the physical office space can greatly affect how they work.

One way to marry the concerns about health and privacy is a “wellness room,” a space that can be used for nursing, meditation, or simply relaxing for a few minutes. Survey respondents who had access to such a room rated their workplace significantly higher and were more likely to describe the environment as “relaxing” and “motivating.” Yet, only 23 percent of employers have one.

Employees are expecting more from their places of work these days. Over half of employees agree that the look and feel of a workplace is a major factor when considering a new job. Companies need to meet the flexibility and wellness needs of prospective employees, or they may risk being left behind.

Read more about the Staples Workplace Survey or download a copy here.

This post was sponsored by Staples. All images in the article are courtesy of Staples.
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