What To Expect When We Return To The Office

Lisa Killaby surveyed 20+ workplace designers and strategists on their plans to return the office, client expectations, what they see for the workplace in 2021, and finally what could derail return to work plans. See part two of the survey here.

As we pass the one year anniversary of the mass movement out of our offices, I surveyed a group of designers and strategists about when and how we will return to the office, it is evident from those discussions that our return to the office will take different forms and may take longer than we currently anticipate.

The survey conducted in late February 2021 included participants located across the US from Boston to Portland to Houston. The participants include individuals from design firms, brokerage companies and other allies with the common thread that all participants are seasoned experts in workplace design and strategy.

Most agreed that the workplace that existed pre-pandemic will shift to accommodate those who have learned to work from home effectively, those who wish to get back to the office and face-to-face collaboration and those that may wish to combine the best if both of these alternatives.

When will you return to your office?

Interesting, most of the survey participants who work in small to mid-sized offices (five to 75 people) have already started to return to the office as allowed by local and state mandates. Many of these firms are working two to three days a week in the office in shifts based upon team dynamics and space availability and configuration. Culture is very important to most of these companies and the ability to work together is considered essential.

While some of the participants from smaller offices noted that their technology was not prepared to support remote work, most were able to pivot quickly and adapt. Also returning to their offices are the brokerage firms with the strategists within those firms noting that the nature of the brokerage work requires more in person contact.

Culture is very important to most of these companies and the ability to work together is considered essential.

Most of the larger multi-office design firms are still working from home and only utilizing their office spaces when required for special needs such as finish material selections.

Formal work from home policies did not exist pre-pandemic in the majority of the firms surveyed, but many had informal or “ad hoc” policies that provided individuals flexibility and almost all noted that new policies would be in place prior to a full return to their offices.

Given current rates of infection and anticipated roll out of the vaccines, most of the participants felt that they would begin to return to the office this September with full occupancy later in Q4 2021.

Also noted by many this return date is updated and has been moved out every two to three months. Almost all participants expect that occupancy in Jan 2022 will still be less 50% less than Jan 2020 as most firms plan to work differently allowing more remote work. Two of the firms will be relocating during 2021 and this gives those firms a unique opportunity to design for a new “hybrid” work model.

When do your clients expect to return to their offices?

When asked about their clients’ return to work plans, the consensus was that it would not be dramatically different from plans to their own offices including greater flexibility, integration of technology and developing protocols to support remote work options.

Some designers had developed interim seating plans for their clients during 2020 noting plexiglass dividers to be added, etc. but all agreed that even where office space was adapted most workers did not return due to health and safety concerns.

Are there differences in return to work across your client types or locations?

There was some return to work variation between sectors with life science/pharma being the first to return to their lab and office spaces, many working in “pods” or teams to minimize contact. Some business that historically have a greater ratio of private offices, legal and brokerage services also returned during the summer and fall of 2020 when COVID numbers reduced but most saw a reduction in occupancy again in late 2020 as case numbers rose across the US.

Urban based clients in the US have been less likely to return to work than their suburban counterparts. Many employees are not feeling safe using mass transit and a large percentage do not have vehicles and even those that do own a car are finding driving to the office difficult due to the expense and limited parking availability in the city core.

Those participants with international clients noted that the many Asian offices were reopened with employees safely returning. Smaller housing units, unreliable power and internet services and infection rates well below the US has made this feasible.

What workplace trends do you expect to be talking about in 2021 that were not prevalent pre-pandemic?

By far, the most common theme was “hybrid work” followed closely by flexibility and efficiency.

Hybrid work models with some employees working on site and others working some or all of their time remote will need to provide an equity of presence. A strong technology “backbone” and new working protocols that are simple and effective will be necessary to enhance communication across the spectrum of work locations.

Flexibility and efficiency were certainly discussed prior to the pandemic, but clients are now looking closely at how they can use their workspace effectively, build culture and provide greater support to their staff that are on site and remote. One participant noted that new KPI’s should be considered that focus on the quality of the workplace experience and its impact on business instead of the percentage of seats occupied.

Why do we need an office?

Many designers noted that personal choice and the ability to bring joy into the workplace would help bring staff back to the office and make them feel more comfortable. Enhancing social connections and culture that has been minimized working from home will be important. One designer has been talked with his clients about the “exchange of energy” where individuals are giving and receiving equally. Offices will need to be intuitive and evolving to provide an adaptable workspace that supports positive creative energy.

While we continue to talk with our clients regarding their return to the office, care should be taken to engage with the staff during the process and then communicate new policies to the teams and be sure that technology and the workspace will enhance new work modes.

Organizations will need to enhance their stakeholder engagement to understand how the office can support business and work – one designer suggested pretending you are a start up and ask, “why do we need an office?” Workspaces that are purpose driven and facilitate dynamic of being around people and driving business will bring teams back to the office.

A focus on residential components in the workplace will evolve from furnishings and materials to more specific attributes that we currently enjoy being at home – the ability to get up and have a cup of tea or go for a walk in the middle of the day.

The pandemic has accelerated some existing trends, so while we were all talking about sustainability before 2020 there is a renewed emphasis on sustainability and wellness. Many are now talking about “real wellness” as companies will need to provide a healthy, safe work environment to entice workers to come back.

What could go wrong with plans to get everyone back to the office?

As we all hope that vaccines will provide an acceptable level of immunity and allow us to work together in shared space, new variants and mutations of the virus are being detected. Many people will be cautious about returning to the office and there is a real concern that there may be anxiety and tensions between office workers willing to return and those not willing to return.

There will also be some staff who are skeptical of the vaccines and again this may cause anxiety for those returning to the office – have my colleagues received their vaccines? Many participants asked if proof of vaccination be a requirement to return the office. Employers can require vaccines (with provisions for reasonable accommodations) and can ask if employees have received a vaccine but this information will not be shared with other employees. Additional detailed info is available here and here.

Tensions may arise between management and staff as some companies may require return to the office while many have embraced the ability to work from remotely. If there is a lack of clarity around return to work policy and it is seen as leadership driven versus employee choice, it may not be successful. Employees should want to return to the office and need to find purpose returning to the workspace and they may not return if it is mandated choosing to look for employment that allows them more flexibility.

Many participants asked if proof of vaccination be a requirement to return the office.

A distributed workforce needs simple and equitable technology including tech that supports hybrid meetings and provides scheduling and occupancy information. If technology and workplace protocols do not support hybrid working this can cause inequities between in person and remote workers.

Some workers have chosen to move away from their place of work (and often the urban core). They may be enjoying a lower cost of living and employers may need to rationalize compensation across hybrid teams. Deutsche Bank has suggested that a five percent tax be paid by everyone that chooses to work from home after the pandemic. Their report notes that while remote workers are saving on commuting costs and other incidentals like lunch and clothing while they are “contributing less to the infrastructure of the economy whilst still receiving its benefits”. Read the full article from CNBC here.

Lastly, there was concern from some participants as to whether the economy be able to recover or will we be in a longer recession as we try to navigate our way back to the office. One survey participant noted “that is possible a longer timeline of 18-36 months for some form of a full return may be more realistic”.

This survey will be conducted again in late 2021 and early 2022 to evaluate where we are in our return to work and how well those surveyed predicted the future of the workplace. 

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