What To Expect When We Return to The Office – Part 2

Lisa Killaby is back with part two of her survey of workplace designers and strategists to see what has changed and how many things remain the same regarding their thoughts about the return to the office. Check out part 1 here.

It is now 18 months since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most offices. In February 2021, I surveyed a group of workplace strategists and designers about when and how we will return to the office. I recently caught up with a similar group of seasoned experts who are located across the US from Boston to Portland to Miami. It was interesting to see what has changed and how many things remain the same regarding their thoughts about the “return to the office”.

Work Design published a summary of the earlier survey in March 2021 and as it noted, “our return to the office will take different forms and may take longer than we currently anticipate.” Both statements have turned out to be true, the pandemic has forced us to consider the purpose of the office and while it seemed shocking at the time, the prediction of 18-36 months before we substantially return to the office from one participant has turned out to accurate.

While everyone in early 2021 was talking about working differently when they returned to the office, only 35% of the firms surveyed had implemented new hybrid work or work from home policies. Now all the contributors responding that did not have a flex work policy pre-pandemic have new or updated policies for their firms.

Now all the contributors responding that did not have a flex work policy pre-pandemic have new or updated policies for their firms.

Six months ago, the participants expected 60% their clients to begin to bring their staff back to the office by September 2021, but now less than 25% returned in that timeframe with another 35% reporting they don’t expect their clients will ever return to the office at pre-pandemic levels. Many noted that the Delta variant has delayed plans to reopen fully this fall and has put decisions on when to return up in the air again. Over the three weeks when data was collected, one participant noted that their expected return to the office in September was now delayed with no new date given.

The Commercial Observer continues to report on when companies are planning to return as well as their vaccination policies. Many in this report have changed their return to the office dates as the Delta variant has grown and we expect many to amend their vaccination requirements with the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate plan.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that we have experienced more changes in the workplace over the last 18 months than in the last decade. As we think about all the changes anticipated with the return to the office, Holly Williamson, Regional Design Leader at Nelson, noted that “we have always talked about change management, but now it’s something that has innately become part of the design discussion from day one, without change management projects will fail.”

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

Like the first round of this survey, it was noted that where there are differences between client’s business types as the technology companies are typically providing more flexibility on when their staff returns to the office. Financial and professional service firms are now more open to hybrid work options. And since the start of the pandemic, lab workers are at the office/lab as required to continue their work.

It also does appear that smaller businesses continue to be nimbler. Many have returned to the office in greater numbers as they feel more comfortable within the “bubble” that their smaller size provides.

Many participants acknowledged specific differences by region with many noting that southern states (specifically Florida and Texas) were returning more quickly to the office. One participant noted that his southern state does not appear to take the pandemic as seriously as other regions. They appear to be more willing to go back to the office than other regions, maybe as they tend to be more spread out and not as reliant on public transportation to get to work.

Do you see differences based upon the GENERATIONS in the workforce on thoughts about “return to the office”?

Differentiating between the generations in the workforce was written about extensively prior to the pandemic. As part of this survey, the participants were asked if they felt that there were differences between the generations and returning to the office now.

While very few of the participants noted specific differences between the generations, many noted differences depending upon where individuals are in their life and interestingly these often conflicted.

Opinions about younger workers are split between those wanting the social interactions that happen at the office, and those most likely to think they have earned the right to work remotely

Opinions about younger workers are split between those wanting the social interactions that happen at the office, and those most likely to think they have earned the right to work remotely – “I have proved it over the last 18 months that I can work remotely”.

Those individuals in the middle of their career with families appreciate the ability to work remote to balance childcare and their work schedule but they are also most likely be looking for mentorship to advance their career. Many are also managers and may be struggling with measuring the productivity of remote workers. They will need new tools to help evaluate their team’s performance in the future as “butts in seats” may not be relevant.

While everyone has appreciated the commute free days – those more advanced in their career may have appreciated the time given back the most but also want to go to the office to have easier access to technology and work face to face with others.

No matter where individuals are in their career and life, Larry Kline, Managing Director at Perkins&Will noted how important “empathy is these days as related to the medical and emotional toll the pandemic has placed on all of us…it is so easy to just say make things happen and then you see what some colleagues face on a daily basis.”

What trends are you talking about with your clients now that you had not pre-pandemic?

By far, the most common theme was “hybrid work” but while the earlier survey found that the next most common trends were flexibility and efficiency, this survey found these thoughts more refined and focused on how the office can support the culture of an organization and the work that needs to take place in the office.

Cleanliness, safety and boundaries will be important to employees returning to the office. Corporate communication teams need to educate everyone on new policies intended to keep everyone healthy – from regular cleaning to vaccine requirements. Understanding how the workspace has been improved including new protocols will make everyone feel more comfortable about coming together in the office.

Workplace strategy and design needs to be agile and allow for ongoing change. Space needs to be more fluid and able to evolve easily as we transition back to the office. Felice Silverman, FIIDA, Principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates, noted that workspace may be more “transitory” as “it is hard to make long term decisions or predictions about the office space of the future, the volatility of this moment has reinforced more than ever the need to create adaptable solutions, and to truly understand a company’s culture and work methods to help guide them to decisions about their workplace”.

Understanding how the workspace has been improved including new protocols will make everyone feel more comfortable about coming together in the office.

Most importantly the participants noted that discussions about the “role of the office” are critical for every organization. While it needs to embody the culture, it should provide places for gathering and collaborating as well as quiet space for respite and resiliency.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected workplace design? Big question, but today everyone is talking about the “return to the office” and how the workspace should be utilized going forward. From the CBS Morning show to the C-suite to the halls of Congress, the pandemic has initiated a far ranging discussion about the future of workspace.

Leaders in our industry see the opportunities now to change the role of the office as important as the those made by many organizations made following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

This survey will be conducted again in 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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