As governments around the world start to ease restrictions on lockdowns, attention inevitably turns to the concept of “returning to work.” However, many office-based workers have continued to work through the pandemic and so the focus should be on who should go “back to the office” and why?
Of course, the first focus must be on employee wellbeing. Vulnerable employees need to remain safe and so are not appropriate candidates at this stage, but after that, the situation becomes more blurred, not least because social distancing means not all employees can be accommodated in the available space. In conjunction with this, companies have recognized, now more than ever, that many workers can successfully operate remotely.
It is an important moment to assess what worked well during this enforced work-from-home period and what we can learn to inform the future ways of working and the role of the office. Cushman & Wakefield has always taken an evidence-based approach to understand the key drivers of workplace experience, whether that experience takes place in the office or elsewhere.
We had 2.7m data points on the experience of office and remote workers pre-COVID through our proprietary Experience per Square Foot™ (XSF) tool. At the start of the pandemic we consolidated our findings for clients to support their employees and then modified XSF to focus specifically on the remote working experience through a new tool called XSF@home. To date, we have analyzed a further 2.0 million data points from more than 48,000 respondents worldwide, during the current work from home environment.
We knew from our pre-COVID-19 data that employees who mostly work remotely often are more engaged and have a better workplace experience than those who mostly work in the office due to the inherent flexibility remote working provides. We therefore were not surprised to find that during the pandemic, productivity continued despite the disruption and shift to home. Employees continued to maintain the ability to focus when they needed to be productive on individual tasks and due to video and collaboration technology, team productivity has reached new heights.
However, personal connections and bonding among employees are suffering and negatively impacting connection to corporate culture as well as learning and development. Connection to culture is manifest both consciously and sub-consciously in the office through face-to-face interactions which increase bonding, a sense of belonging and connection to the company. These factors also impact mentoring and learning which is particularly important for younger people to grow and develop. The results of XSF@home show that personal connection to culture is one of the lowest-performing attributes of the current employee experience, which can be an engagement and productivity risk in the long term.
Wellbeing and Work-Life Balance
Another challenge is the ability of employees to maintain wellbeing and take time away from work. As the daily commute has vanished, there are no obvious boundaries between work and life and people struggle to switch off at the end of each day. This is a considerable future risk for engagement and health. Younger people struggle the most working from home because they often lack an appropriate at-home work environment and are often juggling caregiving and remote learning for children.
Despite these challenges, people find their work-life balance has improved overall because of the increased flexibility that comes with working from home. While people feel they have less time away from work, they also feel they have more freedom to choose when to get that work done. This freedom to choose when and where to work is something employees will demand and expect going forward.
In support of this desire for increased flexibility in the future is the fact that 90% of employees feel they are trusted by their managers to work remotely. In the past, lack of trust was one of the key impediments to flexible working. Without this barrier, employees will have one of the most important factors they require (i.e., manager trust) to be able to choose to work as they need, enabling them to maintain their improved work-life balance.
An unexpected benefit of imposed remote collaboration is that location and structural driven hierarchies have been reduced, which brings the opportunity for a greater diversity of voices to be heard across roles and seniority levels within organizations. Organizations can take advantage of this new digital equality to advance culture, connection and personal growth. People managers can be coached to become ambassadors of company culture, mentoring, and connecting in the digital world and focus on effectively supporting work and recognize the value of community.
The Future Office
We’ve have shown that the workforce can be productive anywhere, and when combined with people’s desire for flexibility, we expect that the workplace will no longer be a single location. The future way of working will leverage a total workplace ecosystem consisting of a variety of locations including the office, the home and third places offering flexibility and experiences to support convenience, functionality, and wellbeing. As work becomes more virtual, the physical place has a more important role to play, so there is now the opportunity to reimagine the purpose of the office; shifting focus to provide inspiring destinations that strengthen cultural connection, learning, bonding with customers and colleagues, and support creativity and innovation.
Read more in The Future of Workplace.