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The future of the office: What to expect after COVID-19

Are cities dead? Will everyone work from home from now on? Will employers force everyone back into the office five days a week?

When it comes to the future of work and the future of the office, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. And that middle looks different for each business. 

COVID-19 was undoubtedly the great experiment in remote work. As it turns out, most employers acknowledge remote work has been successful for their business, despite many not offering it as an option for their employees prior to the pandemic. 

As some companies announce full-time remote work going forward and others invest in new office buildings, it’s clear that the future of the office looks different for everyone. And that, in itself, is a major shift in the world of work. 

In this article, we’ll explore: 

The impact of COVID-19 on the office

Not unlike a visit to the airport, a store, or a restaurant, a visit to the office will look entirely different post-pandemic. 

For many office workers over the course of the last 12-plus months, “going to the office” has meant heading into a spare room or traveling to the kitchen table. 

For people who have worked in an office during COVID-19 out of necessity, the experience was more than likely characterized by wearing masks, following health guidelines and seeing a janitorial staff working a bit harder than usual.

Across businesses and industries, the coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt adoption of remote work policies. Prior to the pandemic, just 11% of full-time office workers said their employers gave them the choice to work remotely.

future-of-the-office

In a dramatic shift due to COVID-19, 55% of workers said their employer either mandated they work remotely/at home or gave them the option to do so. An additional 16% said their employer introduced a shift schedule in light of COVID-19.

With many working remotely at least part-time for over a year, how do we go back to working in the office? 

The truth is we likely won’t go back to the office as we once knew it.

The pandemic taught employees, employers, landlords and others in the commercial real estate world important lessons about work. Notably, knowledge workers and the businesses that employ them found they can work from anywhere thanks to advances in internet speeds and technology. 

But while employees can work remotely, the sudden shift to working from home has its own set of challenges. While 99% of workers found benefits to working remotely, 86% say there are aspects of remote work that are challenging. 

With everyone from roommates to children at home, our personal lives and work lives have become helplessly intertwined leading to countless distractions, stresses and a blurring between work and life. 

While people appreciate being able to save time and money on their commutes, wear whatever they wanted, and have better control over their work schedule, a year of remote work has also taught us what we appreciate about the office. 

And what people miss most is being able to interact and effectively collaborate in person. Technology facilitates this. But try as it might, it can’t fully replicate it. 

People will want to head back into the office for meetings and in-person interaction. Knowing this, what does the future of the office look like?

The future of work will be characterized by flexibility

Despite the growing pains and challenges of working remotely, employees now expect the option to be able to do so when it is conducive to their productivity and schedule. 

In a CBRE survey of over 10,000 workers, 67% said they desire a balance of time in the office and remote work as their preferred work style. In the same survey, 73% of organizations surveyed said they are anticipating more employee choice over when and where they work, up from 61% in a similar June 2020 survey. 

Source: 2020 Global Occupier Sentiment Survey: Fall Update, CBRE

Enter the hybrid workplace model, which offers a blend of remote and in-person work. Many companies are beginning to consider what a hybrid work model looks like for their business and their workforce — and the reasons for doing so are clear. People want it. 

But that doesn’t make its successful adoption a simple effort for organizations. As much as people say they want to continue working remote while also having time in the office, businesses are facing the challenge of determining who is in the office, when they should be in the office and what the office should look like to facilitate the types of work people will be doing there. 

For some organizations, hybrid work could mean that particular teams are always in the office and the rest only come in for company-wide meetings. For others, it might mean that each employee makes their own decision around when and where they want to work.

No matter what course a business takes, hybrid work will have manifold implications for how people work — and what the office looks like. 

But the benefits of hybrid work are clear and include:  

  • Increased flexibility for employees
  • Improved organizational productivity
  • Reduced real estate costs
  • More geographically dispersed workforce

Regardless of the strategy an organization pursues, every company that adopts a hybrid work model will need to think through how they can intentionally and effectively balance in-person and remote work — and determine how their physical office spaces can support the work their employees are most likely to do there.

Key Takeaway 

Hybrid work is more than a buzzword — it’s likely going to define how and where people work after COVID-19. And that means the future of work will be characterized by flexibility. 

The physical office will still be used — but how we use it will be different

How a business approaches its offices and workspace is entirely unique, dependent on variables like its workforce needs and business growth. That being said, it is unlikely that many companies will choose to return to their pre-pandemic office models. 

If all of some of their workforce will be at least partially remote, businesses will be less reliant on large, urban office space — and will likely need to rethink how they use the office space they have. 

Case in point: Why have floors of cubicles if they will go largely unused? 

Source: 2020 Global Occupier Sentiment Survey: Fall Update, CBRE

When businesses are considering scaling down office space or supplementing urban hubs with smaller satellite locations, there are a variety of workplace strategies to consider. These include: 

  • Activity-based working: As mentioned, the primary reasons people want to be in an office post-pandemic are to meet and collaborate with colleagues. That means rethinking how people use office space — and what those offices will look like.

    Enter Activity-based working, a workplace design ethos centered around providing employees a number of unique workplace settings to facilitate different kinds of work.

    These spaces might include focus and huddle rooms, open lounges, conference rooms, and phone booths — some of all of which are enhanced by movable furniture and collaborative technology.

    At the core of this office design is providing workplace environments that facilitate different kinds of activity and recognizing that not all tasks merit an individual desk.

future-of-work

  • Hub-and-spoke model: The hub-and-spoke model, while not new, is becoming more popular — in large part due to the fact that companies are now rethinking how much office space they need and where they need it.

    With a hub-and-spoke model, businesses set up smaller presences in urban “hubs” and suburban “spokes,” to give their employees more flexible commute times — and themselves smaller office space commitments.

    For businesses, this means retaining physical office spaces in urban centers to attract talent and provide central hubs for employees to meet while also investing in lower-cost suburban spoke offices to afford their employees more flexibility.

    Similarly, companies can consider the idea of a “third workplace” by compensating employees for memberships to coworking spaces that they can use in addition to their home and central offices.

  • Amenitized office space: With less office space needed for individual work, landlords and real estate businesses will look for other ways to use their space — and entice occupiers and professionals to use that space.

    Expect to see an increased focus on amenity-rich office developments, which will offer businesses and people more reasons to come to the office and stay there. Things like multi-use spaces with dry cleaning, child care, or fitness centers are likely to become an investment among some landlords.

    Other investments might include technology additions and increased hospitality services that further connect tenants and people to their built environments and amenities — and help them navigate and maximize their time in a given office setting.

    Rather than serving as a way to keep employees at the office, in a hybrid-work world, having these services at or near their work, allows employees to be as efficient as possible with the time they spend away from home and at the office. 

But even as workplace strategies change, a central through-line will be a focus on health and safety — especially as organizations consider their return-to-work plans.

The pandemic was eye-opening for many, and employees’ concerns about cleanliness and sanitization will remain for the foreseeable future — if not become a defining factor in the long-term as the focus shifts to wellness. 

Almost 40% of office workers cite office cleanliness as one of the key concerns about heading back to the workplace.

To instill confidence in employees, enhanced air filtration and cleanliness standards will be new requirements for any office space. Beyond that, employers should consider how office space design can promote the safety of employees. This might include reconfiguring desk set up and high-traffic areas to encourage social distancing or contactless check-in systems for meeting rooms and office buildings. 

activity-based-working

3 predictions for the future of the office

At risk of sounding cliche, COVID-19 has changed how many people think about where and how they work — and what role the office will play in their future. 

Despite some headlines, survey data shows that people do want to return to the office. But they also want to continue to maintain the flexibility to work remotely when they need to. 

That is forcing many businesses to address a changing world of work and develop organizational processes and strategies in response. 

With that being said, here are three predictions for the future of work — and the office:

1. Employees will demand optionality from their employers. 

With a workforce now embracing the flexibility to work remotely, companies will have to contend with employees who demand optionality in the workplace — both in terms of having configurable workspaces that can address their needs and having ways to connect and collaborate with remote colleagues.

This will require organizations to offer their employees greater choice in the office and outside of it through a combination of intentional workplace designs and technology solutions that make it easier to work remotely. 

2. More companies will opt for a hybrid work model and design their office spaces with in-person productivity in mind. 

COVID-19 has overturned the traditional workday and how organizations think about the role of the workplace. Companies will need to address a new world of work where people want to balance in-person and remote work - and do it on their own terms.

With employee expectations in mind, there will be a greater demand for work models that balance meaningful in-person interaction and remote work. Organizations have an opportunity to rethink their workspaces, offering employees more intentional and efficient environments to collaborate with colleagues, host and attend meetings, and even take care of non-work errands. 

3. Businesses will need to prioritize flexibility and configurability in the office.

COVID-19 underscored a truism: Business needs can change much faster than their office space investments can. 

That has reinforced the need to invest in flexibility and configurability in the workplace to make sure that otherwise static office settings can be dynamically configured into different settings to facilitate different kinds of work. 

Experts and industry leaders have placed a significant emphasis on workplace configurability, arguing that the ability to reconfigure workspaces to emphasize health and safety — as well as activity-based settings to facilitate collaboration and individual work — is the best path forward.

These same experts and industry leaders often sell workplace configurability as simple and straightforward investments.

But they’re not. As businesses discover this, expect some of them to turn to flexible workspaces to meet their needs in real time. Others will make short-term investments in furniture offerings, workplace dividers and collaborative spaces that enable people and teams to configure a given space to meet their needs. 

Key Takeaway

The office will change in large part due to new employee demands and new business calculations. Expect some businesses to rethink their workplace strategies and office investments — and look for a large number of organizations to adopt hybrid work, too. 

Take this with you 

The future of work is not so far off now. As vaccine programs accelerate around the world, companies have started committing to return-to-office dates. 

To maintain employee engagement and satisfaction and to optimize productivity, companies should be re-evaluating how they use their office space. While office buildings are not “dead”, they will look and feel very different in the years to come. 

Learn more about what the workplace will look like before and after COVID-19 in our latest white paper, How to prepare for in-person meetings during and after COVID-19

Apr 27 2021

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