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3 ways COVID-19 will reshape the future of work

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, workspaces have been left vacant as companies have introduced remote-work policies and shift schedules.

The shift to remote work has been challenging for many. These challenges are, of course, small compared to those fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

But as shutdown orders are gradually lifted in the weeks and months ahead, COVID-19 will reshape many facets of our lives — including our relationship with the office.

We’re already seeing signs of this change. In a survey of 1,600+ U.S. and U.K office workers that formed our white paper COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility, we discovered a workforce reluctant to give up its newfound flexibility and rethinking the central role of the office.

Based on this research, here are three ways we see COVID-19 reshaping the future of work.

The flexibility to work outside the office will be a given

Over the past decade, flexible work benefits have been touted as a must-have benefit by everyone from Bill Gates to the Harvard Business Review. Now, in less than desirable circumstances, COVID-19 has made this perk a reality for many — and employees don’t expect to lose this newfound benefit moving forward.

In our survey, 71% of office workers reported that their employers had either mandated they work remotely or move to a shift-schedule. Moreover, 56% of people expect to have the flexibility to work outside the office after COVID-19, which marks an almost 2X increase. 

This is an abrupt change and one that has the potential to impact our future workdays — and our relationship with the office.

Before COVID-19, just 20% of office workers had the flexibility to work remotely before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, employees say losing the flexibility to work remotely is one of their biggest concerns about going back to the office, falling just behind potential health concerns.

For companies and employees alike, this shift has the potential to create vast change. Most simply, office workers now expect to be able to work from home at least part of the week. This impacts everything from company policies to office space needs — especially as the prospect of reduced office occupancy shapes what kinds of office space companies invest in.

Our time in the office will be more intentional

While people are placing a higher priority on having flexible work benefits after COVID-19, they also want and expect to have an office to go back to. But they see the role of the office changing after COVID-19.

“Where the office was once a place you went from 9-to-5, five days a week, people are now thinking of the office as a place for work they can’t do remotely,” says Brian Harrington, Hana’s Chief Experience Officer. “Heading into the office after COVID-19 will be a more intentional decision, driven by specific needs.”

Notably, more than a quarter of people say the hardest part of working remotely is effectively connecting with colleagues. From virtual meetings to group work, people are finding tool such as Zoom and Slack poor substitutes for face-to-face time with colleagues.

The opportunities for meaningful connection the office provides are also something employees value most. When asked about the primary motivators to head back to the office, employees listed out random interactions with colleagues, in-person meetings and in-person collaboration.

“Even as employees increasingly expect more flexible work benefits, they are looking to the office as a place for meaningful connection with key experiences like random encounters with colleagues and in-person meetings ranking high,” Harrington says. “Little things like talking to a colleague after a meeting are incredibly difficult to replicate online. We can expect time in the office to be far more intentional moving forward.”

Office perks that make the workday more productive will win out

One of the more interesting findings in our survey: People place relatively little value on “fun” amenities such social programming, networking events and fitness classes.

At a macro level, this signals a shift for companies which have invested significant capital in amenitizing their workspaces with social spaces and lifestyle perks to stand out in a competitive labor market. But it’s also not a surprising, or unexpected, turn.

In a prior 2019 survey, we found a workforce largely prioritizing workplace perks that bolstered productivity and devaluing social perks such as in-office games. Key office perks including quiet spaces for focused work, comfortable workstations and complimentary food and beverage options ranked particularly high among desirable office amenities.

This contrasted sharply with how office workers viewed more “fun” amenities such as fitness classes, game rooms and social programming such as happy hours.

As COVID-19 has forced many to work remotely, it’s also forcing a broader recalibration of what amenities and perks matter most in the office. For many, the office perks that make for a more efficient, comfortable and productive workday are becoming notably more desirable.

“This shift isn’t surprising,” Harrington says. “People are looking at the office as a place for intentional connection with colleagues — and they’re happy to leave the ping-pong table at home.”

Moving forward, we expect an increased push for amenities and perks that make the workday more productive from employees and employers alike. This isn’t to say social programming and lifestyle benefits won’t still have a place in the office; but their value will be reconsidered in the context of what matters most at the office.

The bottom line 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are rapidly re-evaluating what a typical workday looks like — and how their relationship with the office might change after COVID-19.

In our survey, we found a workforce keenly interested to keep the flexibility to work remotely moving forward and thinking of the office as a place that supports work that can’t be done, or is harder to do, while working remotely.

For employers and employees alike, these changes shine light on how work and office space demands after COVID-19 will change. Learn more about what these changes mean for the future of work in our latest white paper, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility.

May 21 2020

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