Having worked remotely for more than a year, many professional and administrative workers aren't eager to return to their offices full time. Those who do come back are likely to find that office designs and routines have changed as businesses rethink the purpose and value of centralized work.
Embracing a New Normal
A number of the nation's biggest firms have announced that post-pandemic they'll combine workdays at the office and at home.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, for instance, wrote in an April 7 letter to shareholders, "for every 100 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average. This will significantly reduce our need for real estate." He added, "We will quickly move to a more 'open seating' arrangement, in which digital tools will help manage seating arrangements."
On March 24, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser told staffers that the pandemic "has opened doors to new ways of working" and that "the majority of roles globally will be designated as hybrid. These colleagues will work in the office at least three days per week and from home up to two days per week. This is not just a scheduling exercise; we will be thoughtful about when we ask colleagues to be in the office together."
Microsoft, which has begun letting employees return to its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, likewise said that going forward it will embrace a greater mix of onsite and remote office work.
"We know that hybrid work requires a new operating model and strategy that encompasses flexible work policy," Kurt DelBene, Microsoft executive vice president, said in a March 22 blog post. "The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations [and] connect a more distributed workforce" using innovative technology, he noted.
"Though we don't know how far off a new normal is," DelBene added, "we are adapting to a new way of working with an expanded understanding of flexibility. We know there are thousands of ways of working—in the last year our employees have shown what is possible."
Timing Office Reopenings
As COVID-19 vaccines become widely available, office reopenings become more likely. "Employers are working to get back to normal operations, which most expect by the third quarter of 2021," according to Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, a nonprofit network of business coalitions focused on improving health care value.
The alliance's March report, Pulse of the Purchaser 2021-2023, based on a survey of 151 U.S. organizations of all sizes, showed that over half anticipate a more stabilized business environment: 25 percent by the second quarter of 2021 and 27 percent by the third quarter.
Throughout 2021, however, 83 percent of employers will continue to allow people to work from home.
Similarly, HR consultancy Mercer reported in March based on its U.S. Coronavirus Business Impact Surveys with responses from more than 700 U.S. employers:
- 61 percent of employers hope to have half or more of their workforce back to the worksite by the end of the third quarter of 2021.
- 87 percent say they will embrace greater flexibility post-pandemic, with most planning a hybrid onsite/remote-work model.
That's in line with a recent forecast by The Conference Board, an independent business membership and research association, which said "a hybrid model is likely to emerge in which some workers do not need to be at the office at all, some come in infrequently, and others work primarily at the office."
Workplace Flexibility a Priority
Mercer also surveyed 218 employees across 25 industries for its AECOM/Mercer Shifting Values: Employee Sentiment Survey, fielded late last year. Among the results, 56 percent of employees said they would consider switching employers if flexibility regarding work location was not an option.
The responses showed "just how important flexibility is to employees," said Lauren Mason, Mercer senior principal and U.S. flexibility solutions leader. Given the findings, "employees may force the hands of even skeptical employers when it comes to flexibility," she said.
'Employees may force the hands of even skeptical employers when it comes to flexibility.'
"The good news for employers is that 52 percent of employees said they preferred a hybrid model, where they're working remotely two or three days per week," Mason added. "That's in line with what we've seen from many employers in terms of their plans. We did see, however, that 1 in 4 employees preferred to work remotely full time. In urban environments, the preference for full-time remote work can be much higher."
A January survey by business software firm Otter.ai of more than 2,000 adults currently working remotely due to the pandemic offered more evidence of employees' desire and possibly demand for greater flexibility. It showed that 45 percent of remote workers want to work in the office between one and three days per week.
"Work will never be the same as before the pandemic," said Sam Liang, Otter.ai founder and CEO. "Employees now demand a flexible, collaborative and hybrid work setup that meets the new work/life balance and [reflects the] changing attitudes created by working from home for such a long period."
Rethinking the Office
Denise Nichols, senior vice president and head of HR, retirement and employee benefits at Voya Financial in New York City, said Voya had "pivoted and remodeled [its] work" amid the pandemic, affecting what the office experience will be post-pandemic.
Whereas about 20 percent of the firm's employees were working remotely pre-pandemic, she expects about 60 percent will continue working remotely at least part of the time when the firm's offices reopen.
"We want to utilize our brick and mortar; we want to use our offices," Nichols said during a March 29 Mercer webcast. "When we surveyed our people, few wanted to be remote all the time. Most wanted the ability to come in sometimes, and our leaders felt that there was also that need."
Voya, she explained, is looking at the "three C's" for its office space going forward: "Using our offices for creating, collaborating and celebrating. Those three C's become the purpose of our time together in the brick-and-mortar space, while a lot of the work that we transact on a day-to-day basis won't be something that we would need to come to the office for in the future."
The Office as Clubhouse
Peter Jackson, CEO of Bluescape, a firm that develops technology for collaborative work, also believes the office will need to change in no small measure to attract employees who have adjusted to remote work. He explained to SHRM Online:
The office of the future will need to fulfill a new function, something that can't be achieved virtually.
"Offices will morph into something resembling a clubhouse, where employees can get together on occasion to discuss ideas over a meal or a drink," Jackson said. "With an atmosphere and amenities that would be nearly impossible to duplicate in a home office, this would give employees a real reason to come in when they want to interact in person. Reverting to office life pre-pandemic won't cut it. Employers will need to design a space that's exciting, novel and purposeful."
If the space is used only on occasion, small businesses especially "will consider renting space for one-off purposes versus permanently leasing/buying," he said.
There might be more offices than before the pandemic.
If the office is a revamped workspace that works for employees or fits a defined purpose, like a clubhouse, Jackson said, "then employees will be much more likely to leave their homes to work." If, however, most employees continue working remotely, then having multiple, co-working locations in areas where remote workers are located "may remove the need for a traditional, centralized HQ."
Reserving Office Space
Condeco Software, an office management technology firm, created a back-to-the-office online guide with examples of what companies should consider when bringing back office workers.
As knowledge workers return to their worksites, "the spaces they'll find will be very different," with enhanced hygiene and social distancing precautions in place for some time to come, said Paul Statham, Condeco's CEO.
"Another way that offices might look different compared to pre-pandemic times is that employees may be asked to make a reservation for office or cube space, as desks may be shared moving forward," he noted. "With the rise in full-time and partial remote work, there's no need for the level of floor space that companies previously had."
In this world of hybrid office and remote work, Statham said, employers can take steps to manage the new scheme:
- Controlling office occupancy: Companies can manage occupancy by having employees book space through an online platform when they want to be in the office. Office workers can use their cellphones to check which desks are booked and which are closed and find where colleagues are working.
- Applying workforce analytics. Office space monitoring technology can help companies understand space usage to improve workplace design by reshaping office spaces to respond to changing business needs.
Easing Back to the Office
Beginning this month, Google is allowing some of its U.S. employees to return to their offices voluntarily, as its offices reopen in a limited capacity based on factors such as COVID-19 vaccination rates and downward coronavirus trends. Uber is allowing workers back to its San Francisco Bay Area offices, beginning with up to 20 percent capacity.
Microsoft's polling of employees who have returned to its worksites in some capacity shows over half are spending less than 25 percent of their time onsite and more than two-thirds are spending 50 percent or less time onsite.
In shifting to hybrid work arrangements as they reopen their offices, companies "are recognizing the commitment to creativity as a core competency while simultaneously emphasizing the need to support their employees through the transition back to work," said Victoria Grady, a professor of management at George Mason University's School of Business. "This will provide employees brains with the time and space needed to appropriately process adding back the commute, the daily physical interaction with colleagues and loss of perceived flexibility," she noted.
"Don't treat returning to the office like flipping a switch," advised Tami Simon, corporate consulting leader at Segal, an HR and employee benefits consulting firm. Rather than brining everyone back on day one, "use a phased approach and identify why certain parts of the population would be more productive or meet client needs more effectively at the workplace."
"Regardless of timing, companies should take a measured and carefully planned office re-entry approach and keep employees' health and safety top of mind," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half. "Leaders should also use the opportunity to solicit staff feedback to shape corporate culture for the future."
Related SHRM Articles:
Rethinking Where We Work, SHRM Online, April 2021
Viewpoint: What Is Your Organization’s Long-Term Remote Work Strategy?, SHRM Online, March 2021
Making the Case for Return to Office, SHRM Online, March 2021
SHRM: Half of Workers Wish to Remain Remote Permanently, SHRM Online, March 2021
Back to the Workplace: How to Plan Your Reopening, SHRM Online, March 2021
Will COVID-19 Permanently Change How We Work? (WebMD interview with Tony Lee, vice president of content at the Society for Human Resource Management), March 2021