Covid-19 has forced the world’s largest remote-working experiment to be activated at short notice and to continue over an uncertain, but undoubtedly prolonged period. It has raised challenging questions on the purpose, value, and need for the corporate office.
I have been using the image above in my presentations along with the quote“Organisations don’t want offices, what they want is a productive workforce” for over two years ….way before the coronavirus. So, the death of the office has been predicted many times in the last 100 years and this is no different, but as before, it is unlikely to be a prediction that comes true.
The office will be here for many years to come, albeit transformed. The sustainability of employees working remotely is a critical factor in determining this. But what is the optimum formula? and how can we use the established corporate real estate to best effect?
Organizations need to view this break-in ‘business as usual’ as an opportunity to re-imagine the workplace so that it becomes a better, more productive, and more fulfilling experience for everyone. One that is more human, more attractive, more connected, more flexible, more distributed, and more sustainable, economically, environmentally, and socially.
So, “What does the workplace of the future look like?” is a question on everyone’s lips right now.
The path to the next normal
In the early days of the pandemic, Mckinsey plotted a path through and beyond the virus in their article ‘Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal’ in this they articulated the following five key stages.
This elaborated on the initial reaction which was to respond to the crisis at hand. Disaster recovery, risk, and employee’s safety were paramount. National lockdowns in most countries meant the need for most organizations to send their people home and close down their offices. The resolve was to continue business as best as possible from dispersed and remote locations.
As organizations overcame the first hurdles of mobilizing their employees to work from home, the learning curve steeply turned from resolving to resilience. The acute pullback in economic activity that was necessary to protect lives, had naturally affected the economy and livelihoods. Covid-19 had accelerated what was already an experiment in working from home, for many corporations. This experiment quickly morphed into a global necessity along with the obligation of trying to conduct business as usual.
As we now contemplate the return to work in an era of increasing uncertainty, we see the virus on the upsurge in Europe and America. In South Africa, we are yet to see a meaningful second wave, but it is likely to be a case of when not if. On top of this, our Government has faced an acutely painful ‘Sophie’s choice’ in trying to mitigate the economic effects on the poor along with the risk of the adaptive triggering of lockdown in response to an uptick in viral infections. As we reactivate our workplaces, we need to be mindful of the angst that a return to the Workplace is likely to engender in the employees. Even if we can provide a bio-safe environment at the office we need to consider the risks our people encounter on the journey to work from issues such as mass-transit. We also need to be careful not to turn what has to be a Covid safe -environment into something akin to a hospital rather than providing the hospitality expected of a modern corporate environment.
The crisis has revealed not just our vulnerabilities but opportunities to improve the performance of a business and the real estate that is critical in enabling the core business to flourish. We need to pivot and take the opportunity to prepare for an upturn. With this, leaders will need to consider which costs are truly fixed and which is variable as the shutting down of huge swathes of office floor space has started to shed light on what is ultimately required, versus what is nice to have.
History tells us that following global cataclysmic events, the world is changed forever. The much-vaunted ‘new or next normal’ needs to be envisaged and accommodated. Business needs to grasp the opportunity that new ways of working offer for the organization as well as their employees along with the changes in the corporate real estate needed to accommodate it.
Trifocal Performance Required
Before Covid-19, working from home was an aspiration for many employees, but with the ‘Genie’ now out of the bottle, a new social contract will need to be formed between employer and employee around how this can be accommodated. Challenges of business disruption, cognitive fatigue, employee fear, health and safety and risk management will need to be addressed together with a potential shift in the trust equilibrium between employer and employee if organisations are not to lose the war for talent. The advent of a new VUCA world will bring with it renewed objectives around building greater employee safety and trust together with elasticity and agility in the real estate portfolio that enables core business but that provides the employee choice, flexibility and liquidity in where and how they work.
The reality is that the new corporate office will be about the human experience. The Winning Workplace will be one that can accurately measure and manage the juxtaposition of people performance, workplace performance, and corporate performance.
Is working from home, really working?
During the pandemic, we have been inundated with numerous surveys around working from home (WFH) and there is undoubtedly a desire on the part of employees to continue working remotely to reduce commuting and spending, increase productivity and wellbeing, well as spending time with the family. On the corporate side, there is also been a noticeable reduction in the resistance to working remotely from organizations and managers. This has the added benefit of the potential for reducing real estate and travel costs. The benefits to the environment of empty offices and reduced commuter travel have been clear for all to see. With the built environment contributing 40 % of carbon to the atmosphere, and cities all over the planet reporting levels of air quality not seen for 20 years.
A return to pre-Covid levels of commuting is unlikely to be accepted by employees not only from a time, and cost perspective but its effect on the environment. Organizations that ignore this will likely pay the price with increased staff turnover as well as damage to their brand image from a more socially and environmentally conscious public. On the downside, as we move into the ninth month of working from home, cognitive fatigue has set in and employees are reporting a greater desire to return to the workplace at least on a part-time basis.
Where does this leave organizations?
All the WFH surveys seem to suggest that employees have been more productive working from home. But this needs to be treated with caution. We need to be mindful of the information and data we rely on to form our judgment and opinions when we come to consider the working from home experience.
Whilst we certainly have office space that would not be out of place in London or New York. The socio-economic situation in South Africa is very different to the Northern hemisphere and these countries do not have to deal with the levels of inequality, poor housing, poverty, and lack of basic infrastructure that makes working from home so easily accessible for much of the developed world.
In addition, the reliance purely on a self-assessment of individual productivity from the employee is notoriously inaccurate and subject to bias. Whilst there is apocryphal evidence to suggest that employees believe that their environment at home allows them to be more productive this is not the same as actual productivity and closer examination is required. Furthermore, most knowledge workers (the majority of those called to work from home) seldom understand how their productivity is actually measured. And no survey no matter how well designed could possibly calculate productivity on a mass scale. The productivity in a law firm for instance is very different from that in an advertising agency for example. The data around productivity therefore needs to be treated with caution along with the fact that there is little documentary evidence to support increased productivity from the organizations these employees work for. This would clearly need to be clarified before any long-term decision around remote working being made which has the potential to be financially ruinous if taken in haste and without supporting data. However, there is evidence to suggest that employees have been able to conduct ‘Me’ type work more productively from home. ‘Me’ work typically involves activities such as access to information, individual task-orientated and focused work, planned meetings, and video conferencing.
On the downside, the ‘We’ work undertaken by individuals such as knowledge sharing, collaboration, informal and ad-hoc meetings along with the feeling of being connected to colleagues and the organization is reported to be suboptimal.
So is home working, really working?…..not unsurprisingly the answer is it depends.
On average most WFH surveys have indicated that working from home has been a positive experience for employees. Having said that these averages hide significant variables that can drastically impact the effectiveness of employees in the home or remote environment. It is important to recognise at this juncture that the plethora of survey’s that exist are often from, supported by or even funded by corporate real estate companies. One needs to recognise that these organisations have a vested interest in the retention of corporate real estate. Whilst I am sure the data is accurate their interpretation of the findings should be treated with caution. One WFH survey stands out as being independent. Over the last 10 years, The Leesman Index has compiled the world’s biggest database on workplace performance. They are an independent organisation with no ties to any real estate services. They are considered to be the ‘radiographers’ of the corporate workplace by providing data to industry professionals upon which to build their workplace strategies.
Leesman conducted their WFH survey comprising approximately 150,000 respondents from 873 workplaces in 83 Countries. What is truly unique is that in this data set are 13,329 responses from 14 organisations in 104 buildings that undertook both the Leesman Office and the WFH survey. This enables them to make a direct comparison of the same employee’s experience at home and in their office.
Four Main Satisfaction Drivers of WFH
Undertaking this type of deep dive survey on your employees and their experience in the workplace and at home are essential to understand exactly how your staff experience both environments. But within this detail lies a catch. It is essential to understand that whilst the survey data and findings are informative, they are also unique to each individual organisation. This is ‘a one size fits one’ approach. No organisation must undertake such a wide-ranging and potentially critical review of their real estate portfolio without first understanding the highly specific context in which that Workplace exists and how it is experienced.
Having said that it is interesting that across the survey data compiled by the Leesman Index four main satisfaction drivers emerge of the working from home or office continuum.
1. Activity complexity and role
Each respondent has to provide detailed information around their role and the number and complexity of the tasks undertaken on a daily basis. Generally speaking, the higher up the organisation, the more complex the basket of tasks required to be undertaken by the individual is. Different tasks require different environments. Conversely the lower in the organisation the more likely the individual is to have a relatively simple task or activity profile. As one might suspect, the higher the number and the more complex tasks required to be undertaken by an individual mean that multiple workspaces are required to undertake those tasks satisfactorily. This of course is the ethos behind the trend over the last few years of Activity Based Working (ABW). Conversely, the simpler the profile the more likely it is that that individual can conduct the work satisfactorily from a single location. Those with a more complex activity profile find that working from a single location i.e. at home does not meet all of the needs. Equally, those with simple work activity profiles can conduct their responsibilities without too much hindrance.
A further and important characteristic is that those with a highly individual ‘Me’ work type profile can conduct the work productively from home. Whereas those with a more collaborative team-orientated ‘We’ work profile are less satisfied and effective working from home via a virtual interface.
There are nuanced differences between the generations and gender. In general, the younger the demographic the more satisfied they were in working from home. This is generally because they have a simpler profile of work activities that can be accommodated in a single location. There are exceptions to this which we will unpack below. The data revealed that on average males were more likely to be satisfied with the home working experience. No specific detail was unpacked as to why this was the case, but it was thought to be generally due to the role of females play in the home and the fact that children were off school at the time of the survey.
3. Home work setting
The ability to work from home in a room with a closable door showed a marked improvement in the WFH experience. Unsurprisingly those people that had a temporary working surface or even working off surfaces ill-designed for the purpose, (such as the bed or your lap) rated the experience as sub-optimal. Furthermore, where accommodation was being shared with other individuals also trying to work from home meant that the respondents rated their environment as unsatisfactory compared to their office location.
4. Office work setting
Perhaps it is predictable that those individuals who benefitted from a closed office situation in the corporate space found that unless this was replicated to a great degree at home, suffered more than those that would normally occupy a communal workbench or an open plan environment in the office.
- Group 1- 37% of the respondents enjoyed working from home and office
- Group 2- 18% preferred the office experience
- Group 3- 20% preferred the working from home experience
- Group 4- The remaining 25% felt that both environments were sub-optimal
Home v Office Balance
The survey loosely corralled employees into one of three categories listed below. Whilst almost all respondents expressed a preference for conducting a portion of their work from outside of a corporate office, i.e. the hybrid role, nearly a third of the respondents, when asked, did not know what role they would fit into when they return to the office.
The three roles are;
- Remote-out of the office for 4/5 days a week either based at home or a third-party office
- Hybrid– Mobile in and out of the office 2/3 days per week
- Anchor– Specialized function assigned to a desk or specific technology 4/5 days per week
So, the prevailing thoughts are that if organizations are to maintain the trust with their staff then they will need to adopt some form of a hybrid type approach. If employees wish to work two or three days away from the corporate setting, organizations will inevitably need to address issues around preserving the culture, evolving the workforce to the new ways of working as well as providing a compelling and inspiring workplace go entice the employees back to.
Demand Forecasting and Levelling
|Work roles that benefit from WFH||Work roles that benefit from WFO|
|Process-driven||Complex problem solving|
Using the results from the survey, Group’s 3&4 need a compelling reason to return to the office. If there is no compelling reason provided by the organization or if alternatives are found, then that results in 62% less office space that is needed. Clearly, it is not as simple or as linear as that as social distancing would mean that the number of square meters per person would rise. So it is highly likely that the office will need to be re-configured to provide more collaborative spaces and individual workstations by altering the stacking arrangements in most corporate workspaces. So, organizations must understand the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ in the ‘what’s in it for me’. They must also deeply understand the ‘what’s in it for the organization’ in terms of the way they work as well as the desired way of working in the future. We will also need to grapple with how the work of one employee impacts that of another, in terms of collaboration, co-operation, innovation, teamwork, serendipity, etc.
But how much choice and autonomy can organizations really offer?
Human nature will mean that empowered employees that only come into the office 1-3 days a week will likely choose to remain at home on Mondays and Fridays and only come in Tuesday through Thursday with the peak demand being likely on Wednesday. Significantly this would mean that there is a difference in loading levels on the floorspace of upwards of 76% on Monday & Friday compared to Wednesday. This means that organizations would need to retain the existing office space to house the maximum number of employees on only one day a week (Wednesday) with the space remaining underutilized for the other 4 days of the week.
This of course would be highly inefficient, ineffective, and undesirable. To counteract this organisation may need to revert to mandating which days in the office certain employees should attend. Such a move risks significantly damaging the trust relationship that has built up whilst the employee has been working from home. This is a complex issue that provides organisations with a conundrum that requires significant care and attention if the brand identity and engagement dynamics are to remain intact.
Employee engagement means not only collecting the data but involvement the decision-making. Work activities, workflow, workforce and workplace experience are all elements that need to be included in this engagement. As we have stated this needs to be a ‘one size fits one’ approach. Even a different building in a different location within the same organisation will produce different results. So, localization and context are key. Undertaking a deep dive survey of your staff is the critical component in understanding the context. The challenge for all enterprises will centre on understanding your company’s culture, industry trends, talent profiles, and expectations. Defining new ways of working along with the required job functions and workstyle personas will be required to establish the right mix and balance between the different options and working patterns required to establish the desired level of remote work and by whom.
Winning Workplace Solution Roadmap
The Office is not dead but our Workplaces in the future will qualitatively be different from what they are today. We are faced with a vulnerable present with an uncertain future and this is likely to be a permanent condition. The workplace is complex and increasingly, Customers do not possess all the necessary capabilities inside their organizations to achieve all of their strategic objectives so leaders need to seek out the right resources to assist in creating and managing workplace change that can deliver the right results. Furthermore, the situation continues to evolve so the need to manage prolonged uncertainty is paramount.
Source: Andrew Mason