John Lennon popularized the saying, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Yet, we spend a lot of time making plans and put a lot of energy into creating roadmaps to reach our goals. This re-entry period into our offices is no different. In this transitional period, the plans on how to succeed post-COVID vary greatly, from full-time remote to full-time in the office to a hybrid of the two. These plans are easy to make but in reality don’t always, or often, go according to plan.
In theory, a hybrid work schedule is the best of both worlds. It intersects the flexibility and personal preference of remote work with the collaboration and social components of an office. “We’ve learned during the pandemic that people can get most of their work done from home. But we’ve also learned what we took for granted when we all worked together in the office: that we are better together and collaborating in close proximity with our teams,” said Larry Gadea, Founder and CEO of Envoy, a workplace platform. “We are making do by working remotely in isolation, but this is no way for people to live or to work.”
“We are making do by working remotely in isolation, but this is no way for people to live or to work.”
Larry Gadea, Founder and CEO, Envoy
It’s time to go back, at least partially, but the reason we left the office in the first place is still a hurdle we need to clear. Risks to our personal health are still in flux as COVID-19 vaccinations are now widely available, but not everyone is willing to be vaccinated yet. CDC guidelines continue to evolve as more is known about the vaccinations and the virus. Additionally, our awareness of risks found in indoor environments has increased. Indoor air quality isn’t just about monitoring dangerous pathogens but promoting occupant health through fresh and circulated air, allergen removal, and more. We have some control over what’s in the air we breathe. But is that enough to keep employees safe? Or should companies also dictate whether or not their occupants need to be vaccinated?
A study by Envoy and Wakefield Research found that 62 percent of employees believe that in order to feel safer, companies should require workers to get a vaccine before they’re allowed back in the office. If that number comes as a surprise, it grows to 76 percent with employees working in tech or business.
Companies are learning how to assure employees that they will be safe and iterating their strategies as they go. In the meantime, companies can use surveys to help them understand the risk profile of their occupants. Employers can ask their people if they’ve had recent symptoms, have been around anyone else with symptoms, and screen for who has the vaccine before granting workplace access. Once employees pass a health check, they can be granted access to the building for the day.
Beyond safety, workplaces of hybrid work organizations can be complex. Access, visitor management, conference room reservations, and desk bookings must accommodate flexible working styles. These systems have to go a step further and ensure teams are at the office at the same time for face-to-face collaboration. Personal preference like working 11am-7pm days or being remote two days a week are just two examples of the many variables involved in getting the right people in at the right time and place. Adding to those variables, many companies have downsized their office space in parallel with fewer people going in or lower occupancy rates in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
However, not everyone can come into the office Tuesday through Thursday; there won’t be enough desks. “One thing we’re seeing happening is that a lot of customers are hiring and now there’s a concern of too many people and not enough desks,” continued Gadea. Workplaces need the flexibility to scale occupancy limits up or down to meet changing local guidelines, too. In theory, flexibility is easy but in reality, it takes a lot of careful planning to succeed.
So what makes people want to go into the office if working remote or in the office full-time is easier to manage? It partially depends on the employee demographic. Younger workers are less likely to have dedicated space for a home office or may be sharing it with other roommates, while older workers may have the space but may be sharing it with children. Overall, it turns out that younger workers want to get back to the office sooner than older generations. “This feedback was surprising to a bunch of executives that thought that younger people would want to work from home. For a lot of companies, the truth still remains, if you want to be promoted, you need face time. That is a lot harder working remotely,” said Gabe Marans, Senior Managing Director at Savills.
A common reason people want to go into the workplace is for collaboration. On top of that, the question of who is, or isn’t, in the office is also a motivating factor. A study revealed that 52 percent of office workers would set their own work schedules based on when their co-workers are in the workplace. And while 18 percent said they’d go to the office to see their boss, 23 percent said they’d make the commute to see work friends. The connection between colleagues is important for company culture and employee retention, something that has taken a dip over the past year. As licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Michele Nealon said, “A sense of camaraderie virtually is no replacement for in-person interaction.”
There’s a lot of room for error between the theories of how to get back to the office and reality. “It is one thing to say you would like to go into the office, it is another to actually show up and it is yet another to sit 6 feet apart at desks and in conference rooms redesigned to comply with social distancing requirements,” Gadea said. “Employees are going to discover very quickly that while companies have unlimited Zoom meetings in the cloud, there may be few conference rooms available in the office at times they need to meet with coworkers.” Without data, companies can only make assumptions about the office’s true occupancy rates, space utilization, and safety protocols. Technology that brings together sentiment with real time data and analysis can evolve theories into actionable information, taking the guesswork out of what the office needs to be.
Connecting users through a workplace platform is how organizations will move out of the murkiness of the current hybrid space. A platform that can support when, where, and how employees want to work together will help people come back to the office. And it won’t stop being useful once this transitional period is over. With three out of five employees saying they’ll look for another job if their current employer doesn’t offer hybrid work, there’s an obvious need for technology to connect people and empower work. Supporting these complex efforts doesn’t need to be a painful experience; it should be easy so people use it. If collecting data about occupancy and scheduling is a cumbersome process, it won’t work because people don’t need something else on their to-do list; it needs to happen seamlessly and create a positive user experience.
Without workplace data and analytics, we would be in the dark about what people want and expect from their offices upon return. This data collection shouldn’t stop when people are back; it should evolve into an ongoing process where participants simultaneously benefit. The truth is, life hasn’t paused while we’ve worked to figure out what offices will look like next. People are ready to get back to the office. While we continue to make plans, workplace platforms can be a constant between the theories in our plans and the actual realities of life.