When the outbreak began, almost exactly a year and a half ago, the questions that occupiers were asking seemed so simple. Would it be weeks or even a month or two before everyone went back to the office? How could they ensure their teams adjusted to remote work for the time being? And who would water the plant by the coffee machine in the meantime?
We all know the rest of the story. These questions faded, giving way to more realistic ones like: whether the outbreak would last through 2020 or beyond; how teams would make meaningful adaptations to the realities of prolonged work; and/or if the office footprint was even necessary in the first place.
I wouldn’t be shocking anyone if I said that the answer to the “is office dying” question is emphatically no. Instead of dying, the office sector is simply adapting to a new workplace reality. As I have opined before, the smart money is on a future where some occupiers stay fully in-person and some go fully remote but the majority continue to use a mixture of both remote and in-person strategies into the long-term future.
The less discussed outcome at hand is that most companies are positioned, should they choose, to experience a recalibration towards purposeful working of unprecedented scope and scale. This is a good thing for everyone.
Companies are now presented with the legitimate choice of whether to keep, shrink, or eliminate their office space. While I am of the opinion that the majority will keep at least a substantial volume of their space, every company in existence, by their action or inaction alike, is implicitly answering the question: does our space, and the way we work, work for us?
No matter how they answer that question, occupier firms are getting back to work with a greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t. As we discuss in our recent report on in-person work strategies, many occupiers will maintain the same in-person spaces, now designed with more efficient layouts, more effective at fulfilling the needs of a workforce that has tasted the forbidden fruit of remote work arrangements. For others, it means more limited office holdings suitable for the periodic seasonal or quarterly surge needs of staff. Either way, this carries with it the assumption of a planning process to determine what exactly people need to do their best work in the most cost-effective way possible.
Employees who prefer to or must work remotely are finding that their time working at the home office is not just a temporary thing. For these workers, home sit-stand desks are replacing space in the dining room or the corner of the couch. Once again, more purpose and intention.
Even if individual companies don’t give their employees choice in how to work, employees will still have more flexibility than before. If we accept that a proportion of most industries are getting more flexible, the average worker is more likely to have the chance to find another job that is a closer fit. That also means that employers, particularly the least flexible, will have to think long and hard about how they plan to keep their employees. Once again, we see that pivot toward workplace purpose.
For the likely majority of companies that offer remote in addition to in-person working options, teams themselves will have a chance to be more purposeful with the way they do their jobs. Individual employees can decide for themselves whether they are the kind of people who work more effectively at home or in the office, as long as it meets the needs of their team. This is why it is important that companies don’t plan too heavily from the top down. Space planners or C-level executives that mandate a number of days of in-person deny employees the ability to decide how to work most effectively for themselves. At the end of the day, it is up to team managers to ensure that individual employees get their work done on time, not the CEO.
Of course, taking this emphasis on purpose to the end of the line of reasoning, the realization that “Say, that job doesn’t need to be done in our expensive office” is only one step away from “That job doesn’t need to be done at all!” In keeping with the theme, many companies are likely about to get a lot more purposeful with what they spend money on salaries to do.
This is all good news for companies questioning how to continue operating their workplaces. Now is the perfect time to move to a more flexible, worker-focused strategy without the kind of top-down planning that holds offices back. But nothing is set in stone, and the first post-COVID space use plans most offices make are unlikely to be their last.