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Utilize or Die: Workplaces Adapt to the New Needs of the Office

After two plus years of trying, HR-driven policies and incentives seem to be equally ineffective in getting people back to the office, even for part of the week. While January saw Kastle’s office access control data hitting post-pandemic highest rates of office occupancy, there is still a good way to go to reach pre-Covid rates.  If both the metaphorical carrot and stick aren’t working, the problem must lie with the workplace itself.

Arguably, the office wasn’t meeting the needs of its users before our world changed. Open office designs often felt like living in a fishbowl. Co-working spaces were starting to lose their allure. People were squatting in conference rooms and phone booths just to focus and get some work done. However, these annoyances were easy to grin and bear because most office workers did not have hybrid or remote job alternatives.

That’s a different story today, even if most companies have an in-office policy on the books. The power of choice when it comes to being in the office still lives in the hands of employees. Consider the response to Amazon’s RTO mandate announced last month, which was met with employee petitions and a five-figure strong Slack group protesting the move. If one of the most highly-resourced employers in the world can’t figure out how to get people excited about going back to the office, how can the average company? 

Landlords and workplace strategists alike have to figure out two major issues with the office if they have any hopes of making even a three-day in-office week work: supporting the multiple ways of working and ensuring the workplace better meets the needs of everyone, not just the “in group.” 

Multimodal > collaboration only 

There seems to be a corporate consensus that the workplace’s new purpose is all about collaboration and socialization. Last year, JLL research found that 73 percent of companies plan to make offices “open and collaborative, with no dedicated desk spaces.”

While this craving for connection and face time may have been the reality in 2020 when everyone was hunkered down at home, what people are seeking from the office today in order to be productive is less clear cut. For some office workers, the commute is worth doing if they can get a quiet space to focus on their work. For others, it’s all about better access to technology and resources to do their jobs. Scheduled in-person meetings with their teams and clients outranked socialization with co-workers or company leadership. Amenities ranked last, according to insights from Gensler’s Research Institute conducted last summer. 

The dramatic shift to making the office all about collaboration and meetings in an effort to make the workplace more functional may in fact be doing the opposite. Instead, the most productive workplaces today support multiple purposes. This looks more like comfortable, quiet spaces to work solo, work stations with multiple screens for deep work and desks where teams can work together even if they aren’t actively innovating or collaborating together. And of course, meeting spaces for both formal and informal gatherings. 

“Companies are investing in spaces that feel and look good, but beyond the aesthetics, you want people to walk in and see all the spaces they can experience beyond a desk,” explained Stephen Silverstein, Principal and Managing Director at Avison Young. 

Giving people different options for experiencing the office also takes the pressure off companies to nail workplace redesigns, while giving their teams more autonomy about how and where they work. 

Addressing that the office doesn’t work for everyone

Steelcase research indicates that there are five key elements that the workplace needs to embody in order for people to want to be there: safety, belonging, comfort, productivity and control. Multimodal workplaces address the last two factors, but what about the first three? Those feel more intangible and harder to figure out.

Open office concepts and even new office designs focused on collaboration actually require a lot from people who are supposed to find them productive. They have to function in an environment driven by cross talk and filled with distractions with eyes on you as you complete your work. That’s a lot of pressure for people who are introverted or neurodiverse. 

There’s also a sense of forced homogeny that’s often rebranded as cultural fit. If you don’t fit the mold, working in the office can be tiring at best. That’s probably why more BIPOC employees prefer to work remotely in comparison to their white co-workers. Women, caregivers and people living with disabilities are also more likely to favor remote work over being in the office. 

Empowering people to feel psychologically safe and welcomed requires better collaboration between people and workplace teams. It’s part hiring, part culture and part space. According to Hue, a social impact organization creating a community for talent of color, 80 percent of people surveyed say their organization has not made the workplace a more welcoming place for employees of color. When companies launch initiatives to make the workplace more inclusive, they rarely include changes to the physical space. It’s an unexpected way that real estate teams can add value to the company. 

Perhaps a bit of light in this dark tunnel is that when the workplace can meet the needs of the people expected to work there, there’s a direct correlation with stronger productivity and growth. Rather than focusing on mandates or programming, those resources can be redirected to making the workplace itself a better place for employees to do their best work.

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