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Our employees don’t want to return to the office full-time

Here's how we're re-envisioning the post-pandemic workplace

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Remote work has been on the rise for years, but in the last six months, the pace of that transformation has accelerated dramatically. According to a recent Gallup poll, remote workdays in the US doubled since the start of the pandemic. We’re now at the point at which businesses across the country are asking themselves whether they even need offices at all.

We’re one of them.

In early March, we shifted overnight from a mostly in-office workplace to a fully remote workplace. Organizationally, the transition was relatively seamless. Employees and teams rapidly adapted their processes and collaboration. Individually, the transition was more complicated, as employees and their families had to juggle competing demands for space, sound and focus.

Modern offices are expensive to maintain. Like many businesses, however, we have always viewed these expenses as part of the “cost of doing business.” 

Now that our offices have been vacant since March 12, we’ve been rethinking our assumptions about the traditional workplace. We started by asking our employees what they need to be productive going forward. Here’s what we learned:

  1. No one wants to be in the office full-time. We asked every employee who prior to COVID-19 worked in one of our three offices how often they would want to work in the office once we can do so safely. The results were unequivocal: 75% of employees said they’d be most productive working in the office a few days a week, 25% said they would be most productive working from home full time, and not a single employee said they’d be most productive working in the office for the typical five-day work week. 
  1. Even our previously remote employees are significantly more productive in a fully remote environment. About 25% of our workforce was already fully remote prior to the pandemic, and they reported dramatic increases in the quality of their communication and collaboration. The shift to remote work for everyone, they said, brought about rapid improvements in our adoption of technology, virtual collaboration processes and communication. After years of trying to “level the playing field” by replicating the in-office experience for remote workers, it turned out to be more effective to do the opposite: replicate the remote working experience for in-office workers.

But even as employees have acclimated to or even thrived in a remote environment, virtual collaboration cannot fully replace being in-person. In fact, nearly every employee I’ve spoken with has told me that although they prefer to work remotely more often in the future than they did in the past, in-person collaboration is still critical. 

So as we reimagine our work environment as a hybrid of in-person and remote work, we’re focusing on three key changes that will enable us to embrace the flexibility and efficiency of remote work while not losing the depth that comes with being together in-person:

1. Turn the “facilities” budget into a “collaboration” budget. We’ve always had an expense account for “Facilities” — all the costs associated with leasing and operating our offices. But the real purpose of our “Facilities” budget is not to operate a physical plant, but simply to enable collaboration and connection. So we’ve reframed our “Facilities” budget as our “Collaboration” budget — the amount we will invest in bringing our team together, whether it be through dedicated office space, shared office space, virtual collaboration, company or team off-sites, or a combination of all. This change empowers our team to think more innovatively and flexibly about the best ways to enable collaboration and connectivity.

2. Make in-office collaboration deliberate, not the default. Before COVID-19, many of us automatically commuted into the office each morning because that’s where we went to do our work. Over the last six months, however, the default assumption for where we “go” to do our work has shifted. Going forward, we’re planning for a work environment in which our employees go to the office, whether a few times a week, month, or year, for specific purposes, such as trainings, meetings, celebrations, announcements, or even socialization or accessing enhanced bandwidth or equipment. Then they go home. 

3. Reduce individual workplaces while expanding collaboration space. In our discovery work with employees, not a single employee said they preferred to be in the office for their routine individual work assignments. Instead, they pointed to group efforts as the time when it is valuable to be in-person. Yet our office environment is optimized for individual workspaces — desks, cubes, or private offices. In a hybrid environment in which in-office work is more intentional, and even local employees are working remotely some or most of the time, we will be reallocating square footage from individual workspaces to spaces that facilitate group activities, especially those that require high levels of connectivity, such as strategic meetings, trainings, events and collaboration spaces. As we do so, we will also be finding new forums within our offices — such as a conference room or hallway walls — for employee expression, which traditionally has shown up through pictures, artwork, and personal collectibles in individual work spaces.

There are still many unknowns arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one of the few certainties is that we are entering a new era of workplace design. Many companies will approach this issue from a financial perspective, but companies that bring an innovation mindset have an opportunity to enhance their culture, create a new strategic advantage and set themselves and their employees up for success for years to come.

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