The pandemic shook up the way we work like few things ever have before. Even though the phrase 'the new normal' popped up swiftly, things are still anything but - especially when it comes to office space. Trends and statistics indicating how employers are thinking about the mid- and long-term are not hard to come by, but they can tell a conflicting story.
In the US there hasn't been the drop in demand for office space that was expected given the massive shift towards mobile working, according to Harvard Business Review . Meanwhile in the UK, employers say they plan to reduce their office portfolio by up to nine million square feet, equivalent to 14 Walkie Talkie buildings - the 37 floor high rise on London's Fenchurch Street. That's according to a survey of 258 large companies by PwC .
The pandemic created challenges and opportunities, and many employers who have been downsizing their real-estate have been doing it for a variety of reasons.
What employers are thinking
Many employers are rethinking their offices space with the health of their people front of mind. Covid19 is still very much with us, and forty nine percent of UK employers are staggering their return to work based on employees' health risks, and a recent Robert Walters survey indicates that a quarter of businesses are basing their return-to-work strategy on infection rates local to them .
Brass tacks will clearly play a part, too. After all, a business wouldn't be a business if it wasn't thinking about overheads, and for lots of employers this will be their largest outgoing (apart from salaries). Redistributing those funds could benefit everyone, with some spare change, so no wonder 44% of UK companies want to save money by reducing physical office space, and 46% wanted to reduce travel budgets.
Another key component is plain old-fashioned uncertainty. A third of companies have admitted to not yet considering what their return to work strategy might be and three quarters of employers admit their senior team have not been equipped for remotely managing their team. The training and cultural adjustment is still proving tough for many, and the only certainty seems to be that certainty is hard to come by. Being agile as a business - and allowing employees to stay agile in the way they work - has massive advantages, and employers will ignore these at their peril, if they want to be productive and retain staff. Because companies that listen to their employees are often finding that is exactly what their people actively want.
What employees want
Lots of people have loved reconnecting with colleagues, just as lots have enjoyed being connected to family by working remotely, but now the genie is out of the bottle many workers are reluctant to simply default to on site work when they can achieve amazing things with this new approach. When Apple CEO Tim Cook attempted to encourage employees back to the office for three days a week he received a petition contesting it, insisting that The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably compose.
But we have clearly missed being around our colleagues, and many roles can't be done as effectively remotely. There's something invaluable about not just a shared space but travel to that space. Moving through the area you live, seeing human activity or green space, or just grabbing a coffee from your favourite stand - these are things that made half of us actually miss our commute in 2020 .
For both employees and employers balance is clearly the point. An inflexible office environment with inflexible hours is damaging, but working in isolation makes collaboration and serendipitous encounters very difficult to engineer, let alone meaningful relationships with your colleagues.
So what does the middle ground look like?
The middle ground
You already know where this is going, of course: 'hybrid working'. The buzzword of the year, it's the defining philosophy employers are being told to use in finding the happy medium for agile working, optimum productivity and happy staff. But what does that actually mean? As Harvard Business Review suggests, it's all about reconsidering the size, location, and design of your offices.
The appetite for agility clearly exists. According to PWC 71% of businesses plan to increase investment in technology that will empower their agile working over the next two years - and an appreciation now exists for the control that technology brings, and the importance of uncontrolled 'random' encounters in offices, that are so important for both the output of the organisation and the internal experience of the individual team members.
The bigger your organisation, the more important it is that you develop a well thought through 'office strategy' and ensure that the approach is fit for purpose. Because expecting historic tools and approaches to do the job in the 'new normal' is na√Øve at best. A dynamic, agile approach to communication and workspace - in which everyone's needs are taken into consideration - is the only way to survive and find a culture that feels well-balanced and sustainable.
Understanding your own goals, people, and workstyles - and getting the physical office space exactly right - might take some effort. But the good news is that the new generation of tools you need to support people once you're ready are already out there. From collaboration software to Hotbox, at least finding what you need to empower that agility should be a lot more straightforward.