The future role of the office

When so much activity has potentially fled the office, what’s left?

by Tanisha Krishnan and Chris Hood — December 2020 — Our research and our work with our clients over the last 9 months has made the case, at least in our minds, that a central office space still holds a role in the lives of most employees. Developing and maintaining a culture by having a space for people to feel like they belong,  has been an issue raised often across many of our focus groups. It is a reason why people would go into the office and why they think their organisation should continue to invest in office space. Equally, meeting in person does have many touted benefits when it comes to building new relationships – particularly for new starters, junior employees and business development activities all of whom require some form of physical meeting, on occasion, to maintain a certain comfort and connection level. It is however by no means proven that all these sessions need to occur within the office as we knew it, but it is certainly an option.

Figure 1:  The workplace ecosystem: the office is but one of several components of the new workplace network or ecosystem

Undoubtedly some employees feel that working remotely isn’t a preferred workstyle and require some form of physical supervision/ connection/ oversight on occasion in order to perform to their full potential – these individuals do require an arrangement that would allow them to periodically access their superiors and work under their guidance.

Significantly, prior to Covid19, surveys had shown that the younger generation saw the office space as a place to make new friendships and even find potential partners: their social, and for some even, romantic lives were based around the office. The younger generation continues to express this need to build and maintain the relationships that form such a big part of their mental well-being although we do recognize the danger of generalizing relative to the generations-we can find people of all ages who feel the same way.

That said, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests from a pure task performance perspective the office as we knew it was often not as productive as we would have wished. The latest release of data from Leesman1 regarding a comparison of the home and office work environments highlights the fact that the post-pandemic occupancy of offices, is likely to be driven by a number of factors:

  • Those with outstanding business workplaces emerge after the pandemic has passed are more likely to see more employees wanting to spend more time at the office. Perhaps not surprisingly sites with poor Lmi (Workplace experience scores) are less likely to attract staff back to the office as much, after the pandemic has subsided.
  • On average, those agreeing with “My home environment enables me to work productively” is 82.5% whereas, the score of those same respondents in their average office score drops to 63.6%. It rises to 78.2% for those considered in the Leesman plus bracket of top-performing workplaces, but this is still lower than the average productivity sentiment score of working from home.
  • The overall individual Home experience (H-Lmi) rating is 74.2 but there are some 36% of respondents who have a rating of less than 70 and one organizations score that was 46.0 These are logically the type of organizations where employees are keenest to get back into the office for whatever reason.
  • Those whose jobs tend to depend on a larger number and wider array of typical workplace activities tend to give lower scores to their home environments than those with a smaller set of typical task activities and will be more likely to want to return.
  • Trust has been handed out to employees working remotely during the pandemic and by and large people have delivered. It will be difficult indeed for organizations to withdraw this trust and draw people back in against their better judgement.

That said the home environment still tends, on average, to attract higher Lmi2 scores than the office, despite the wide variability of functionality and attractiveness of both the home and office environments.

In a Leesman study of 22,132 respondents who were asked specifically to express their perceived support when completing activities both from home and in the office. The Leesman research team then made a comparison of the results using their methodology.

Better supported from home Better supported from the office
Individual focused work-desk basedCollaborating on creative tasks
Individual focused work away from your deskCollaborating on focused work
ReadingLearning from others
Thinking/ creative thinkingInformal social interaction
Individual routine tasksInformal unplanned meetings
Planned meetingsHosting visitors, clients or customers
Video conferencesLarger group meetings or audiences
Audio conferencesUsing technically specialized equipment
Telephone conversations
Business confidential discussions
Private conversations
Relaxing/ taking a break
Spreading out paper or materials 

Courtesy: Leesman 2020

The data suggest that, for a whole raft of different reasons, the compulsions to work from the office or home are varied, complex and likely to ebb and flow over time. In general, it appears that the knowledge workforce tends to divide into approximately three groups: a third doing concentrated focused work, a third working in a more collaborative and interactive workstyle and a third with a roughly equal mix of the two. The Leesman survey concludes this, as do our own discovery activities with our clients, but these delineations change from day to day, across the timespans of the business year, between individuals and across departments.

Wow! That sounds like a challenge! How can we possibly size a facility when company headcount projections are no longer the main driver…when the daily preferences and opinions of employees, teams and managers are likely to be the primary determinants of demand?

Apart from the somewhat obvious conclusion that people are more likely to want to go to a well-designed, well serviced, high quality workplace experience than a poor one, what can we determine from this data, and our own research, that is useful in reimaging the office?  In aggregating multiple articles, reports and survey findings a list is emerging of activities that are either uniquely or logically best positioned in some centralized location. These might include:

  1. Complex, instant, fusion of knowledge to address high value, fast moving challenges
  2. Hands-on living creativity, serendipity and innovation associated with high value initiatives
  3. A place to access unique facilities and equipment that can’t be provided at home, for example early stage bio-pharma research
  4. Activities that are confidential, sensitive or governed by regulatory requirements
  5. Someone who could work from home but their high need for social interaction leads them to believe they need to be in the office
  6. The potential for unstructured learning and knowledge sharing (mentoring and knowledge transfer)
  7. A place for people that can’t (or prefer not to) work from home because they don’t have the facilities or conditions at home are just not conducive to working productively)
  8. Availability of hands-on help-desks where things can be fixed or private face-to-face conversations can best be held
  9. Host customer visits, providing branded experiences and present to customers in a controlled predictable environment designed to best represent the organization
  10. A place for social interaction

The following is data from a recent survey of approximately 19,000 people which provides a tabulated list of reasons why people would go into the office.

Figure 2: When the 19,000 surveyed , were asked where would they like to work from in the future 16% chose from the office, and on the right are the reasons this group would chose to be in the office tabulated as a percentage of the overall total of respondents.

Figure 2: When the 19,000 surveyed , were asked where would they like to work from in the future 16% chose from the office, and on the right are the reasons this group would chose to be in the office tabulated as a percentage of the overall total of respondents.

There is a corresponding list of things that seem to be better accomplished from home (in the majority of cases) and the sense is that we do not need to repeat all of the prior capacity to support these within our centralized office spaces

  1. Focused work: absence of interruptions and noise
  2. Collaboration on focused work: ability to focus on interactive group work
  3. Confidential work: Not to be overheard or have to move to protect information
  4. Virtual collaboration: video or audio
  5. Individual routine tasks: such as filling in expenses, time sheets etc.
  6. Phone conversations: without disturbing others, and where one is not constrained by volume or content
  7. Relaxing/taking a break: the opportunity to take a walk, view nature or otherwise walk away from a business situation
  8. Reading: peace, quiet and undisturbed ability to concentrate

Capacity considerations

So, here’s the challenge! We have segmented the work thereby allowing us to better understand the likely set of tasks to be undertaken within the office but we have no certainty as to who is going to use what space, when. These decisions are not likely to be regular, predictable or helpfully spread out across the workweek. There will be surge periods, times of emptiness and comfortable times when the activity level feels just right.

Perhaps we would help ourselves if we stopped thinking about trying to accommodate everything all the time and consider our centralized office resources as an optimized utility that has the functional capacity to deliver all the key non-negotiable activities, but not all activities, all the time. Its capacity is fixed. This then calls upon the organizations ability to intelligently schedule activity across the workweek using a pre-agreed prioritization and to develop mitigation strategies that accommodate those times when desired presence is not possible (by design).

The outcome of this, assuming the planning has been bold, is a very well-used and optimized building serving activities that are not possible anywhere else with a corresponding reduction in the operations embedded and operational carbon footprint.

The key to this proposition is the extent to which one might be able to mitigate activities which the organization does not have the bandwidth to host at a particular time on a given day. The following examples demonstrate that even the most obvious candidates for inclusion in a fixed asset may be more flexible than we at first thought. Let’s face it, there is a growing list of virtual organizations who own no real estate of their own but who have been extremely innovative in their search for lower cost flexibility and the ability to accomplish what they need to accomplish to run a successful business with a correspondingly low carbon footprint.

Mitigation examples

Complex, instant, fusion of knowledge to address high value, fast moving challenges

Many organizations have become capable of constructing virtual situation rooms where technology allows individuals to converse, view data, and be available to address fast moving situations quicker more effectively, and with a wider, more distributed set of those involved than in traditional war rooms. They can draw people in from further afield unbounded by the friction of travel to the location.

Hands-on living creativity, serendipity and innovation associated with high value initiatives

Many teams have found during the pandemic that their insistence on togetherness was misplaced. They have found that using tools like Teams they are able to brainstorm effectively when apart and, at the very least, have rethought the amount of time they need to spend together. For some, time together was a distraction not an asset and be able to keep team members at arms-length became a positive. This is not to dismiss the value of togetherness but simply to question how much? Where? and how?

A place to access unique facilities and equipment that can’t be provided at home, for example early stage bio-pharma research

Although no-one would realistically contemplate moving labs into people’s homes, there is a growing movement to outsource lab activity and to use software to simulate physical lab tests. There may be times when lab capacity is capped or managed by priority. In these cases excess demand needs to be dealt with in other ways. Again, the culture of innovation in scientific organizations seems intrinsically rooted in labs but new graduates in new disciplines are no longer tied to tradition and are more commonly asking the “why” question. Clearly labs, are just one example of situations where large and often expensive infrastructure are drivers of presence. History tells us that each of these basic building blocks of some industries are under the microscope in terms of size, capacity, automation or other alternatives.

Activities that are confidential, sensitive or governed by regulatory requirements

In the U.S. and Great Britain, the use of government SCIF’s has had to be compromised with the onset of the pandemic. It is notable how much secure work has been possible in remote locations with innovation and a reassessment of the risk factors. It will be interesting to see whether some of this flexibility sticks or is brought back to pre-pandemic levels.

Someone who could work from home but their high need for social interaction leads them to believe they need to be in the office

The issue here is to try and understand how often this connection is required to keep such individuals happy, motivated and productive. It probably isn’t all day and it probably isn’t every day.  Most surveys on future preferences for working highlight the fact that it is typically a relatively small percentage of the population (less than 30%) that wants to work from the office all day, every day regardless of their disposition towards sociability.

The potential for unstructured learning and knowledge sharing (mentoring and knowledge transfer)

This is an oft raised issue but, with thought, there is much that can be achieved virtually and even more that can be achieved in various locations outside the office. The increasing virtualization of work allows for new employees and young staff to be brought into more meetings, meet more people and get up to speed quicker on broader fronts, if deliberate effort is expended to try and make this happen. Face-to-face connections, over-hearing and chance encounters are important, but there is much that can be done in a whole range of locations outside the office.

A place for people that can’t (or prefer not to) work from home because they don’t have the facilities or conditions at home are just not conducive to working productively

An increasing number of local options are becoming available as an alternative to working in the home. These include co-working, café’s, public spaces like libraries, garden sheds (don’t laugh…these are increasingly popular in the U.K.). The office is certainly not the only option for those who can’t work for home, some of which might actually offer better chances of socialization, diverse perspectives of co-workers etc.

Availability of hands-on help-desks where things can be fixed or private face-to-face conversations can best be held

With the advent of video technology and remote control of systems, technology help-desks have vastly improved the remote repair, maintenance and problem solving experience. For non-technology issues, again we are getting more comfortable and trusting of high-quality video experiences. They don’t of course entirely replace the value of a face-to-face experience, but they do satisfy a growing percentage of the need.

Host customer visits, providing branded experiences and present to customers in a controlled predictable environment designed to best represent the organization

This is perhaps the most compelling argument for a tangible physical asset, one in which the organization can articulate its’ vision and mission, control the whole visitor experience, and put its culture on display. There is however an increasing globalization that demands that organizations be capable of presenting themselves favourably to others across the world without ever meeting face to face. Many will continue to enhance their capabilities through the enrichment of immersive virtual experiences which diminish the importance of the face-to-face visit. This is further driven by the expected reduction in business air travel which is increasingly likely to be viewed through an environmental lens. Instead of extensive meeting rooms we may see spaces that look more like TV studios capable of projecting the company outwards to the wider world.

A place for social interaction

Social connectedness is one of the key six factors which drive organization productivity and is not to be taken lightly. The need to socialize is paramount but it is not an everyday need for most, nor is it necessary to create all the capacity within the office. By locating workplaces in thriving energetic locations, people can take a walk to local cafes and restaurants to engage and talk. There is no question however that coffee and conversation will be a key activity in the refocused office and there will be many creative solutions to promote and support this activity.

Figure 3: The Longaberger basket building, Ohio

As an example of a building that was conceived at a moment in time, for a moment in time, the Longaberger basket building in Ohio helps to reinforce the overall point. This is clearly not a structure to which one could easily add or supplement space. It is inextricably fixed in size, and activity that outgrows this footprint will need to be accommodated elsewhere in other ways. Should however, their use of the building slip below the levels capable of giving this amount of space a healthy and lively use rate, then problems are likely to emerge. Who else would want to occupy space in a single-message building built around such a strong identity that belongs to someone else? As a building it is completely inflexible and likely to be too big or too small in perpetuity. Society just cannot afford the degradation to our environment that such flights of fancy involve. This is just an extreme example of something that is unfortunately too common…..inflexible buildings.

Each of the work settings – whether from home/ local locations or the office, offer different benefits for different people: some of them personal and temporal, some of them organizational and some more long term related to sustainability and other ethical or moral considerations of purpose. The future office proposition will not be determined by traditional notions of putting a roof over people’s heads but should answer fundamentally more inciteful questions such as:

“The travelling to, construction of, and operation of, office buildings are a major contributor to climate change. A sustainable future should demand that office occupancy should address only legitimate business needs that cannot be met by any other means. What are the factors likely to meet this threshold?”.

  • Companies with purpose and with the kind of high ethical standards that will attract future customers, employees and investors will be very thoughtful in coming to this determination.
  • Having successfully communicating a shared vision, it is important for organisations to help employees that will be working from diverse locations feel that they are working for an organization “that cares”.
  • This clear vision, and with it a personal understanding of their role in the organisation, is key to helping employees work at their best and would help them build a sense of purpose for the work they undertake.
  • Such companies will objectively assess every other option before agreeing that office space as they knew it needs to exist, and will accommodate only those unique activities absolutely necessary to satisfactorily drive their businesses forward.
  • Furthermore, they will position this space in locations which are most accessible by low-carbon travel methods. The overall carbon footprint consequences of these decisions will be the new discipline within which the various options are weighed and decided.

About the authors

Tanisha KrishnanTanisha Krishnan

Advanced Workplace Associates-London, UK

 

 

 

Chris HoodChris Hood

Advanced Workplace Associates- Puddletown, Dorset, UK

Advanced Workplace Associates

https://www.advanced-workplace.com/

Leesman1 See “the impact of home working on employee experience” (home working comparison between Corporate office and home working) dated 08/11/2020 https://www.leesmanindex.com/measure-remote-working/

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