Although we look forward to a long-awaited return to normality, how can we satisfy the expectations of some, calm the insecurities of others, mobilize teams and adapt workplaces to the new reality of office work? What will the office environment and ways of working look like in the post-pandemic world? These are fundamental questions that company heads and managers need to answer right now, in creative and adaptive (rather than reactive) fashion.
The crisis comes with its share of challenges, but also opportunities. Organizations must review their operating methods and business culture like never before. In the real estate industry, building managers, architects, designers, providers of products and services and CEOs must work together to define and co-create the work environments of the future in order to facilitate employees' return to the office and the revitalization of business centres and downtown districts.
I had the pleasure of taking part in the presentation at Studio IDU of Bringing Employees back to the Office – The Future of Office Space, featuring Sandra Heintz, director of Index-Design, Michel Lauzon, president and CEO of LAAB and Vincent Hauspy, an interior design partner at Provencher_Roy. Here are a few observations and reflections that came out of our panel discussion.
Teleworking is here to Stay
The results of a study conducted by Léger Marketing for Sommet Infopresse and Index-Design in June 2021 suggests that teleworking is losing momentum, but also indicates that it has really taken hold. Generally speaking, people aged 18 to 35 express a strong desire to get back to their places of work in order to collaborate and network with others, while those over 55 don't want to be forced to go back to the office. 35% of respondents even indicated that they would look for another job that offers the possibility of working remotely if ordered to return to the office.
Return-to-work preferences speak for themselves: 40% stated they wanted a work week that was a 50/50 hybrid (physical presence/virtual presence), 19% wanted to go to the office once or twice a month only (when really necessary), and 19% wanted to remain in 100% teleworking mode. Only 20% wanted to return to the office on a full-time basis. Companies therefore need to conduct a targeted charm offensive.
Create an attractive Work Environment – Focus on Work/Family Balance and Job Satisfaction
Does my employer take care of me? Does the company allow me to grow, to evolve? Why should I go back to the office? The truth is that these are the questions a vast majority of employees are asking. Underestimating this, as well as the stress and grief of returning to the workplace, is a big mistake. Organizations need to consider these factors and to be creative, innovative, empathetic and inclusive. They must be attentive to all dimensions of the human experience and reinforce their corporate culture, notably by reorganizing the workspace. In concrete terms, what does that entail?
Variable Geometry Workspaces
In addition to no longer spending precious time commuting to work, employees feel more productive at home. That tendency indicates that work requiring concentration and analysis will increasingly be done at home, while the corporate space is destined to become a hub for meetings and collaborative efforts. Employees will return to the office to see colleagues, for the spontaneity of human contact, to create things together. In short, to collaborate and to innovate.
The era of workspace densification is over. We must redefine functions and reconfigured worksites to adapt them to the hybrid mode, which will bring its share of challenges, particularly in terms of reorganizing teams and spaces. Why do you have an office and what purpose does it serve? Does it really benefit your business? These simple questions are a good starting point.
In hybrid mode, the employee's work schedule is no longer 9 to 5 five days a week, but is spread out over several days or even weeks. How can we rekindle a sense of belonging and pride? These are questions that call for increased collaboration among executives, designers and architects, HR managers and communications staff.
We are moving toward more collaborative and flexible spaces, with fewer closed, dedicated office spaces. Some functions obviously require such a structure, but organizations will need to be very flexible and creative, and have systems in place to manage space allocation in an optimal and facilitating manner. Up-to-date office furniture and new technological solutions will certainly be of help.
Most major landlords and building managers are already hard at work providing a new participatory experience for tenants in their buildings, and are supporting corporate tenants by including new neighbourhood services they can offer to their employees. The idea is to create the conditions for new lifestyle environments and new communities, to awaken the desire to be an active presence in the life of the built environment. The presence of some will gradually lead to the return of others. The principle of attractiveness linked to the "fear of missing out" will eventually bear fruit.
Very Important to Plan, to Listen, to Adapt
There is no universal solution. Each organization must assess the situation based on its business reality, capabilities and employees. One thing is certain, however, and that is that they must be open-minded, get feedback from employees and avoid making assumptions. Never underestimate the psychological impact of returning to the office. The new benchmark is really the employee. You have to find out what employees need and want, and then take that into account. What do your workers want, and what will convince them to return? Expectations are high and employers with a distinctive "brand" will become increasingly important, if not the new standard bearers.
Those who are not preparing for a return to the office (adopting instead a "wait and see" attitude as in the case at present for many organizations) are making a mistake. It is important to tackle this now, even if it means adjusting and fine-tuning later on. Talking to your employees and preparing for their return as best as possible by presenting concrete actions and proposals will help nip many insecurities and frustrations in the bud. Companies should not hesitate to set up pilot projects, as they demonstrate a proactive attitude and an interest in the well-being of the individual.
Building owners and managers must play a leading role and support these new initiatives. A return to workplaces in our buildings that is a smooth transition is very much in our interest. It is not just a matter of getting tenants to return to their leased premises. The current crisis is diminishing, but it is not over. More than ever, it is time now for key players in the real estate industry to join forces and share expertise in order to revitalize our cities and play an active role in Quebec's economic recovery.