Hybrid, Situational Solutions Ascend As Daily Attendance Dies: Bisnow Readers’ Thoughts On The Return To Office
Five days a week at the office is dead, but 100% work-from-home isn't going to replace it. The details of what will replace it are still to be worked out.
Bisnow conducted a survey of 1,050 commercial real estate professionals in July, gauging how they feel about the return to the office now that it has begun, to one extent or another. On the central question of the future of work, Bisnow respondents skewed heavily toward the middle of the road, between going back to the way things used to be — five days a week at your desk — and never requiring anyone to come into the office again.
The survey was taken before the delta variant of the coronavirus drove a spike in cases, first bringing into question the predicted mass Labor Day return to the office, then definitively altering big corporations' plans for office returns. Still, many of the respondents Bisnow reached for further comment said the delta variant didn't change their feelings on returning to the office.
On the extremes, only 5.4% favored mandating a five-day return, and a similar number, 5.9%, said forcing anyone ever to come into the office is for the birds.
Many respondents (45.4%) favored either a case-by-case solution for companies, since some jobs need to be in an office more than others, or a hybrid solution (43.3%). Combined, nearly 9 out of 10 respondents said the future of office work won't be like pre-pandemic, but it won't involve as much remote work as during the coronavirus pandemic, either.
Those results show an even more pronounced tilt toward flexible office arrangements than Bisnow's survey in March, before many workers came back at all. At that time, the largest share of respondents, 45.8%, said they think employees should be allowed to work from home multiple days a week, but 11.4% still believed they should come back every day, and 9.8% said coming back wasn't ever necessary.
When asked their feelings about returning to the office and whether they have or not, 23.3% of the July respondents said they were already back and neither loving nor dreading the experience, while 22.9% said they were "somewhere in between" love and dread without being back yet.
Some 18% are back and "loving it," while 13.9% are "dreading going back." Though these are minority responses, they point to strong feelings on both sides of the question about returning to the office, full time or not.
"Dreading is a bit harsh, but I certainly don't want to return to the office," corporate real estate specialist Michael Keiser said. "I have always valued work-from-home for the efficiency, cost effectiveness, lack of chitchat — I'm not a small talker — and office politics, and finally the overall autonomy. It'd be difficult to return to an office, even if on a hybrid basis."
Keiser also cited legal complications as a factor in the future of office space. Unless the government implements regulations to protect businesses that use best efforts to protect workers and yet are still exposed to tort lawsuits, which he characterized as frivolous, he said there will be a major push for a return to work.
"The delta variant doesn't impact my thinking," Keiser said. "Work-from-home isn't only good for production from many workers, including me, it's also good for morale in the long term."
Some respondents fully embraced remote work and aren't looking back.
"I used the mandatory quarantine — being forced to work from home — to convert to working from home permanently after the quarantine," said Randy Renwand, a business process analyst in Colorado. "In my current role, I have no reason to go to an office 99% of the time, and I provide more value to my company from home. Delta has not changed anything for me."
At the other end of the spectrum are those who really want to return, though not necessarily every day of the week.
"I'm excited to return to the office to meet colleagues and our real estate community in person, to collaborate on projects, initiatives and assignments," Avison Young principal and President, Americas Professional Services Sheila Botting said.
"There’s nothing better than meeting friends and colleagues at downtown locations for breakfast, lunch, receptions and so on, to simply to engage and interact," Botting said.
Still, flexibility will be key going forward, Botting said, citing research conducted by Avison Young indicating that 46% of employees would look for a new job if flexible work weren't an option in their return to the workplace, while 59% of employees would only consider a new job that offers flexibility.
Survey responses also showed a divergence between productivity and happiness when it comes to working at home. Some 44% said they were more productive working from home during the pandemic, while 28.4% reported lower productivity, and a similar number (27.6%) observed no change.
As for happiness in their work-life balance during the pandemic, 58.3% said they were happier working from home. Only about a quarter characterized themselves as less happy working from home during the pandemic, and even fewer (15.6%) experienced no change.
Most respondents said in-person office work fosters creativity among workers, but more (35.9%) don't see daily attendance as necessary to get those benefits than those who believe daily attendance is critical to creativity (20.3%). Some 16% said they used to believe in daily attendance but don't anymore, saying once or twice a week is all that is needed.
Most respondents to the July survey weren't overly concerned about what will happen to downtowns or other places with high concentrations of office space once the new reality of office work is sorted out.
The majority of respondents, 57.8%, said that the emergence of flexible office schedules would have a small impact at most on the future of office space usage. They said companies will maintain their offices while working out flexible work situations, in other words.
Another 22.9% said it is unlikely that a significant number of companies will abandon their offices, meaning that downtowns will continue to thrive, but 19.2% took the view that downtowns will be majorly impacted by shifting patterns of office usage and "may lose their appeal for at least a generation."
Among respondents in smaller markets, there was extra concern about work-from-home in an environment in which internet connections can be dodgy. In that kind of environment, centralized office space is more than a luxury, becoming a necessity for a lot of workers.
"We live in a very rural area, so one resource that we do not have equal access to is broadband," Wayne County, Pennsylvania, community network specialist Kim Rickard said. "So it has been a struggle for many trying to work from home or attend school from home."
Rickard said that she experienced the problem on a professional level.
"I work with a collaboration of people from our community, and that's a challenge when trying to conduct Zoom meetings," she said. "The lack of broadband access presents many challenges here in rural Pennsylvania."
Bisnow's respondents were more evenly divided about the impact of remote work on efforts in the real estate industry to solve its diversity woes. A little less than a third (30.5%) agreed that if real estate struggled to recruit and retain diverse talent pre-pandemic, work-from-home isn't going to accelerate real estate’s diversity hiring goals.
Fewer respondents (26.4%) said that a hybrid model allows a greater diversity of people to be hired and then perform well since it strips away some office politics that can hold people back, while 21.5% said that work-from-home might actually worsen diversity because of unequal access to resources and mentorship.
Bisnow’s survey responses were collected in July from 1,053 reader respondents. The largest percentage (16.3%) of respondents were from the Washington, D.C., market, while 11.7% were from metro New York, 8% were from Atlanta, 7.7% from Chicago and 7.1% from the Bay Area. Other markets representing more than 4% of respondents were Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Dallas-Fort Worth.