Attitudes Toward Office Environments Are Everything But Predictable
Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the future of office space is still an open question. Vaccines are being administered, but as a return to the office becomes a more realistic possibility, opinion varies widely on what office workers, especially tech and highly skilled workers used to an array of amenities, will want from office space in the future — or whether they will want it very much at all.
Even as surveys show that 60% of businesses plan to shrink their office footprints and with the likes of IWG CEO Mark Dixon saying offices have changed forever, companies are making plans. Some, such as Salesforce.com, have already decided remote work will be a permanent feature going forward for their tens of thousands of employees, with about 65% of Salesforce's 54,000 employees in the office no more than one to three days per week.
“We’re not going back to the way things were,” Salesforce President and Chief People Officer Brent Hyder told The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t believe that we’ll keep every space in every city that we’re in, including San Francisco.”
With different corporate cultures, disparate communal space requirements and varying views on the effectiveness of remote work, finding a consensus on the future of office space is going to be a drawn-out process in which office owners and managers are going to have to pay attention to tenants like never before, experts say. It won't be easy.
"There's a lot of cognitive dissonance right now," Newmark Vice Chairman Liz Hart said. "Companies want to cater to the needs of their employee base, but they're finding that individual employee preferences on the matter of work from home are changing month to month and even week to week, even depending on people's moods when they happen to fill out the employee survey."
Hart, who specializes in tech tenant rep, said that changing circumstances are going to change employees' attitudes toward in-person and remote work arrangements in ways that can be hard to predict. People say they want a healthier workplace, but even that goal is a shifting one.
"During the fires last summer in California, we heard something really unexpected from many of our tenants," she said. "There was a spike in the number of people who wanted to return to their offices.
"In San Francisco specifically, the air quality was pretty bad at the time. Because air filtration is so much better in office environments, people wanted to be in those places. Obviously, that situation was short-term, but it does illustrate the current unpredictability of attitudes toward office space."
Before COVID-19, landlords thought in terms of amenities to keep tenants happy. Now they will need to think in terms of flexibility, experts say. An October study by Vettery, a recruitment specialist, found that workers are more open to remote work than ever, and a hiring manager can increase the number of top applicants received by at least 85% simply by offering remote work options.
"Different workplaces will have different needs and requirements in terms of safety, and some workers may be more eager to get back to the office than others," Vettery CEO Josh Brenner said. "Even when we’re able to go back to offices, companies will need to offer remote work roles and increased work flexibility if they want to attract and retain the best talent."
The most important thing any employer should do when considering moving back to in-person work is to have clear, transparent discussions with their workers, Brenner said, the better to relay exactly what they want from their space.
"That being said, remote work should always be an important part of any business's strategy moving forward," Brenner said.
How much is the question. Executives and workers are still grappling with the question of how widely to extend remote work options, according to a survey released in January by PwC. Fewer than 20% of executive respondents want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic, while 13% want to let go of the office for good.
Eighty-seven percent of employees told PwC that office space is important for collaborating with other workers and building relationships, which is in fact what they want the most from office space. But there isn't agreement yet on how much time is necessary for that purpose.
Once the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, 55% of workers would prefer to be remote at least three days a week, according to the January survey, which isn't much changed from a similar survey in June (59%). More than two-thirds of executives say a typical employee should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain distinct company culture, the survey found.
There is a risk that companies will only pay lip service to worker input and make their office space decisions based on their own hunches, which might well align with a cost-cutting imperative.
"People talk about the interpersonal aspects, but honestly, why return to work when you've got less overhead from a corporate perspective and folks that are probably happier working from home for the most part?" redevelopment specialist Repvblik CEO Richard Rubin said.
Gathering information about what employees want from their office space ranges from informal — asking directly, in the case of small companies — to highly systemized. In between, any number of off-the-shelf surveys exist for that purpose.
"The advantage of being a boutique real estate firm is that we have open lines of communication," Katz & Associates CEO Brian Katz said. "Employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions about office layout and working in the office as opposed to virtually."
Smaller companies can also be nimbler when it comes to finding out what their workers want and addressing those needs, according to Katz, whose company has six offices in the eastern U.S.
"Our offices have been mostly open since Labor Day," he said. "While we've accomplished a great deal working virtually, our employees say they like to work together, in person, whenever possible. For the organic connection and conversation, sharing of ideas and camaraderie."
In the case of an operation like WeWork, whose lifeblood involves getting people to show up in person to work, the process of surveying worker sentiment is ongoing.
“WeWork has a data-driven approach to collecting feedback from our members," WeWork Global Head of Member Experience David McLaughlin told Bisnow by email. "At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we integrated specific questions to our ongoing member surveys regarding how WeWork could improve our member’s experience."
The result was thousands of pieces of feedback through the company's survey platform, which WeWork used to make adjustments in its spaces, McLaughlin said. That included the addition of sanitization stations and updated designs to reflect social distancing protocols.
The surveys are delivered at regular intervals throughout a member’s time at WeWork but also during move-in, move-out and renewals. The company hasn't released any findings about what workers will want post-pandemic, though officials said the company will adapt its products and policies accordingly.
The process of determining the future of the office is underway, and the people shaping it will have to be as flexible and responsive as their tenants have been to being forced out of the office amid the pandemic.
"What used to be is being reshaped to what needs to be," T. Dallas Smith & Co. principal Corey Ferguson told Bisnow by email. "More attention is being given to the health of the workforce with schedules and shifts, and repurposing and revamping existing space to accommodate greater flexibility. [Office space] amenities are being driven by what areas remain within the space and how each can be used safely and effectively."