How 2 Tech Companies Are Evaluating Their Future Workplace Strategies
Nearly a year after the spread of the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and office workers turned their homes into their workplaces to curb the spread of the virus, the great work-from-home experiment has proved that the trend will at least in part become a fixture of our society.
But not everyone will work from home, real estate heads from a pair of tech companies said on a Bisnow webinar last week, and the vast majority of workers are expected to go into an office at least some of the time.
Twitter has been polling its employees on their preferred workplace arrangement throughout the pandemic, Twitter Vice President for Real Estate and Workplace and Remote Experience Tracy Hawkins said on the webinar. Right now, 10% want to come to the office entirely, 20% want to work remotely entirely and the rest prefer some kind of hybrid.
“It’s a great data point for us, but we can’t take it as gospel yet until we actually see the human behavior of when people come back in and feel safe,” she said. “So I think there are still a lot of unknown factors that are really going to tell us what it’s going to look like.”
Creative technology firm Avid, which is based in Boston, will soon begin a work-from-anywhere program that lets its employees choose whether they would like to work from home, in the office or some combination of both, Avid Senior Director of Global Real Estate and Workplace Laura Walsh said.
“All of those stereotypes [around working from home] have been disrupted a bit, and now hopefully people feel like they have a choice,” Walsh said on the webinar. “But then, I think that there are certain people who will choose the office ultimately, which I think is also interesting.”
It is a move that the company was discussing before the pandemic, she said, but one that was finalized after employees began working from home during the pandemic.
“I am feeling really excited about really being able to fully implement this and allow people to have … choice," Walsh said.
Avid is far from the only company to adjust its workplace plans after a year of working from home. As companies size up employee productivity while working from home nearly a year after the pandemic was declared, companies have increasingly begun to look at disposing of space. Some 75% of workers say they are as much or more productive in their homes than they would be in the office, according to a Global Workplace Analytics survey.
Still, it is unclear what employees will want and need after the majority of workers feel safe returning to the office once the pandemic is over. Some employees might prefer being in the office but can't because of their pandemic-induced life circumstances, such as their children being home from school.
"Some people can’t go back into the office right now. They’ve got kids at home, they’re having to deal with all of that craziness. ... We’re not back to normal in real life [right now], so we can’t make assessments or have true reflection on whether we’re going to have to go back to the office yet,” Hawkins said. "Some people just can’t, and they might not be loving the virtual experience, but it’s the only way they can get their jobs done."
For real estate, this means that while companies probably won’t be abandoning space en masse right now, many won’t be signing large, long-term new deals for a while.
“People are still a little bit shy to make any large decisions,” PwC Advisory Real Estate Director Katherine Huh said. “People are not necessarily getting rid of large amounts of real estate right now. They’re not increasing the real estate they’re getting right now either.”
In the meantime, companies are taking stock of current and future needs while plotting a preliminary course for the future.
“Everyone is in the analysis phase of paralysis,” Huh said. “Everyone is analyzing how their teams work, what type of work could be done remotely, what teams make sense to be remote. … They’re also looking at their lease portfolio. If they have a lease that is coming up for renewal, maybe they’re thinking about doing a shorter-term lease.”
While the world waits for the vaccine to roll out, testing has been touted by public health experts as a way to get back to some semblance of normalcy before then. But corporate workplace and office leaders on the panel said that this is a more daunting task than it may seem.
“There’s a series of logistical challenges after someone tests positive, and you have to be prepared to manage that,” Huh said, adding that the next steps would likely be costly and time-consuming.
Companies would also have to maintain some kind of record of testing, which could open them up to legal liability.
Avid decided against testing because of these logistical issues, coupled with the fact that it provides a snapshot in time, not a certainty that those in the office are not positive for the virus, Walsh said.
But Fisher Brothers Managing Director of Commercial Portfolio Crystal Fisher said that the method shouldn’t be dismissed. The lines around testing centers around the holidays prove that testing makes people feel comfortable, she said.
“I don’t think that it is fair to say that it may not be the right answer in some capacity,” said Fisher, whose company operates a large Manhattan office portfolio. “We’re talking about transitioning through this, and I believe that there is a large population that is seeking that immediate answer. … It’s all about knowledge and it’s all about whatever makes you feel comfortable to go through this moment.”
The speakers on the all-female panel also acknowledged how this shift in work, and life in general, has impacted women and parents in the workplace.
Some 32% of the over 4.6 million women who became unemployed amid the pandemic said the loss of their job came from the inability to find child care during this time, The New York Times reported last week. Many female leadership positions in businesses have been "transitioned," Fisher said.
“That means transition down or out, and so what does that mean for us?” she said. “That’s a massive, staggering impact.”
Working parents will be affected for the next couple of years, Huh said, advising companies to provide better support systems — and more leniency — for their staffers with families.
“I think that companies need to be very cognizant of that and considerate of that when it comes to review cycles and things like that,” she said. “That needs to be a factor into how people are stacking up against each other, because the playing field is not fair right now.”
The future of the workplace will continue to evolve as life gets back to normal, but the companies that will thrive are those that are able to meet employees where they are, the panelists said.
“Our mantra has been, 'Be human, bring your human to work, it’s OK,'” Avid’s Walsh said. “It’s just allowing people to be human and be themselves.”