The front view on a modern open space office
PHOTO: Adobe

With vaccination programs in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world, remote work, or more specifically hybrid work, will be the new work model for many organizations. It is also clear that many companies, including some of the biggest tech companies that have developed tools to enable remote work, are going back to the physical office.

People Want To Return To Work

In fact, the slow return is already happening.  According to recent Randstad Workmonitor research, the global workforce — fatigued by restrictions and safety concerns — is emerging in 2021 with a more optimistic and hopeful outlook for the year ahead.

The semi-annual survey of more than 27,000 workers in 34 markets conducted in the first quarter of 2021, showed that workers around the world are ready to go back to their workplace and more than willing to receive the vaccine if required by their employer.  The key findings of the research include:

  • 78% want to go back to the workplace at least partially if not full-time.
  • 75% would be willing to get vaccinated if it is required for their job.
  • 54% think they will have more job opportunities this year.
  • 52% say their experience with work during the pandemic has motivated them to stay with their employer for the long term.

Related Article: Why Remote Working Will Not Become the New Work Model

Planning for Physical Change

It is also clear that the physical workplace itself is going to change and company leaders, if they have not already made their plans should be planning now, according to Michael Wacey, director of digital architecture and future of technology at Paris-based Capgemini Invent. There are several considerations that they must account for, he said.

  • Provide employees with an assurance of safety:  Capegemini is seeing organizations implement special air filters, disinfection procedures, and a workplace distancing policy. Updated air handling systems will allow for removal of viral contaminants through filters or disinfection. Additionally, people may be separated further, or barriers may be erected that comply with social distancing protocols. For the time being, employees may need to wear masks when moving about the office as a precaution in enabling employees to feel safe, even if government regulators drop these recommendations.
  • Implement new policies and procedures concerning working locations: The ability to work remotely was a concept prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Efficacy is less of a concern with remote work than before, making a case for some remote work to continue, based on the needs of the business. Here are some examples of how this could look:
  • Reduced working space: If offices have been reduced in size, working times could be staggered. Some organizations may elect to have everyone be on site for two days per week or employees may need to share desk space, requiring schedule coordination. Teams will use spreadsheets to plan office use to ensure capacity limitations are not exceeded. People may only have to be on-site when they must meet with others in person.

“The remote work trend was well established prior to COVID-19,but the pandemic has accelerated this shift and organizations need to embrace the new hybrid model that will result from it,” Wacey said. “The vast majority of employees will be remote sometimes and on-site the rest of the time. Just as organizations adapted to remote work, they will adapt and shift to this new model.”

Changing Attitudes

While many employers are still without a concrete plan for a return to office, a couple of prominent voices have changed their tune since the inception of the pandemic. Take Morgan Stanley for example. At the beginning of the COVID-crisis, the CEO of Morgan Stanley was vocal about the company’s plans to reduce their real estate footprint, having discovered the wonders of remote work. However, this March a spokesperson discussed the issue with new sentiments, announcing that the company planned “a full return to the Midtown office when it is safe to do so.”

Along with Morgan Stanley, Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Apple have all announced their plans to return in full, Zain Jaffer the CEO and founder of New York City-based Zain Ventures, said. These are influential voices that will surely speak to other employers who might be on the fence or otherwise undecided. Whether or not most employees will land on a full return, a staggered approach, or a permanent hybrid model, the new practical layout of the post-COVID office will be shaped by several factors:

 1. More Space Per Employee

Space will be the top priority when it comes to navigating a return. For the last decade, the allocated space per in-office employee has been on a downward trend, reaching a low of 175 square feet per person — almost half of what it used to be only ten years prior. 

The same trend is taking place across the market. A company called Kastle Systems partnered with UBS to amass data regarding the use of office space as it stands. They called their findings the "Back To Work Barometer", and they used keycard and fob information for 3,600 buildings across 47 states to gather their data. Areas in which COVID-restrictions were lighter, such Dallas, Austin, and Houston metro, have been hovering around 35%-40% of professionals making some use of the office since December. San Francisco, New York, and San Jose were among the slowest on the back to work barometer, staying steady at about 10%-15%.

 2. Tech for a Better Return

During the pandemic, new vendors have appeared on the market to help employers better understand and plan their use of space. Basking is a solution that connects to a building’s WiFI infrastructure to offer real-time office occupancy monitoring, accumulating valuable data and reporting on real estate opportunities. Similarly, Watson Works was recently released by IBM to help employers monitor compliance and manage facilities.

 3. Predicting Future Use

Jaffer pointed out that in an April report, UBS reported that the national office vacancy rate for offices in all classes was 16%. Part of that number might be the amount of new building projects that have recently been added, increasing supply. Still, most market segments are hovering at roughly that amount, with no areas dipping too far below the 16% average. 

In truth, the future of the office and the scale and timing of a return is anyone’s best guest. But it seems safe to say that there will be a few new necessities: more space, better tech, and new home-bases. Hopefully, the new phase of our corporate normal will combine the best of both worlds, maintaining the benefits of remote work and elevating the way we use in-office space.

Enterprise of Home Offices

While the pandemic has forced many professionals to experiment remote work for the time in a temporary fashion, many companies such as Square, Coinbase, Shopify & Slack have decided to make WFH a permanent option, allowing their employees to work from anywhere indefinitely. Over a year into the pandemic, we can see how the office has permeated into the home and how that may be here to stay, said Thibaud Clement, CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Loomly. More surprisingly, and less-discussed, is how — reciprocally — the home has permeated the office, with usages and habits typically specific to the personal sphere now translating into  practices into the professional realm. Examples of this include:

  • Flexible hours: Research suggests that flexible work is the future of work. Some benefits spawning from the remote work culture, such as  measuring success based on output rather than presence (something we do at Loomly), is gaining in popularity, as both employers and employees see value is moving outside the bounds of the traditional 9-to-5 schedule, hence the rise of flexible work arrangements even for office-based employees.
  • Casual dress code: another visible aspect of WFH being brought to the office is an evolution of dress codes, shifting towards the more casual end of the spectrum.
  • Emojis: the blurring of our work and personal lives during the pandemic is redefining what is considered professional when we communicate with colleagues. For example, Microsoft Design VP Jon Friedman is now using emojis at work, something he typically used to reserve for personal communication — and something he sees as a good thing.

 "WFH is here to stay, but its most visible and sustainable impact may not be that most people will work from home most of the time. It could very well be that WFH culture is going to reshape, permanently, the way we work in the office instead,” said Clement.