While telecommuting has grown in popularity over the years, only about 3.6% of the US population worked remotely pre-pandemic. That number abruptly spiked earlier this year—over 30% of workers who were employed in early March had switched to working at home by the first week of April.
And some people believe that these new remote arrangements may stick in the long-term as businesses and employees alike adopt new habits and technologies.
What does this mean for the future of office buildings? They’ll need to be reimagined, but they won’t be going away.
Read on for why and how.
The fine line between productivity and exhaustion
Before COVID-19, the conventional wisdom was that office structures were important for productivity, culture, and attracting good talent. But research shows that two-thirds of managers report increased overall productivity from their employees who work from home. Plus, a whopping 86% of employees say they’re most productive when they’re alone (thanks to fewer meetings, loud office spaces, and chatty cube mates).
However, this increased productivity often comes at a price.
“An April 2020 survey by Blue Jeans found that remote workers are tacking on an additional 3.13 hours per day while working from home. Among those who feel like productivity superstars? Well, they’re logging 4.64 hours more,” explains Gwen Moran in Fast Company.
All of those extra hours might mean that more work gets completed—but it also means more workers are feeling strained. Seventy-three percent of working professionals report being burned out in April compared to 61% in mid-February.
The top reasons for this WFH fatigue?
- No separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’ (27%)
- Unmanageable workload (20.5%)
- Job security concerns (nearly 19%)
Some workers are also feeling what’s come to be known as “Zoom fatigue,” explains psychologist Jeffrey Kassinove. He says, “Humans are social and need typical social contact.”
Clearly, the physical office offers important mental and emotional benefits to the employees in the building. According to a survey by Gensler (a global design and architecture firm), only 12% of the workers in the US want to continue working from home full time. The rest would rather return to the workplace—though with some critical changes.
Remote work is more feasible for some industries
Tech startups and the technology industry, in general, have shown better signs of resilience and recovery, given the structures and systems in place to support remote work with well-defined processes. With some initial obstacles, they were able to quickly upskill employees across different functions and roles to help them adapt to a remote setup—and are continuing to allow employees to work remotely as they see fit.
Facebook, for example, was one of the first companies to allow employees to work fully from home, and they will be allowed to do so through 2020 if they so choose. Google, Microsoft, and Twitter have also offered employees the ability to work from home.
However, it is estimated that 63% of U.S. jobs still require significant onsite presence. This includes jobs in industries like retail, manufacturing, and hospitality, as well as government organizations.
“Working from home is certainly a trend among some companies, in the tech industry, even in the higher education industry, but when you think about major employers like Starbucks or McDonald’s, their employees can’t work from home,” says Alexander Colvin, a labor and employment researcher and dean of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.
While many businesses in this position have shifted some of their services to digital platforms, the majority of their processes still require physical presence. Many of these companies have therefore been creatively resizing their footprint with practices like rotating days and strategic relocation of physical locations.
What property managers must consider moving forward
While physical workspaces aren’t going away, they also can’t look the same as they have in the past.
Workspaces today and moving forward will continue to be focused on traditional goals like cutting the bottom line, increasing productivity, and building culture—but the fundamentals of office design must evolve to accommodate the pandemic-driven changes in the attitudes and needs of occupants. Workers are, for example, counting on their employers to bring them back to work safely and communicate clearly about those safety efforts.
Property managers need to address the following primary factors when reimagining their pandemic-proof buildings.
1. Set up appropriate safety and hygiene measures.
From face mask requirements and frequent disinfection to social distancing and air quality monitoring, workspaces must have a safety plan in place. These measures are necessary to keep building occupants healthy—and build trust with those occupants.
2. Resize footprint and stagger return
To keep occupants distanced appropriately, determine which employees and staff most need to be on-premises. These people should get priority space in the office, while others are allowed to work from home or visit the office on a staggered return to limit exposure. To determine who these people are, PwC suggests analyzing which roles transitioned smoothly to remote working—and which didn’t.
3. Create a contactless environment
Reduce as many physical touchpoints as possible within the building. For example, replace fingerprint or sign-in entry with mobile-enabled access control, and allow occupants to adjust comfort settings like HVAC and lighting from personal handheld devices.
4. Rethink building automation to improve operational efficiency
With the right technology and data, operators can perform predictive maintenance, heading off health and safety issues before they occur. Identifying and addressing potential issues also helps to keep the business compliant with new and evolving regulations, such as those regarding HVAC and indoor air quality.
Are you ready to reimagine your workspaces?
While remote work has seen a surge in 2020, office properties are here to stay. Physical spaces can offer key benefits to occupants and operators alike—provided they quickly transform to meet evolving needs.
In the wake of a global pandemic, property operation and facility management leaders need to toss out their old methods and move forward with agile data-led operating models that create a safe, comfortable, and frictionless experience for everyone in the building.