Do we still need the OFFICE ?

By August 11, 2021No Comments

In the year since the first major lockdowns were implemented across the world, the pandemic has created a seismic shift in working and living patterns. The largest work-from-home experiment has largely concluded that there is indeed an appetite for greater flexibility and new hybrid ways of working — at least where employees are concerned.

But many employers are still looking at the office as a crucial space for productivity. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in a letter to shareholders that the bank will “envision a model that will find many employees working in a location full time,” while tweaking existing real estate to a more open seating arrangement. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon went further, famously saying that working from home is an “aberration”, and that it was “not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal.”

Solomon’s quote is in contrast to many other CEOs, especially tech sector leaders. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke perhaps best emphasized this trend in a tweet announcing the option of permanent remote work for his company. He proclaimed, that “most will permanently work remotely,” and that “office centricity is over.”

But who is right, and who is wrong? Does office space still matter post-pandemic? How will it change?

HOME OR OFFICE? Now that vaccines are becoming available and social distancing restrictions are being relaxed in some regions, leaders need to decide whether to bring employees back to the office, remain at home, or use this as an opportunity to adopt a new, possibly more beneficial workplace model.

It’s clear that leaders and employees alike are now used to working from home. There are certain expectations now from employees who see flexible working as the ‘new normal’. This is especially pertinent for employees with families and working mothers who want to spend hybrid time at home.

But there are signs that work-from-home fatigue is setting in. Roddy Allan, Chief Research Officer of JLL APAC says, “Nearly half of employees are exhausted, feeling overwhelmed and under pressure while working from home. Also, they are craving ‘real’ human interactions with colleagues. This is contrast to October 2020, whereby employees were aspiring to a more balanced working pattern. In our interactions, three days in the office and two days of remote work is the new employee preference. Our research suggests, the office will become the primary place of work again, as home working fatigue grows and productivity levels at home decline.”

In Asia, whose economies, in particular China’s, reopened the quickest, and where people generally live in smaller homes that lack the space and amenities for effective homeworking, the findings of surveys conducted last year showed that most workers missed the social interaction that office life brings.

CASE STUDY: CHINA China has reopened its economy at a pace unparalleled to the rest of the world. Chinese workers are streaming in as the pandemic eases and restrictions are largely gone.

A Gensler survey of 3,130 full-time office workers in China show that 99% are either at the workplace full time or working in a hybrid model, splitting their time between the workplace and various alternative locations. They spend at least one day in the office every week, and two-thirds spend the majority of their working time in the office.

The survey found that employees wanted to return first and foremost to work with colleagues. They have missed each other and the sense of belonging that working together creates. The office in China is more collaborative than ever.

But working from home did uncover problems that already existed with the physical office. Working in isolation at home is great for focus work. One in three office workers in China now say their workplace feels overcrowded and distracting. Further, many workers say that they can’t find privacy or private rooms when they need it. Workers want the best of what they experienced at home to be applied to their workplaces.

Very few Chinese companies made physical changes to the office beyond enhanced cleaning and policy changes before returning. Office workers in China have reported struggles with noise and distraction in the office as it comes back to full capacity, particularly with the added increase of virtual collaboration. Although work behaviours have changed, the space is still designed to support the former way of working, with no cues for new behaviours or new space types.

Overall, China’s workers have embraced a new work paradigm of hybrid work, maintaining the benefits of working remotely by establishing the workplace as the anchor of the workweek. They want the best of what they experienced at home to be applied to their workplaces. The Gensler survey found that 78 percent want the hybrid work model to be their way of working.

REDESIGNING THE OFFICE China’s experience clearly shows that offices are still viewed as the optimal working environment. In the real estate investment market, the office sector’s share of transaction volumes is the highest in Asia, at 48 percent last year, compared with just 23 percent in the US, the first year when the proportion of office deals fell below that of industrial and logistics transactions, according to property consultant RCA.

Signs of homeworking fatigue are accentuating the importance of office life, especially when it comes to mentoring and managing, innovation and corporate culture. Far from heralding the end of the office, the pandemic is giving some of its key functions a new lease of life.

However, while most workers want to be in the office for most of their working week, homeworking has put a spotlight on employees’ expectations. Providing staff with more autonomy and remote working options are now a crucial part of companies’ real estate strategies. The focus has shifted from, “Is hybrid working productive?” to “What can we do to continue to support our employees’ mental health?”.

Tina Qiu, senior associate partner at PLP Architecture, says, “The sharing of ideas through spontaneous thinking and chance meetings is essential for the growth of our global community. If businesses want to innovate, they need to promote a culture which allows this to happen and the best place to do this will be in spaces that can bring everyone together.”

“The creation of physical spaces which unite people, giving them a common identity and allowing an exchange of ideas, will be even more essential than before. Buildings will need to be designed to encourage more spatial variety, choice, promote health and well-being, and contain more spaces for innovation and collaboration,” she explains.

Aside from collaborative space, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of health and wellness for employees. JLL’s Allan explains, “In the post pandemic world, offices will have to ensure that hygiene and social distancing measures stay put to give confidence to employees to safely return to the office. Improving indoor air quality through air conditioning and biophilic design will also come to the forefront as will greenery in the office, which also boosts mood and productivity.”

“Simply adding indoor plants can be easy and cost effective way for SMEs to transform their office space,” he adds.


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