Ever since workers began returning to the office more than two years ago, it’s been an ongoing tug-of-war between employers and employees about working in-person versus working remotely. Tech companies, many of which initially welcomed remote work, have recently reversed course and mandated employees be in-person multiple days a week. Other companies have taken more hard lines as well, with some workers’ performance reviews and even jobs hanging in the balance. But for workers who are returning to the office, many are finding the design—in many cases revamped to fit new styles of work—doesn’t actually work for them.
Gensler, the global design firm that works with some of the world’s largest office owners and occupiers, recently published a report about how employees are working in the United States and around the world. Based on a survey of 14,000 workers in nine countries (U.S., Mexico, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and the Philippines) last summer and fall, the study reveals how office employees spend their time at the office and how office design impacts their experience. Many of the results came as a surprise to the firm, Gensler’s Global Director of Workplace Research Janet Pogue told me, but a few key findings stood out. Namely, that offices are still not quite where workers need them to be. More than 60 percent of workers said they need to be in an office to feel the most productive in their work, but only 43 percent of the offices the surveyed employees work in have spaces that are effective and offer great workplace experiences. Additionally, only 38 percent of workplaces have been redesigned since the pandemic began. “We’re not making the necessary changes although we work differently and our expectations of the workplace are different,” Pogue said.
One of the most popular reasons companies have given for why it’s important for their employees to be back in the office is the notion that collaborative work must take place in person. Collaboration was one of the major themes cited by Amazon CEO Andy Jassy in a February memo to workers where he set a deadline for employees to begin working in the office at least three days a week. Last month, the CEO of tech company Cisco said his company was revamping its office to be “collaboration centers,” leaving just 10 percent of space for working alone. But while many have touted the importance of working together in the office, all that focus on collaborative space may have shifted the balance too far to one side. Gensler’s survey revealed that many workers feel their workplace is well suited for collaborative work but not up to par for working alone. That’s something that had been an issue long before COVID-19, according to Pogue. “We had seen even pre-pandemic that the workplace was not working well for people trying to work alone,” she said. “Noise, privacy; they were all in a February 2020 report that was published weeks before the pandemic hit. That has continued to get worse.”
Even as Pogue and her team were writing the questions for the wide-reaching survey, they had an idea in their mind that people would say they needed to work in other places, which could include home, for optimal individual productivity, but for teamwork and collaboration, they’d need to be in the office. It turns out, they were wrong. In fact, office workers said they needed to come into the office for both individual and team productivity. “It tells me the office is here to stay and an important part of the ecosystem with places we use, but also that the pandemic is a great equalizer,” Pogue said.
With respondents making it clear that the office is, in fact, important for all the ways in which they work, Gensler researchers looked even further. After analyzing the survey data by utilization and country, then segmenting it into 20 percent chunks of the week, they identified a sweet spot for workers to maximize their productivity at the office: between 58 to 68 percent of a typical work week at the office. But when they are there, workers want to be able to shift their focus and toggle between different kinds of tasks like they would have done pre-pandemic, when they were in the office more. As more companies have added collaborative space and cut down on private working areas, it’s not had the impact many thought it would. “We expect employees to work at home all day and do heads-down work, and do collaborative work at the office? We can’t break up our days like that,” Pogue said. “I think there’s this misnomer that we can separate our lives like that.” Some of the data she’s seeing is showing that partial days in the office are starting to increase, with a growing preference from workers to just come in part of the day and do other tasks elsewhere.
The disconnect between workers wanting an equal amount of private and collaborative space is being driven in part by an increasing number of companies shrinking their footprints and opting not to add private workspaces. After all, for many occupiers, the office is a place for being together and doing collaborative work. But a lot of companies are getting the message that there needs to be more. Pogue said she’s seen a number of clients launching pilot projects and experimenting with things like creating a library or quiet zone, areas that don’t take up a huge space and don’t need major remodeling. “They’re starting to create zones that people behave differently in that creates a safe area for privacy,” Pogue said. Carving out even the smallest space can make a big difference and can easily expand work-type options for employees.
Despite an aggressive push by a lot of major companies recently to get workers back to the office, it’s clear that it will continue to be difficult for office tenants to compete with non-traditional workplaces outside of the office. Both landlords and occupiers are working hard to draw workers back, whether it’s rolling out new amenities or reconfiguring offices to support different types of work. But as some of the latest research shows, paying constant attention to what works and what doesn’t is key in this ever-changing office landscape. And zeroing in on the right equation of individual and team work spaces and offering a good set of choices could make the difference for workers, and help offices turn the corner in terms of occupancy.