It seems like every day a new company announces that they will be returning to the office. But even when they do return, it is becoming clear that the workweek will continue to look different from the old model: the Monday to Friday 9-5. Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans suspects that in 2021, the workweek won’t be completely remote or completely in person. It’ll likely be a mix of both, in the shape of a “3-2-2” week. That’s three days in the office, two days of working at home, and two days of rest.
As employers evaluate the costs and benefits of office space and employees demand long-term remote work options, this middle ground could be a compelling option for many companies. The commercial real estate market, meanwhile, is due for a reassessment of existing portfolios. As companies search for office space solutions that better serve the workforce’s productivity, flexibility, well-being, and digital needs, investment strategies must respond accordingly. Here’s a deeper look into how the 3-2-2 trend will transform commercial real estate.
The best of both work worlds
Stories about the trials of remote work abound. At home, many professionals struggle to manage child care, navigate tech difficulties, connect meaningfully with colleagues, and find a quiet space to work. The home work environment’s toll on many workers’ productivity has left them itching to get back to the office. According to a JLL survey, 58 percent of workers miss the office substantially.
At the same time, the flexibility of remote work is too desirable for most workers to give it up entirely. That’s why the 3-2-2 model is so enticing. Preliminary surveys reveal that when it’s safe to fully return to the office, employees are on board with a hybrid work schedule. A different JLL survey of over 2,000 office workers found that 72 percent want to continue working from home on a regular basis post-pandemic, and a majority want to do so at least two days a week.
I spoke with Christina De Giulio, research manager at JLL, and she believes that employees want to get back to the office. “After an entire year of working from home, many employees are eager to return to the office in some capacity,” she said. “The office has long provided a place for focused work, free from the interruptions and distractions inherent to working from your living room. Plus, employees miss the social aspects of office life, like hallway conversations that spark new and unexpected ideas, energizing coffee meetings and in-person brainstorms,” she continued.
When workers are back in the office, however, they expect that the work environment they were accustomed to before the pandemic will change dramatically, and this is where commercial real estate investors enter the equation.
A worker-centric world
The challenges of remote work have only underscored the ways that physical environments shape employee performance and experience. A workplace that supports the worker is one that supports the workforce’s focus, collaboration, and overall well-being. Demand for office space that realizes these value propositions will soar as businesses shift to a worker-centric, rather than workplace-centric, philosophy.
JLL found that one in three employees are asking for private workspaces when they return to the office: less dense work environments to boost to health, productivity, and digital interactions when possible. “The workplace has the power to create a sense of belonging through designing spaces that support spontaneous interaction and bonding,” said De Guilio. “Looking ahead, employers need to take advantage of the opportunity to lean into workforce preferences and offer employee-centric solutions, as this will undoubtedly play an important role in their ability to recruit and retain top talent.”
In more concrete terms, this shift might mean the decline of open-plan offices, which have already been noted for their susceptibility to disease transmission. Instead, companies might opt for a blend of private offices and collaboration spaces that allow employees to move freely between focused work and collaborative work.
Commercial real estate investors should pay close attention to companies’ search for office solutions that take a comprehensive view of health. A worker-centric workplace prioritizes things like indoor air quality, lighting, green space, and ergonomic workspaces. Offices will need to help companies understand and improve their employees’ stress levels and help avoid burnout. This means not only upgrading what is in the building but figuring out how it fits into the overall wellness ecosystem, which includes all of the factors both withing and around the building
The health and wellbeing imperative for office spaces will also require designs that minimize the spread of infectious diseases, both through the remainder of the pandemic and every flu season to come. This will largely entail stricter cleaning practices, flexible layouts that can facilitate social distancing, and touchless building technology.
To seamlessly connect remote and in-office workers and to serve the needs of a worker-centric world, offices will need to be digital-first. The commercial real estate market should embrace the digital transformation that’s long been underway.
Managers of hybrid teams will rely on familiar technology like VPN, video conferencing platforms, and digital communication channels to collaborate with workers who are home, in the office, or anywhere in the world. Tighter IT and security infrastructure will be necessary, too, in the wake of a record year of cyber attacks.
But hybrid workforces could also see the rise of innovative technology that pushes the integration of digital and physical even further. I expect that we will see offices harnessing much more IoT and sensor data to track what is happening in the physical office. This might even be used in AR/VR platforms to create a virtual office experience for those that are not able to come to the workplace in person.
Do more, consume less
There’s been a collective call for more eco-friendly office spaces, and tech solutions are the driving force behind many sustainability initiatives. Tech-powered sustainability initiatives are already taking hold in commercial real estate markets across the country. In New York City, for example, the Mayor’s Office launched a public-private partnership to curb emissions for commercial buildings by at least 30 percent over the next 10 years.
A widely adopted 3-2-2 model would mean different flows of people through office buildings, which gives decision-makers the opportunity to consider new energy systems, eco-healing practices, and environmental performance reporting.
There are three main stakeholders in the ecology of work: employees, employers, and commercial real estate leaders. Each one knows that work has changed for good. The question becomes how all three can work together to shape the future of work for the better.
Premium downtown commercial real estate is about to get more competitive all across America, and companies will have higher standards for their office experience than ever before. As the COVID-19 vaccine makes its way to the workforce, commercial real estate leaders should prepare for the flexible, digital, sustainable, and most importantly worker-centric future of the office. As we return to normal we are reexamining everything about how we work. One of the things that will likely change is the structure of the workweek—something that will affect commercial offices going forward.