For decades, businesses were largely office-first. When you hired a new employee, you also hired a new desk. The majority of office space was dedicated to single-use desks and whatever was left was assigned a ‘collaborative’ space.
By our estimates, August 2020 — not even a year into the pandemic — was the tipping point towards a more flexible working style for most working professionals. Companies and employees both began to accept the death of the assigned seat and the notion that at some point, everyone would return to the same old workplace.
Employees liked the flexibility of remote work, they knew they could get their work done and now, the onus was on businesses to convince their teams to come back into the physical office.
It was a tough sell when you consider the safety concerns around re-entering public spaces or the fact that productivity during the early months of the pandemic actually went up.
For the better part of the last 15 years, the United States economy was stuck in a period of low productivity growth. Surprisingly, the pandemic was a catalyst for much-needed growth. According to research by the New York Times, labor productivity rose at a 3.8% annual rate, compared with 1.4% from 2005 to 2019.
As companies planned their future workplace strategy, it was no longer about whether or not remote workers could be productive — productivity was booming! The question became about how to retain that level of productivity and happiness without risking burnout, sacrificing the workplace culture and leaving behind the innovation that comes from in-person collaboration.
In this article, we will explore:
- The biggest changes in workplace culture since the pandemic
- The stories being told through workplace data
- The missteps in early return-to-office plans
- How workplaces can set their spaces up for success
A look under the hood: Workplace data insights
Pre-pandemic, the main issue with the physical office was around collaborative space and the lack thereof. Our data showed a couple of million space bookings every month. Fast forward to today, and you can see a complete shift: Spaces are less important, but the individual desk is now at the forefront of what employees are looking for when returning to the office.
Before, you had an assigned desk and you sat next to the people you sat next to. In order to collaborate with anyone other than your desk neighbors, you had to find a room.
Now with hybrid work, teams or different groups of people can come in on varying schedules and plan to sit together or near each other for an entire day, enabling easier collaboration. Their desk pod becomes their collaborative workspace, instead of needing additional meeting space.
Rooms become much more about hybrid meetings and video conferencing.
What were the setbacks?
If everything went like we expected all the time, life would be a lot less interesting.
The pandemic has gone through its fair share of plot twists with new variants, federal and state mandates and global disagreements on how to handle this health crisis.
Companies are now tasked with not only creating an engaging workplace experience to convince employees to come back to the office but providing spaces that are sanitary, safe and compliant and where current policies can be easily changed and communicated.
In the best of times, that’s a big change to manage. In the worst of times, well, that’s kind of the situation we found ourselves in over the course of 2020 and 2021.
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of big public missteps when it came to the return to office. By and large, all of these plans had one thing in common: attempting to approach a more flexible style of work in a very inflexible way.
Mandating anything in an era of work that is largely being characterized by the power choice is a mistake. Businesses, to some extent, need to plan to adjust. Settling into a new way of working is a journey, not a destination. We are just seeing the first iterations of the future of work.
Workplace experience is an exciting topic because nobody knows the right answer yet. The blueprint for how your workplace will function moving forward is not only largely unknown but unique to your organization.
The good news is that you already have the answers you need for this workplace equation. You just need to start collecting the right data, which leads us to our next point.
How workplaces can continuously re-calibrate for the future
1. Keep your eyes on the data
Data points like employee bounce rate or desks booked are important metrics to monitor. These statistics give workplace leaders a snapshot of office performance. It's fine to convince somebody to go in once, but if they don't come back, it's a pretty good signal that your workplace isn't set up for success.
Now, it is up to leaders to investigate why that is happening and what changes you should make. Some examples of questions worth asking:
- If people are going back once and not coming back, why is that?
- What was it about the office that did not work?
- What are some of the challenges with flexible work?
- What could have made their office trip more enjoyable?
2. Prioritize the power of choice
If your team members are getting their work done, the sky should really be the limit. By prioritizing the power of choice, you empower your teams to make their work lives work for them. Which, in turn, makes employees happier, more engaged and more likely to stay with your company.
But how do you make decisions for this group of people knowing that everybody wants something very different and that they're all right?
Options and choice are the only answers. Trust your employees to make the right decisions for themselves. Remember: You cannot approach flexibility inflexibly. Businesses that do risk sending a message of mistrust, especially after two years of proof points.
3. Find ways to solicit employee feedback
As we move into 2022, information around how teams feel about their office trips or workplace experiences will play a pivotal role in decisions.
Some employees come into the office for human connection. These team members want to come in, see their colleagues and use the office as a resource for collaboration.
Other employees visit their workplaces to get some quiet time. In this case, these team members want to come in, find a focus area and get their work done (sans roommates, kids and other home distractions).
And the use cases don’t end there. Start by aiming to understand the core motivators for going into the office. Businesses can then leverage employee feedback to make smart, strategic changes to their office environments.
Remember, you don’t have to individually map your entire office’s reasoning for heading into the workplace. Generally speaking, any given office has a handful of preferences that can be accounted for; it’s a scalable approach to making feedback-driven decisions about workplaces.
Wherever you are in your office journey, Robin has the workplace management tools you need to simplify the process and the experts to help you get started.
Demo Robin today.
This post was originally published in Protocol magazine.