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What do employees really want when they return to the office?

June 23, 2021

By Mary Sorensen

Collaboration space? More social areas? The number one desire might surprise you.

Big questions loom for corporations, organizations, and their employees about the office during this pandemic-induced period of transition. What will it look like? Who will be there? What will draw us to it? What do employees want? What do they need to do their best in this coming post-remote work world? 

We’ve lived with work from home for more than 12 months now. But, with vaccination rollouts and safety protocols in place, many workers are returning to the office. Experts in the workplace design world and the commercial real estate community are predicting that broad adoption of the hybrid workplace model (allowing a mix of work from home and work from the office) is likely. This would result in a decline in the need for office space and a changing role for the office space that remains.  

But, in fact, these predictions are mostly conjecture based on a mass remote-working experiment. To understand where the office is headed, we need to find out what office users—the employees—really wants from their workplace. What are they missing with work from home? If given the option to work in the office, what will bring them back? This is important, because research shows workplace satisfaction benefits not only the employee but directly contributes to company performance. 

We did a survey, then a quiz. 

In the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stantec issued its Workplace Transformation Survey to clients to understand their experience during the work-from-home experiment. Many respondents in this survey were surprised by their organizations’ continued effectiveness with employees working remotely. And they expected to maintain some of this new-found flexibility in the future.

Recently, we followed up with the BlueSky Quiz™ to gain insights into how the work-from-home experience might impact employee expectations of a future workplace and how that might differ from their pre-pandemic offices. The BlueSky Quiz™ assesses perceived corporate culture, the current office profile, personal workstyles, attitudes, and expectations about changes for the future. An algorithm scores users’ responses to produce a possible future workplace profile for everyone who takes the quiz. Results range from traditional private office-centric plans to a future-forward workplace with no assigned desking.

We were surprised that places for individual work were the number one choice of 75% of respondents and collaboration spaces were only 11%.

Big picture: Flexibility and variety

Respondents reported a generally high level of satisfaction with their current workplace. But a closer look found that those with the lowest satisfaction indicated their workplace is weighted to space for individual work over collaboration, with a significantly small amount of amenity spaces. On the other hand, those most satisfied reported a balance of individual, collaborative, and amenity space. When presented with options for the future, employees indicated a preference for variety and a more informal, flexible environment. This is especially true in their ideas about collaboration spaces. Eighty-two percent of respondents would prefer informal, ad-hoc meeting spaces in a future workplace rather than their current formal conference rooms.  

In short: Respondents want variety, and they want informal spaces to be available. 

Big surprise: Solo work space

Employees are anticipating a return to the office. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated they want to come back to the office but only part-time. Ninety-five percent expect their company to allow some degree of flexibility to work outside the office in the future, and 24% anticipate they may work elsewhere more than half of the week. And 78% said that the work-from-home experience of the past year will change the way they use the office in the future.

So, what surprised us? Participants were asked to complete the sentence, “When I return to the office, the ideal workplace would provide ...” by ranking options of space types for individual work, collaborative work, and social connections. After reading the headlines about forecast reductions in office space due to the adoption of hybrid work, and survey results demonstrating employees’ expectations to work outside the office, we were surprised that places for individual work were the number one choice of 75% of respondents and collaboration spaces were only 11%. “A desk of my own” was the number one pick for 33%, indicating that many don’t embrace hoteling or desk sharing with their increased flexibility. Social spaces led the second-choice options, followed by collaboration spaces.  

It’s interesting to consider why individuals would hold so tightly to a desk. It could be a lack of vision for how a future office may function. Perhaps they haven’t considered how the “need” might be met in alternative ways. But maybe it’s not about functional necessity but more about a subconscious longing for a sense of connection to place, or ability to claim individual territory within a larger context.  

In short: Employees want to maintain “me” space in the future office.

The takeaway

Research and intuition tell us that employees will return to the office for the social experience, to collaborate and exchange ideas. They want informal spaces as settings for this face-to-face collaboration and connection. So, yes, we should consider their desire for social and collaboration spaces in the return to work. 

But we need to remember that for some, the office is still a place for solo work. And many employees continue to expect a dedicated desk when they arrive. Organizations may look to solutions such as a user-friendly reservation system for desk and office assignments along with scheduled hygiene/cleaning protocols. 

In short: Successful workplace transformation will require robust change management efforts.

A modification? 

Does this challenge the idea that the future office will be half the size and serve as a collaborative hub with flexible work-anywhere spaces? To a degree it modifies that idea. It reminds us that people have complex and varying needs in the workplace. 

We also saw that workplace needs varied significantly by industry. So, we know that to create positive change, we must design the workplace with an understanding of the unique needs of a given organization rather than an overlay of trends and assumptions.

Possibilities 

Culture, technology, and workflows will all affect the level of mobility of an organization and the degree to which it can adopt a hybrid work model. Our four hypothetical future workplaces ranged from assigned desks for all to a mix of assigned and shared seating and finally a model with no assigned desks and a variety of “touchdown” areas. In that scheme, teams reserve areas of desking and meeting spaces as needed assuming that most work can be done elsewhere. The global results of the quiz were equally split between the four typologies.

However, when we have used the quiz with specific clients, we have seen results skew heavily to one or maybe two options. This allows leadership to compare where they are to where they want to be and define a path to get there.  

Adapting to a return to the office may have challenges. But it is an historic opportunity—to refocus and evolve the role and function of the workplace and create a strategy to support the unique needs and goals of our clients. 

  • Mary Sorensen

    With a design career spanning two decades, Mary has worked in the workplace, technology, higher education, healthcare, and public utilities sectors.

    Contact Mary
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