By Meghan Hall
Over the past six months, those within the professional world have been part of an unprecedented experiment as employees left the confines of their offices to work from home. As millions adjusted to this new mode of working, those within the commercial real estate industry have sought to study the impact of widespread work from home initiatives. According to a recent survey released by Colliers International, companies and employees alike have found that work from home is not just feasible, but can result in higher levels of productivity and connectivity, despite being apart.
“This is the largest work from home experiment ever,” explained Vice President of Colliers’ Workplace Advisory Team, Michelle Cleverdon. “[The study] really was our innate wanting to understand what that work from home experience was, and how different workers were experiencing a very sudden event.”
Over the course of three months between March and June, Colliers collected more than 5,000 responses from workers in 25 countries and across 18 sectors. While the concept of virtual work was not new, noted Cleverdon, the rapid increase in the number of companies instituting work from home policies was entirely new.
“We have never had this opportunity before,” said Cleverdon, who added, “This was maybe an unspoken work style previously, but now that employees, leaders, managers—everyone across an entire organization—has actually experienced all of the highs and lows of virtual work, I think it’s a good opportunity to take and codify plans around that to optimize the employee experience and benefits to the employer.”
The survey had some surprising results. Colliers found that 76 percent of interviewees reported that productivity levels remained the same or improved due to working from home, while 83 percent expressed a desire to work from home at least one day per week permanently. 67 percent noted an improvement in a work-life balance. When it came to connecting with others, 74 percent felt connected to their teams, while 87 percent of those interviewed stated that management was effective, even virtually.
Other surprising findings include the fact that those surveyed—92 percent—were satisfied to the extent to which technology allowed them to work from home.
“Productivity, being that it was either sustained or improved, was a huge surprise,” said Cleverdon. However, Colliers believes the results will help turn the tide on some of the biggest misconceptions regarding virtual and work from home environments. Many of Colliers’ questions to employee revolved around what it perceived as the biggest impediments to the success of virtual work.
“We have known for a long time that virtual work could be successful, and there are a lot of studies that point to virtual teams having higher levels of engagement,” continued Cleverdon. “I think that this experience has helped to kind of debunk some of the myths and some of the emotional responses to virtual work.”
Traditionally, employers have shied away from work from home policies, believing that the home environment or an out-of-office worker would not be as productive, well-connected, or invested in the company.
“I don’t use the term remote very often,” said Cleverdon. “I think that’s an outdated term, almost pre-COVID-19 and doesn’t represent the nature of how people work. ‘Remote’ in and of itself, just denotes that you’re by yourself, disconnected. Through tech enablement people are connected.”
However, Colliers acquiesces that interviewee perspectives are likely to change over time, and that the initial excitement and motivation surrounding work from home requirements is likely to moderate as the pandemic continues on. As a result, Colliers has just launched a follow-up survey to evaluate how attitudes are changing over time.
“We know this was very much a period of time and focus were rallying around the crisis, making things work…our hypothesis going forward is that while we saw some improvements or ability to sustain productivity, we’re not sure how that will actually look in the extended work from home environment.”
Moving ahead, many industries could see a mix of in-office and virtual work environments. Work from home options will become pivotal for employers hoping to attract and retain employees, while virtual work can open up more diverse and experienced labor pools for those hiring. However, the office’s pivotal role as a hub for ad-hoc social interaction and sense of community will remain just as important.
“Fundamentally, we know employees desire the ability to choose and have autonomy over when and where they work, based on the outcome they are looking to achieve,” said Cleverdon. “We’re not proposing everyone remove to 100 percent virtual, or 100 percent office…Really it’s a balance between these two things. It’s not an ‘or’ but an ‘and.’”
For Colliers, offices will shift from an “anonymous and homogenous” design to a focus on quality space with specific branding and identities. If work from home is structured into employees’ schedules even after normal operations resume, Colliers predicts that there will be a reduction of core office space and less true work settings needed, with more emphasis placed on community and collaborative settings. Technology will need to evolve to support not just all virtual or all in-person settings, but a mix of the two as different teams work from different locations.
“This shift in mindset around the virtual experience…must act in synergy with the physical experienced, “stated Cleverdon. “Toggling between the two seamlessly will be important, and emerging tech will need to support more connective and telepresence type of activities as we think about flex collaboration, ideation and co-creation.”
The medium- and long-term impacts of work from home are yet to be determined, but virtual work is here to stay. The office will retain its importance, but hybrid work models will become increasingly valuable to employers and employees looking to balance productivity, space needs and flexibility.