By Meghan Hall
For many, a potential return to the office is on the horizon as multiple vaccines near widespread distribution. As that date draws closer, a number of questions have been raised with regards to office layout and design, with a special emphasis on how to keep employees safe. Long-term, however, global architecture and design firm Gensler is predicting that a number of changes are beginning to emerge in office design that go beyond social distancing and increased sanitation—the result of new employee expectations regarding flexibility, privacy and space sharing. Gensler has termed these adjustments the “hybrid future of work.”
“We had done a prior survey earlier in the spring, and I think we were anticipating some shifts in how people responded now that working from home has been more fully ingrained in our work life,” explained Gensler’s Managing Director and Principal Randy Howder. “So, I think we thought it would accelerate this trend toward a hybrid work mode but it really, definitively cemented that as the way we will work going forward…The results showed that future more than we had perhaps anticipated.”
For Gensler, its newest global survey indicated that now many employees have been working from home for a protracted period of time, there are a number of aspects that are part of the remote experience that they will not want to give up going forward. These Gensler believes, will ultimately lead to changes in workplace function and design long-term.
“The majority of people are wanting something other than being in the office five days a week, Howder added. “That’s been a shift that’s occurring, and…we’re starting to understand the role the office space can play in bringing employees together.”
Gensler found that most U.S. workers would still prefer to work in the office for the majority of the week, with 29 percent stating they would prefer to return full time. 28 percent of respondents stated they would like to work between one to two days at home, while another 24 percent stated they would like to work three or four days at home. Just 19 percent of those interviewed stated they wanted to remain working from home full time. Gensler also noted that 52 percent would like a hybrid work model—a combination of in-office and work from home options.
Those who do want to return to their physical offices miss the in-person collaboration as well as proximity to tech and other job-related services. Employees also miss the socialization, particularly as it relates to career opportunities and networking, that office spaces can provide.
Interviewees who wanted to continue working from home cited traffic as one of the top deterrents to returning to the office full time. 39 percent of those interviewed would return full time to the office if their commute was less than 15 minutes. 33 percent would return if their commute was between 15 to 30 minutes, while 27 percent would return if their commute was between 30 to 45 minutes. However, just 16 percent of workers would return to the office if their commutes took 45 minutes or more.
“We found by far one of the biggest determining factors of whether you wanted to work from home or go into the office most of the time was the nature of your commute,” said Howder. “That’s a major determinant, because [commuting] is not where people want to spend their time.”
Howder also stated that in markets like the Bay Area, or even emerging markets like Seattle, where traffic is worsening, commute times often exceed the 15-minute mark. In the Bay Area, commutes are easily more than an hour.
Additionally, greater flexibility and access to privacy as two of the top perks to remote employment, notes Gensler. Employees are able to achieve more head-down work time, and many are saving money on items like transportation and lunches—another noted upside to work from home.
While working away from the office full time has become what seems like a permanent fixture for many, Howder acknowledged that long-term, a return to the office will occur.
“Some companies have announced that they are going to be fully remote, and I think that’s a bit short sited,” said Howder. “…They may end up paying for that in the long-run; they may not need as much space, but I think they will still really need to focus on how they bring people together. It can’t be all virtual.”
While in the immediate future, health and safety will be overriding concerns in terms of office design, there are a few long-term impacts that will manifest in office design, inspired by the work from home environment. Gensler predicts this hybrid work model, which will include both aspects of traditional office work and work from home elements, will be the way forward.
Massive, open floorplates where employees are seated next to each other will become less common, as more workers yearn for the privacy they experienced in their own homes.
“I think that what we are seeing there is a continued and perhaps accelerated reaction to the challenges that we saw within the workplace pre-pandemic, where people worked in a primarily open environment,” stated Howder.
Just seven percent of U.S. workers would prefer a totally open work environment, said Gensler, while 34 percent would prefer a mostly private work environment. 28 percent of U.S. workers would prefer a somewhat option office. Currently, about 69 percent of those surveyed are in some form of open workspace.
New spaces that facilitate team-level collaboration and team-level privacy would provide a happy medium within office spaces, providing the socialization and connectivity that employees miss out on working from home, but an added level of privacy they would not otherwise receive while working in a densely filled floorplate.
Additionally, U.S. workers dramatically prefer assigned seating, with two-thirds willing to trade the ability of working anywhere in the office for an assigned seat. Those working in environments with unassigned seating reported struggling with privacy, maintaining social distancing and job satisfaction. Howder explained that even if employees worked partially in the office and partially from home in the future, workers still preferred specifically-assigned work stations.
“People in the United States were much less willing to give up their desk at work,” said Howder. “…They wanted a desk and the flexibility to work from home. They want the best of both worlds.”
Gensler also predicts a new prioritization of amenities will occur, with some of the more lavish perks offered by companies falling to the wayside. Basics like access to outdoor area and light, good coffee and tea, as well as just a focus on personal health and balance, will remain key. Access to tech support and job trainings and office services will also remain important.
Striking the balance between in-person and remote, basic office necessities and amenities, privacy and collaboration, will be the key to the successful future of the office, one that provides employees and employers with the flexibility and productivity they desire.
“If you get those right, that creates a foundation where people are happier,” said Howder. “I think the task of companies will be to think about how they can engage their employees and make their employees better…It’s not just about providing free stuff.”