It is now over 20 weeks since the great working from home experiment began. During this time, a few smaller occupiers have jettisoned their workspace altogether.
Some are reorganising their portfolios to reduce office space, meanwhile others are left wondering what to do for the best now that they have discovered that staff can work well from home – in some cases, anecdotally more productively than they could in the office.
Logistically, it is relatively easy to walk away from your office at the next lease break or expiry and make substantial financial savings on everything from rent and business rates to service charges, cleaning and utilities.
But before you make the decision to cut loose from your property and reap the immediate financial benefits, it is important to consider any potential unintended consequences.
To help inform that decision, we have analysed the outputs of several leading independent workplace surveys which explore the impact of working from home for both employee and employer, whilst predicting what this might mean for the future of the office.
The first study, the Leesman Index, has received over 50,000 responses to date worldwide and explores the future of the workplace and what role it will play for organisations.
Between 30 March and 30 June 2020, they analysed 21 core types of workplace activities, revealing that whilst 85% of respondents were working from home, the workplace continues to play a crucial role.
Does this mean working from home hasn’t been ‘successful’?
It all depends on what we mean by successful. Is it more popular? Is it more productive? Are people happier working from home?
The study found that home working was slightly more popular than the workplace with the majority of those working at home (80%) reporting it as an enabler of productivity. But this does not necessarily mean that home working is working ‘better’ than the office environment.
What is does represent, is an opportunity for tenants and landlords to improve the office environment to deliver more of the benefits experienced at home in the workplace.
Of course, the experience of working from home has not been positive for everyone, with one fifth of respondents to the Leesman Index reporting it to be obstructive and not supporting their daily work.
Health and wellbeing is paramount
Whilst working from home provides employees with the flexibility to juggle work and homelife demands, there are also long term downsides when it comes to stress, loneliness and productivity, as reported by Nuffield before the pandemic hit.
A happy workforce is a productive workforce, so when thinking about whether or not staff should work from home in the longer term, the health and wellbeing of employees is paramount.
This is particularly true in light of research published in The Lancet, showing that mental health in the UK has deteriorated compared with its pre-COVID-19 levels.
This tallies with the outputs of the Leesman Index, where 30% of respondents no longer felt connected to their colleagues or the organisation they work for (28%). Maintaining a healthy work life balance whilst working from home is also proving a challenge, with 28% reporting that they are unable to do so.
Even Microsoft reports that remote meetings tax our brains more than their in-person equivalent. Meanwhile, overwork and stress are reportedly higher in video meetings with fatigue setting in within 30-40 minutes and stress setting in about two hours into the day.
Their study goes on to say that, in addition to people working an hour longer in ‘Teams’, chats have also increased outside the typical workday.
This is reiterated by the Harvard Business Review which reports that a quarter of people surveyed state that their home working environment neither supports them to work productively nor enables them to ‘switch off’, with just 50% of employees managing to maintain a workday of 10 hours or less.
Meanwhile, a study in the United States published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, claims that the average lockdown working day worldwide is now 48 minutes longer than before the pandemic.
People are sending (and receiving) more emails than ever before, whilst working during different periods of the day in order to free up time for other responsibilities, none of which is sustainable or healthy in the longer term.
A novelty beginning to wane
For many employees, working from home simply isn’t a practical long term solution with up to 70% of young people lacking appropriate workspace or living in shared accommodation poorly designed to work in.
Anyone who has spent any length of time on virtual calls over the last 20+ weeks, will understand quite how difficult it is to video conference in a shared house.
Added to this is the fact that employees are becoming more isolated, losing the sense of community to which they belong, meanwhile employers are losing that sense of brand and culture they worked so hard to create.
Even before the pandemic hit, it was reported that employees working in co-working environments were beginning to identify more with the brand of WeWork than with their own employers.
Clearly, the novelty of working from home is starting to wear thin as working from home begins to impact activities such as ability to learn from others, informal social interaction, spontaneity, innovation and collaboration, where the Harvard Business Review reports that 20% of employees now feel unable to share ideas with colleagues
Interaction sparks new ideas – those ‘water cooler’ moments disappear if we work from home all the time.
So, before committing to a predominantly homeworking culture for the longer term, it is worth taking these insights into account.
Managing the office return
If you do choose to end the great work from home experiment, care needs to be taken not to erode the trust that you have built up with your employees.
Both employee and employer have benefitted from the mutual trust instilled in them through working from home but some businesses are starting to see productivity and engagement wane, leading some organisations to seek a return to the office sooner, rather than later.
Leesman warns that if we break the connections that have been made between employer and employee during lockdown, this poses a risk to businesses as networks weaken, social collaboration collapses, groups slow down and they lose their common purpose.
We know that more agile working and a shift away from presenteeism are likely to become the new norm. With this in mind, we believe the debate should not focus on how to keep staff at home successfully in the longer term.
Rather, the office environment and experience can and should be improved to provide more support for activity-based working which encourages a blend of flexible working environments.
So, what do we, as real estate professionals, need to take away from this in order to design and create office environments that not only support collaboration but also individual activities?
How does office design and integrated technology need to change to enable more interactive and virtual ways of working? What can be done to improve how we support customers, clients and staff, whilst ensuring safety in the workplace?
How can businesses create enough flexibility to enable hybrid working both in the office and at home?
Some are already taking a ‘hub and spoke’ approach, whereby employees are invited to attend specific locations to meet up and collaborate with colleagues. However, these environments need to have a mix of space as, invariably, you do not collaborate for 7.5 hours a day.
Others are evolving office design to provide a variety of spaces which replicate some of the benefits experienced whilst working from home, with spaces for collaboration and interaction in a safe environment, as well as space for focused concentration.
What you can achieve from your office space will be subject to a series of variables from design and facilities, to how much space is afforded to each employee and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
So, take time to understand what your office is for and whether the technology you have will support your solution longer term, whilst taking into account whether your company culture can, ultimately, make a success of a return to the office.
Whatever happens, your post-pandemic property or portfolio is likely to be very different to what it was at the start of 2020 before the great working from home experiment began. But this needn’t be a bad thing. It just needs to be an informed decision and one which will work for both employer and employee alike.
If you would like to discuss your future property strategy with an expert, don’t hesitate to get in touch with partner, David Thomas.