As more arms get vaccinated and society creaks open its doors to a semblance of normalcy, workers and organizations are considering how, when and if they should return to their shuttered offices and classrooms.
First, there’s no one answer, just as there’s no one type of industry. Clearly, many professions have successfully shifted to a blend of virtual and in-office work to provide for customers; telemedicine being a primary example. Many restaurants, unable to serve customers inside, quickly ramped up online ordering and delivery services to try and weather the emergency until they can safely reopen.
But coaxing office workers back into the office is giving managers some pause as they weigh the advantages of continuing remote work and reducing real estate overhead. These trends have only strengthened the broader trend toward remote work and the rethinking of office space and office real estate as we know it. The conversation now is moving in the direction of providing a hybrid workplace — one that provides the flexibility and security of virtual work, while preserving the need for office space to safely collaborate, launch new initiatives and mentor coworkers.
This has substantial implications for space utilization in all industries. For our higher education and independent school clients, however, is the era of fundraising campaigns and bond financing for new buildings in the rear view mirror? Such potentially multi-layered reassessment may have widespread impacts on educational costs, budgets and marketing in a post-COVID environment.
What’s more, should the physical “arms race” that competitively has differentiated some colleges and independent schools take a new path? What does this mean for living on campus – or not – and life as part of the “campus community?” Must the institutions that have created real estate foundations for research park expansion and diversified revenue streams in public-private real estate rethink their strategies?
What we hear is that some institutions are “holding” for another year before launching or re-launching capital initiatives. Post-pandemic behaviors may bring new meaning to the strategic and financial consideration, “If we build it, will they come?”
Remote work is here to stay.
Across all organizations, in any case, there’s a broad consensus that remote work at some level will continue. A survey by Gartner published in mid-December found that 90% of HR leaders plan to allow employees who can work remotely to do so, at least part of the time, even after the Covid-19 vaccine is widely available. Those same leaders predicted that only half of their workforce will want to return to the office once they are able.
Plus, there hasn’t been a large drop-off in productivity. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that more than 20 percent of the global workforce could work the majority of its time away from the office and be just as effective. Transitioning away from the office will require larger discussions about the role of the office itself and what it brings to the organization as well as workplace design, real estate, training and professional development and adapting the workforce to automation.
The number of people working remotely today is staggering. In February 2020, only 4.7 million Americans, or roughly 3.4% of the population, worked remotely. In the past year, that number rose to 42%, as the pandemic forced offices to close. A recent FlexJobs survey of 4,000 people working remotely found that 65% want to work remotely full-time after the pandemic, while 31% would prefer a hybrid work arrangement. Looking ahead to 2021, remote work is expected to become easier, more equitable, less isolating and perhaps even more financially rewarding.
Suffice to say that after a year of laboring under virtual, often flexible working conditions, many workers are happy to avoid crowded commutes, regimented working hours and close, communal workspaces. In fact, 25-30% of the US workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021, according to estimates by Global Workplace Analytics. With that in mind, platforms provided by Microsoft, Google, Zoom and others are likely to still be in high demand to keep colleagues connected even when everybody is allowed back in the office.
And once offices reopen, many workers are hesitant about returning. In the U.S., two thirds of workers surveyed feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace. Granted this survey was performed before the first dispersal of vaccines, but preventing the spread of disease, worker safety and easing fears will remain a concern for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Petrina Carmody, organizational psychologist and principal consultant at Great Place To Work UK, said easing fears is critical to productivity. “If I don’t feel supported or listened to, or that the right precautions are in place, it may affect my productivity — I won’t be focused on my job,” she said. “This is an opportunity for organizations to put people first. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the productive and profitable thing to do.”
But with all the focus on remote work, there are those who can’t wait for offices to reopen.
“Some people desperately want the office back. Rather than now wanting to stay working from home, or fearing human engagement, many people are thirsting for the opportunity to get out of their homes and re-engage in a stimulating work environment,” said William Johnston, a senior director with WSP in Canada. “We need to enable them to do that.”
The hybrid workplace
Melding the best qualities of working remotely and in-person will require innovation, flexibility and definitely some remodeling.
Decide what needs to get done, when and where. Evaluate which company work processes can be done remotely and what needs to be accomplished on site. A McKinsey & Company article suggests reclassifying work roles into employee segments by considering the value that remote working could deliver: fully remote, hybrid remote, hybrid remote by exception (only if needed), and on site (cannot be remote work).
Redesign spaces to support activities and interactions that cannot happen remotely. According to Harvard epidemiology experts, physical distancing measures needing to remain in place — perhaps until 2022. For workers to remain six feet away from one another, it will require far higher space ratios than typical offices today. Meeting places, such as conference and break rooms, will need to be reexamined and altered.
Focus on hygiene. According to an article in WSP, the more touch-points that can be removed as people move through buildings, the lower the risk. Automatic doors and contactless security could help, as well as motion-sensing taps, soap dispensers, hand dryers and toilet flushes in bathrooms, and even voice-activated coffee machines. Clearly, there will be costs involved in these retrofits.
Make the hybrid office the destination of choice. According to the Harvard Business Review, the pandemic has produced a re-examination of large, centralized office locations. It argues that a more distributed model, one with smaller, public-facing offices near more amenities, would better support employee performance and reduce stressful commutes.
Gensler, the real estate office design firm, has conducted several studies and design exercises on both how developers can reposition office buildings for the future and what those spaces might look like. While much of this is still being sorted out, and real estate developers are “holding” until the future is clearer, Gensler says the future “must be community oriented.”
Key factors will include indoor air quality, mental and emotional wellbeing of people returning to the office and erosion of indoor and outdoor boundaries. Because people want to work closer to home, businesses are studying hub-and-spoke arrangements and more mixed-use developments.
In fact, office design is becoming a marketing element of the employer brand in 2021, according to Allwork.Space, an online publication dedicated to the future of work.
And, in a major play for the future, states will compete to attract individual talent who live and work remotely rather than trying to get companies to relocate, according to Gartner business trends analysis.
“States and cities have historically offered incentives to get companies to relocate to their jurisdictions…The new era of remote and hybrid work will evolve this strategy – where an employee lives will be less tied to where their employer is located than ever before.”
By Deston Nokes, Contributing Writer
 “Are Videogames the Future of Remote Work?” by Christopher Mims, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2021.
 “The next normal arrives: Trends that will define 2021 – and beyond,” McKinsey and Company, January 2021.
 “7 reasons why 2021 will be even bigger and better for remote workers,” Fast Company, Dec. 28, 2020.
 “Industries that will boom after coronavirus,” Lovemoney.com, January 2021.
 Qualtrics study, CB Insights – the Tech Enabled Office, 2020.
“Delivering a better normal,” WSP, April – July 2020.
 “Delivering a better normal,” WSP, April – July 2020.
 “Reimagining the office and work life after COVID 19,” by Brodie Boland, Aaron De Smet, Rob Palter, and Aditya Sanghvi, McKinsey & Company, June 2020.
 “Delivering a better normal,” WSP, April – July 2020.
“Delivering a better normal,” WSP, April – July 2020
 Reimagining the Urban Office,” by Peter Bacevice; John Mack; Pantea Tehrani; Mat Triebner, Harvard Business Review, August 14, 2020.
 Gensler: “Here’s How Developers Can Reposition Office Buildings for the Future.” Research & Insight blog, Gensler.com
 “5 Office Design Trends for 2021,” Allwork.Space, Dec. 17, 2020.
 “9 Trends That Will Shape Work in 2021 and Beyond,” Harvard Business Review, Jan. 14, 2021.