Workplace strategists will have to consider new employee concerns as they reimagine the modern office in the post-pandemic world

Returning to work: Common values emerge across the globe

Returning to work: Common values emerge across the globe

The last few months have challenged all traditional notions about work and the workplace. Outbreaks and extended lockdowns sparked off much speculation, predictions and debate about how the situation would forever change the way we work. Although many new perspectives have been presented, there’s one thing that everyone unanimously agrees with — that a culture of empathy, compassion and listening will become extremely important over the next few years.

In that spirit, we recently conducted a joint survey — Returning to The Office: A Global Perspective — along with our new partner, IA Interior Architects. We wanted to establish what a return to the office will look like, and how employers and facility managers can best meet the changing needs. IA’s survey participant base was mostly made up of clients and end-users in the US, while here at Space Matrix, we carried out the same survey across 8 Asian countries. Together, we surveyed over 2200 people from a variety of industries — professional services, finance, technology, advertising, and developer and landlord services among others. Thanks to the partnership with IA, we were able to capture data across diverse geographical, cultural and professional demographies and gather insights from this survey that offer a truly global perspective on the future of workplaces.1

Speaking about this, Su-San Tan, Director – Workplace Strategy & Insights, said, “The survey by Space Matrix and Interior Architects has brought about interesting insights that guide conversations with our clients around the future of their workplaces. Where tactical measures are prevalent in planning for a safe return to the office, we see organisations  taking a more visionary approach with blue key thinking for the long term. Discussions revolve around questions such as: What role will remote work play going forward? What must employers do to ensure safe environments whilst building resilient workplace cultures, social capital and continued innovation? How do employers leverage their organisational strengths to engage employees and guide the change — whatever new workplace strategies take form. The emphasis will be on where and how work is done and how technology will augment creation and innovation, emerging as a key enabler in the future workplace scenario. ”

What is surprising is that though circumstances differed across countries and cultures, people’s responses to this trying time were remarkably similar around the globe. Here are 3 striking parallels that emerged in the survey:

1. A preference for phased re-entry rather than a rushed transition

When asked about immediate, short-term expectations about returning to work, the top response was a call for a phased re-entry. 63% and 60% of respondents in the IA and Space Matrix surveys respectively, reported a desire to transition gradually to the workplace. This suggests that across cultures, safety concerns are at the top of people’s minds. A study conducted in the US confirms this — it reveals that over 45% of employees are anxious about being exposed to the virus at their workplaces1. After regarding their homes as the primary place of safety for months, this anxiety is natural. It is critical for employers to address these fears.

An obvious way forward is to stagger teams, with each team coming in on alternate weeks. It is also important to ensure that members from different groups don’t cross paths. This helps restrict any potential outbreak to one group, without putting the other groups at risk.

Of course, having fewer people in the office would enable employers to implement various biosafety protocols more effectively. This can range from altering seating layouts in work areas and meeting rooms to including more sanitation stations and checkpoints throughout the office. However, the most important move will be to communicate the steps taken to reduce risks and make sure that employees understand the logic behind them. Monitoring space usage and taking employees’ feedback into account will also become imperative. Sarah Brophy, a Design Director and a principal at our partner IA’s Boston office sums it up well when she says, “We need to be focusing on the human experience and leading with empathy. How can we make these changes feel a little more intentional to further educate people about how they should be moving through space?”

2. Employees expect work flexibility to outlast the pandemic

Unsurprisingly, policies related to work flexibility featured prominently in both surveys. The last few months have been revealing in terms of the advantages that come with flexible and remote work. This reflected in our survey, with nearly 60% of participants across cultures feeling confident about being able to work productively from home.

Most people hope for these flexibilities to continue in the future too. 51% of respondents in both surveys said being able to work from home when they want to would make them feel safer about returning to the office. However, even in the long term, an overwhelming majority (77% of participants in the IA survey and 76% of participants in the Space Matrix survey) expected work-from-home policies to be reassessed for good. This does not necessarily mean most people would choose to work from home as often as possible — just that they would appreciate the flexibility to do so if they wanted.

Companies may have already had work-from-home policies, but they may not have been explicitly communicated before. Now, with changing expectations, these policies will need to be updated and clarified. This will involve equipping employees with the right tools and technology to connect seamlessly with one another. It might also mean paying more attention to physical setups — both in the workplace and at people’s homes. Offices should have spaces where employees can enjoy adequate privacy while connecting with those working from home. A completely open layout can be disruptive when one is trying to collaborate with a distributed team. Likewise, helping employees set up an ergonomic home office is likely to become a major part of the workplace wellness policy for organisations in the coming days.

Apart from such design updates, we are looking at a need for a cultural shift too. This would include new remote work policies, clear performance measures, and a stronger sense of trust between employee and manager and firmer boundaries between work life and home life. 

3. People were keen to get back face-to-face social interactions

With remote work set to become a bigger part of companies’ day-to-day functioning, the role of the physical workplace will evolve too. This is yet another factor that came across clearly in the survey.

The value placed on social interactions seems to be a major equalising factor across cultures. 90% of participants in the IA survey said they missed face-to-face social interactions while working from home — a fact that was mirrored by 85% of respondents in the Space Matrix survey. Moreover, a near identical percentage of participants (56% and 58% respectively) mentioned they missed collaborating with colleagues. Video calls only addressed these needs to some extent. Planned calls usually have clear agendas and are effective for direct communication, but they don’t leave room for impromptu exchange of ideas or allow for accurate reading of non-verbal cues.

This indicates that the physical workplace is likely to remain an important location for driving collaboration and innovation. For employers, it is a unique opportunity to design their workplace strategies in a way that will foster social capital. Collaboration spaces will need to be reimagined to make them more safely social, and hugely functional for working with distributed teams. This sentiment was backed by many of the key contributors of our surveys. Jenya Adler, the Director of Workplace Transformation and Employee Experience at a Fortune 100 company, highlighted, “There will be a shift in how we use space. We are looking at having enhanced circulation and I think we’re going to see collaborative areas playing a big role, as these social hubs are going to be so important when making a robust workplace culture.”

Although offices are going to be significant as collaboration hubs, it is recommended that due importance is given to areas that enable individual focused work away from distractions. This will ensure that those who want to go to the office can use the office to do both individual and collaborative work effectively. At the end of the day, empowering employees with choice on where they work is key. At a time that is rife with uncertainty, having the flexibility will help people feel safer, more taken care of, and in control, no matter where in the world they are based. 

Interested in discussing your firm’s return to the office with our expert team of designers and strategists? Let’s talk.