The future of work

A distributed workforce.

Distributed offices have become the new norm post covid pandemic, with employees revolting against a return to office plans even after vaccination becomes widely available. The most notable recent incident being Apple employees opposing a new mandate requiring them to return to in-person work at least three times a week starting this September, saying they prefer a flexible arrangement that allows them to work remotely if they choose to do so.

While Apple’s shift to a flexible approach is seen as a sudden change of course from previous company culture, which discouraged employees from working from home before the pandemic, the move is still more conservative compared to those of other tech giants.

Facebook and Twitter, for example, have allowed employees to work from home permanently. About 20% of Google workers, meanwhile, will be allowed to work remotely even after the pandemic

Experts estimate that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, anywhere from 3.6% to 7% of the US workforce worked at home more than half the time. These same experts estimate now that anywhere between 30% and 42% of all employees are working remotely.

Working from home not only skyrocketed in North America, but also in Asia in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis as companies told their employees to stay home.  Around 200 million people or 25.5% of the Chinese workforce (pdf) were working remotely by the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. Based on the analysis conducted by Deloitte, up to 47.8 million people in the ASEAN-6 nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) could shift to working remotely over a multi-year time horizon.

This is a monumental change and one that’s unlikely to go away. What does this transformation mean for employees and employers moving forward?

The lessons learned

The lessons learned from the rising need to work from home will play a discerning role in guiding us back to the workplace across the world. Because of COVID-19, companies are strategically reconsidering all things about the office as we once knew it — from the physical space to the process, people, and organizational culture that define it.

The perks of working remotely and having a more distributed workforce have been known for a while. Improved work-life balance, a higher degree of autonomy, diminished commuter traffic and correlated CO2 emissions, and a decreased office footprint are just a few of those benefits.

That being said, we now appreciate that the long-term effectiveness of virtual collaboration hinges upon a critical aspect: human connection. Nothing can replace face-to-face time with colleagues. That synergy builds social capital and personal connections that can keep employees connected outside of the office. Data from the 2020 Gensler U.S. Work from Home Survey emphasizes that the fundamental reason people want to come back to the office is to interact with other people.

So, how can the future workplace balance the advantages of remote work and virtual collaboration with the positive, community-based aspects of the office?

“I’ve even hung a picture behind the desk so that my video conference calls don’t look like I’m in my closet!” CNN

How distributed teams make the workplace more employee-centric

As the number of employees who work remotely part or all of the time inflates, many companies are contemplating downsizing their office space requirements. But this doesn’t mean the office is going away.

Rather, a post COVID-19 workplace will be more employee-centric, offering activity-based workspaces equipped for purposed in-person teamwork, and more dispersed with central hub offices and satellite spoke offices.  

Ask anyone who works remote part- or full-time and you’ll hear one of two things: Virtual collaboration tools aren’t an ideal replacement for in-person connection and there is an interest to having an office environment to work in, at least part of the time.

Data supports this. PwC found the top reason employees want to go to the office after COVID-19 is to collaborate with their colleagues. . And in a survey conducted by Hana, an agency that crafts flexible workspace tailored for performance, 92% of employees said they would value having an office to go to after coronavirus.

Companies are now in a position to reexamine how they jump on and best exploit office space for their employees — and the pressure is on to create more employee-centric working environments.

Innovative design strategies that assimilate the best of both worlds

We all have preconceived notions about what a classic office looks and feels like: a fusion of private offices and cubicles, with meeting rooms, pantries, and shared amenities. Few offices have been deliberately designed to support definitive organizational preferences. Despite the fact that offices have changed in some ways during the past decade, they may need to be all together reassessed and transformed for a post–COVID-19 world.

New data from the Steelcase Global Report brought to light 4 innovative design strategies that assimilate the best of both worlds – the pleasure and ease of home with the community, cultural and productivity benefits of the office. The Report finds 87% of business leaders plan to allow more flexibility around how, when and where people work, up 38% from April 2020.

Only 5% of organisations expect to work from home full time while the vast majority, 72% will take a hybrid approach – working from both home and office to offer greater flexibility to their employees.

To figure out how COVID-19 has impacted what people demand and expect in the office, Steelcase researchers surveyed over 32,000 people in multiple studies conducted in 10 countries during the pandemic. Synthesizing this research exposed five underlying needs that will drive modern ways of planning and designing offices: employees need to be and feel safe; feel a deep sense of belonging; be productive; be physically, cognitively and emotionally comfortable; and have control over where and how they work.

4 ideas to help companies transition into a distributed workplace

(1) Balance the Needs of “We” and “Me”:

While a prevalent narrative provides that people want to work in the office primarily for group or social activities, Steelcase data indicates that employees also want the capability to focus and work in a quiet professional environment. When asked, both leaders and employees listed collaboration and focus in their top reasons for returning to the office. People shared the urge to be able to promptly shift between working together and alone, and between more systematic work and spontaneous interactions. 

(3) Flip Enclosed + Open Spaces: 

Conceivably one of the biggest changes occurring in the office is a shift from providing mostly enclosed collaborative spaces, such as conference rooms, to offering more open and flexible team spaces. In the meantime, spaces for individual, focused work will shift from dense, open spaces to more enclosed or shielded places for privacy. This provides employees with both a feeling of safety and the flexibility to resize their space in accordance with the activities. 

(2) Shift from Fixed-to-Fluid:

The Report finds people in every country expressed improved autonomy and work-life balance while working from home, while struggling with productivity. Employers can better back up employees in the office by creating workspaces that are designed for increased flexibility, giving workers control over their environment. Pre-pandemic, the majority of people wanted to be able to reconfigure their furniture, but only 38% were able to do so. This means providing employees with highly mobile furniture, power, technology and space division. 

(4) Braid the Physical and the Digital Experience:

As employees continue to live and work on video, employees will need places to join video conferences without disturbing others in the office. Employers will need to integrate space and technology to create comprehensive experiences for those in the office and remote team members.

The Way Ahead

Remote work and distributed teams were already rising at the start of 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic compelled employers to promptly adopt these workplace solutions so as to keep employees safe.

After COVID-19, they will need to keep on taking in arms these models in order to stay competitive.

But it’s a win-win: Distributed teams are assisting companies to save on office space costs, while employees are enjoying the advantages of one of the most sought-after workplace perks: flexibility.

As distributed teams continue to take off, the companies that get it right — by advocating flexible work hours, flexible workspaces, providing the best gear and offering employee support — will have the advantage in attracting the right talent.

Abstracts from our research. By team C’monde

Johan M Persson