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► The Office Is Back! (Or Is It?)

It’s the second half of 2023, and COVID fears have largely eased. But the debate still rages about the best environment for getting work done. Some employers are requiring people to return to the office full time—and they’re often getting pushback—and others are embracing a hybrid or even all-remote model. With so much pandemic-fueled change in the workplace, employers, employees, and de-signers now are looking at how office design should meet the moment.

Research Shows Need for Change

Even before the pandemic, trends were moving away from so much emphasis on fun at work. Workers were starting to sour on office spaces featuring foosball, video games, etc., and they began to voice an appreciation for quiet spaces suitable for head-down individual work as well as spaces conducive to collaboration.

Office design giant Gensler noted in its 2023 design forecast that to compete for talent, employers need to offer a mix of spaces to make sure employees are productive. For its 2023 report, the Gensler Research Institute surveyed 14,000 office workers in nine countries in mid and late 2022. The findings reveal what it calls a “critical divide.”

“Employees need the office for their productivity, but the office must adapt to their new expectations—and so far, the workplace isn’t cutting it,” according to a June 2023 Gensler blog entry explaining the findings from the company’s survey.

The research found that just 38% of the surveyed employees work in offices that have been redesigned since the beginning of the pandemic, and that statistic shows a need for employers to understand and address how employees work if they want to entice them back to the office.

Key findings of the Gensler research show a change in the relationship employees have with the office. The survey found that the majority of office workers rank “to focus on my work” as the most important reason to be in the office. The survey also found that the workplace “consistently underperforms for critical work activities such as working alone and working with others virtually,” the Gensler blog entry says.

“The gap between current office utilization and employee need for the office is an opportunity to rethink the workplace,” said Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal at Gensler. “Providing a balanced array of work settings and amenities can not only empower employees to work better but create a better work experience.”

Hybrid is Here to Stay, But the Office is Still Critical

Gensler’s findings point out that the move to remote and hybrid work that carried employers through the pandemic has caused office vacancy rates to soar. Despite that fact, the research shows “an optimistic future emerging,” according to another June 2023 Gensler blog entry on the study.

Gensler found a gap between office utilization and what employees say they need for maximum productivity. The survey asked workers how much time they ideally need to spend in the office to maximize their individual productivity. They also were asked how much time they ideally need to maximize their team’s productivity.

Gensler hypothesized that workers would need the office for team productivity and remote work for individual productivity. But the data showed a surprise. According to the responses, people need the office for individual and team productivity equally.

Globally, workers said they need an average of 63% of the workweek at the office to maximize productivity. What could lure workers back to the office? The research found that a different mix of experiences would make most office workers willing to come to the office more often.

Bottom line, the current utilization of offices compared to what workers say they need shows that work has changed.

“People have a new awareness of how they work best, the types of spaces they need, and the types of experiences that they can’t get working remotely,” Gensler’s analysis says.

The company’s message to employers: It’s time to invest in spaces that make the office “a compelling destination rather than an obligation.”

By Tammy Binford. Ms. Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.



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