The future of the office? Companies, employees still figuring it out.

While greater flexibility is certain, the preferred working models are going to take some time and experimentation

Companies have been lining up to announce big changes to the way their employees will work, calling for radically flexible work-from-home policies.

Dropbox, the cloud computing firm, has announced that remote working will be standard for employees, making the office an exception. Banking group Standard Chartered is offering flexible work to more than 90 percent of its 85,000 strong work force, with half its employees eligible for hybrid work early next year.

Yet the office is remaining front-and-center for most firms, even those considering hybrid options. While work is becoming more flexible, exactly how it will pan out is still taking shape.

“Many companies are still figuring out how to implement a flexible work policy that works for the organization, managers and employees,” says Flore Pradere, Research Director, JLL. “And frankly we don’t think employees really know themselves exactly what they want, although we’re getting a better understanding that flexibility will be key.”

Hybrid at work

Well before this health crisis, companies had been increasingly embracing the concept of the hybrid workplace, a flexible work arrangement that combines time in the office with remote working. But COVID-19 sped up the adoption en masse. JLL research shows that 66 percent of employees want to be able to alternate between different places of work in the post-pandemic world. And 72 percent want to continue working from home.

HSBC’s Chief Financial Officer, Ewen Stevenson, has said the bank is looking to adopt a hybrid working model. Employees would work “two or three days in the office, two or three days at home.”

The role of the office “continues to evolve in light of these work-from-home policies laid out by companies,” Pradere says.

“The office is still central to many companies. Our research highlights that 74 percent of the employees still want the ability to come into an office, more or less frequently according to their workstyles and family background,” she says. “And what we’re seeing is how the office has to adjust today to the new requirements – from sporadic attendance due to the constantly changing phases of lockdowns and relaxation to remote working being an ingrained part of working life.”

Another piece of research from JLL, tackling the issue of human performance, has shown that remote working is not for everyone in the long term: one in two employees do not feel as productive at home as in the office. One-third of employees do not want to work remotely in the future. In particular, millennials indicated that they missed the office more than the average, and especially the social interactions and face-to-face collaboration.

Repurposing office space

A JLL report on the Future of Workplace Design reveals that time and location will matter less to companies due to this movement towards asynchronous work and workers, where employees have greater choice and are able to structure their workdays to fit their lifestyles, biorhythms, and responsibilities.

It could result in companies decentralizing significantly, with satellite workspaces or have a network of fully tech-enabled hubs near transportation nodes. Other organizations might provide memberships to co-working spaces.

“In addition, corporates need to take into account there are several elements at play when designing their offices for hybrid working, from considering their employee experience, to physical set-ups such as the hub-and-spoke models, or even creating meeting rooms that allow for seamless connection either for employees joining in either virtually or in person” says Gonzalo Portellano, Head of Portfolio Design, JLL Asia Pacific.

Downsides to hybrid

However, critics of the hybrid model point out that such arrangements are not only challenging for employees who prefer a more consistent work routine, it could also make remote employees feel left out, creating an in-office versus out-of-office dynamic.

Portellano recommends that leaders be trained to see the value from telecommuting employees while normalizing virtual interactions. Employees themselves should also be upfront on where they see themselves in the spectrum of remote working – whether they are not interested in remote working or prefer entirely remote arrangements. This will allow managers to better understand how to motivate them and ensure they are assessed fairly.

“These are points for discussions for corporates going forward – how can they continue to make sure that there is an inclusive, trust-based and outcome-driven mindset for both leadership and employees even as they adopt a hybrid model,” says Portellano.

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