Office buildings are strange places today. Many of them remain nearly empty, staffed by skeleton crews, as workers continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. And with COVID cases rising, it looks like conference rooms and corner offices will remain mostly empty throughout the rest of this year and into 2021.
What, then, does the future hold for the commercial office market? Will companies flee urban centers and move their businesses to the more wide-open spaces of the suburbs? Will a good chunk of workers continue to log their hours from home offices? And when companies seek office space, will they seek less to accommodate fewer in-office workers or more to allow for greater social distancing?
Cushman & Wakefield tackled the future of office space in its latest report, Purpose of Place: History and Future of the Office. And the good news for the office sector? Cushman says that the way companies manage employees and the ways in which people work might change, but companies will always need office space.
The challenge? Companies in a post-pandemic world will need to balance the amount of time employees work in the office and the number of hours they work remotely. As Cushman writes, employees want the choice to work from home but they also want the ability to work in the office. This suggests that flexible work arrangements are key for companies that want to attract the top workers.
Cushman & Wakefield uncovered some interesting statistics in compiling its report. Citing numbers from the University of Chicago, Cushman writes that 37 percent of occupations across all industries in the United States can be conducted from home. Pointing to research in May from Stanford University and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Cushman’s report says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, 60 percent of the U.S. economic output has been dependent on people working from home. Stanford reported in its May study that 42 percent of all workers were working from home, 33 percent were not working at all and 26 percent were commuting to work.
Now that companies are participating in a forced experiment with remote working, are workers productive and happy? That’s a complex question. Cushman writes that working remotely impacts the productivity of workers differently. Some thrive in work-from-home locations while others struggle. Some tasks are easier to complete from home — writing reports, analyzing data — than others, such as collaborating and brainstorming.
Cushman’s suggestion? It makes sense for companies to offer employees flexible work arrangements in which they can work remotely some days and in the office on others. As the report says, giving employees choice is a net positive, having them work remotely every day is not.
In its review of several studies, Cushman found that employees said they are often able to focus more easily when not working in the often hectic atmosphere of the traditional office workplace. However, not all employees have access to a distraction-free space when working from home. As Cushman writes, young workers are more likely to have work-from-home challenges because they also have caregiver responsibilities and are more often working in inadequate workspaces when not in the office.
Again, Cushman points to the need for flexibility. Impromptu collaboration play a key role in creativity and innovation. And this collaboration is more likely to happen in an office setting. But getting away from the office periodically can also foster innovation by giving workers time to think over a project on their own.
The bottom line here? Cushman says that positive effects of working remotely can only be fully realized if employees also have the freedom to determine how often they work from home or in the office.
This comes back to flexibility and the key role it will play in the office of the future. As Cushman’s study says, the best work arrangement for employees isn’t either work remotely all the time or come into the office every day. Employees and companies will perform better if workers can work from home when it makes sense and go into the office when that is the best choice.
Because of this, Cushman says, it is unlikely that companies will see sustained 100 percent remote work in the long run. Cushman also says that it doesn’t see a future in which companies flee urban centers in great numbers. Before COVID-19 hit, companies were moving headquarters to city centers and opening branch offices in walkable, urban areas. That trend will continue in a post-pandemic world, Cushman & Wakefield says.