Key takeaways

  • Office workers have been forced to work from home over the past year and many are reluctant to give up the flexibility it has afforded them.
  • In response, businesses face questions around the future of the physical central office – keep it or let it go?
  • Instead of being trapped by an either/or scenario, companies should use this opportunity to reimagine what the future of work could be.

For the past year, office workers have been part of a global work from home (WFH) experiment. COVID-19’s restrictions made the virtual office a necessity, with employers and employees setting up shop from their kitchen tables.

The surprising result was how well it worked. Suddenly, the changes mandated by policymakers seemed more ‘possibility’ than ‘prison’. In May, Twitter announced that their 5000+ employees could work from home forever.1 Facebook soon followed, as did Coinbase, Dropbox, Shopify, Slack and a raft of others.2

The pandemic isn’t over and continues to affect regions in different ways; as some come out of lockdowns, others go back into them. For some, reality is easing back to a new kind of ‘normal,’ and for others, the health crisis deepens. Increasingly, however, with vaccines on the horizon, the question is being asked in virtual boardrooms across the world: Do we come back to the office?

The pros and cons of remote work

Despite worry from employers that enabling people to work remotely, unsupervised, would lead to chaos and a drop in output, the reality has been very different. A survey PwC conducted in April found nearly half (45 percent) of CFOs feared the loss of productivity from WFH arrangements. By June, only 26 percent feared losses in the coming month. PwC’s US Remote Work Survey found that 75 percent of workers believed WFH was a success.

There are many benefits to remote working. For employees, it eliminates hours of commuting, time that can be redistributed towards work-life balance. Many report greater control and choice in creating more flexible work schedules, allowing greater ease in balancing family and personal commitments, or have found work hours that improve their productivity and mental wellness. Money not spent out on coffee and lunches adds up, and wardrobes now favour comfort over corporate.

Happier employees lead to better outcomes for companies. Additionally, the ability to hire talent from almost anywhere offers huge advantages — particularly as the war on talent makes finding local hires increasingly difficult. A distributed workforce builds in resilience, with no one event, illness or circumstance likely to take the entire business offline. And of course, the potential to reduce expensive office real estate footprints is an undeniable financial incentive.

But there are downsides to long-term WFH policies that are also apparent. WFH can be a lonely, isolating experience. While it is one thing to take existing colleagues virtual, with their interpersonal ties intact, it is another to bring someone new (and potentially new to the workforce) into an untethered, disembodied workplace. For parents and carers, and in particular, those forced to educate from home, the loss of the relative calm of the office can be debilitating to normal work routines and output. While working in the home could encourage more personal time, equally, it could encourage more work time without traditional ‘end of day’ boundaries — begging the question, are people being equally productive, or simply working longer hours? Additionally the loss of water-cooler, unstructured meetings could be detrimental to innovation and growth.

Safety first

For businesses that have weighed up the pros and cons and are considering a part or full return to the physical office, it is not as easy as opening the doors. Even in countries where COVID-19 is being successfully managed, the spectre of a resurgence looms large

Making the office safe is a necessary precursor to having people return, but what ‘safe’ means is hard to find consensus on. It matters because, as seen in France, the office can be one of the biggest sources of COVID-19 transmission.3 Certainly, when it comes to the coronavirus, home remains the safest option.

There are a number of technologies being used to address employee safety, such as touchless entry, temperature checks, tracking fobs, proximity sensors, UV lights, thermal scanners, humidifiers and plexiglass barriers. Yet while some are proving essential, many others are untested, rushed into use before certification or confirmed results. As Wired UK writes, humidifiers make spaces uncomfortable, dividers only work if they’re cleaned regularly and the strength and type of UV lights needed to be effective are not practical for an office environment.4 The basic health recommendations remain the same for the population as they do for the office — social distancing, masks, cleaning and ventilation are key areas to focus on.5

One of the issues with making buildings safe is that the biggest hurdle is not the office, but its people — deeply ingrained social behaviour needs to change. In this instance, technology that can affect behaviour — such as room booking, staggered scheduled arrival and departure times, one-way elevators or busy signs for areas where people may congregate could have great effect. Similarly, knowing the touchpoints where workers and objects overlap — such as desks, photocopiers, coffee machines — and removing those bridging links can help break chains of transmission.6

Thinking beyond the office

There is an opportunity to use the circumstances of 2020 to reimagine work entirely. It is clear that many people enjoy WFH, and that there are pros — and cons — to the arrangement. Rather than mandating a return to the office or a permanent shift to WFH, perhaps it is time to consider a combination of both.

Recently, PwC Australia conducted a thought experiment, what we called the Future of Work Jam. For a week, we invited our employees to participate in a crowdsourcing event. We asked for ideas, comments and feedback on what the workplace of the future might look like and how it could be different. And we gathered information around the attitudes, preferences and experiences of WFH so far.

The results showed that our people love to work remotely and believe it should be the norm, rather than the exception. They were overwhelmingly positive about the future of work: just over half believed WFH had changed company culture for the better. The Jam also illuminated pain points to address. Forty-six percent said they had spent more time coordinating meetings and 61 percent found themselves spending more time in virtual catchups. Sixty-one percent also said they felt their workload had increased since WFH.

To dive deeper, we asked our people to vote on a range of office configurations that spanned the gamut from a traditional on-site office, to suburban hubs, remote work with access to an office for specific purposes, and entirely remote working. We found that 75 percent of people wanted to do their administrative work at home, 67 percent wanted to do individual tasks at home, and two-thirds wanted to access a physical office for community, collaboration and to connect with colleagues in people-related events.

How to redefine the workplace

This information suggests that a retooling of space to favour communal workspaces over individual deskwork could be in our future, with people WFH for individual work and the office for select teamwork. Every business will be different, and so it’s important to ask questions to get to the right work fit. We suggest:

  1. Think about your company’s future ambition. Where do you want to be?
  2. Redefine what ‘work’ is and how it’s done to get to that vision. What is core vs what can be done in new ways?
  3. Co-create the future by involving your people. How can you really involve them in the process?
  4. Test and learn. Can you be brave and bold while learning from mistakes?
  5. Lead consciously. Are your leaders supported so they can guide your employees?

From a physical planning perspective, you may also find it useful to map WFH personas to the percentage of required office-time each needs in order to assess space requirements.

A future undetermined

COVID-19 has changed the way people think about ‘going to the office’. Overnight, the world went from a 9-to-5 ‘be seen’ culture to one where flexibility and trust were gained by necessity and rewarded with results. A return to the traditional office seems a potential step backwards, yet there is no doubt that remote working has its own pain points. Regardless, the experience has presented organisations with an opportunity to design a future that works for them and their people, whether in the office, in the home, or in myriad other exciting configurations.


For more detail on the five steps to plot the way forward, download our Thinking Beyond: How the pandemic is rewiring a new world of work report for the results of our Future of Work Jam and the questions it raised.

 

Ben Hamer contributor

Contributor

Dr Ben Hamer

Ben drives the Future of Work market agenda at PwC Australia.

More About Dr Ben Hamer