Making an Office Worth Commuting For

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, opinions of going to an office have radically changed. For people who were successful working remotely, the vast majority are not going back to five days in the office. In Manhattan, the largest central business district in the U.S. with over 500 million square feet of commercial real estate, only 8% have gone back to working five days a week in the office per a survey conducted at the end of April 2022. So what offices are people going back to, and how much are they doing so?

Actionfigure talked with Madeline Dunsmore, Executive Managing Director at Newmark. She’s a workplace change management expert, and works with businesses on navigating the evolving needs of today’s offices. “The pandemic has pushed us to rethink what the idea of an office even is, or what it’s even for.” She explained that the office, historically, has been a place where you had to do your work because there was nowhere else you could do it. As time has gone on, storage cabinets changed to cloud storage, terminals changed to laptops, and faxes turned to emails. Many of the reasons people needed to go to an office had already gone away, prior to the pandemic, but it took a deadly virus to begin a serious rethinking of what an office is useful for.

The Traditional Office is History

Dunsmore suggested that traditional offices pre-pandemic sometimes are a bad compromise of a place to do work and a place to be with other people. Today, many are now rejecting that status quo. However, most people are back to being comfortable with other people! As of May 2022, the amount of people going to restaurants and events has almost reached pre-pandemic levels, but offices are utilized less than half, per Kastle. And for people who have a choice as to where to work, the majority (61%) are choosing to not work from the workplace, per Pew Research Center. So what kinds of workplaces are attractive for workers to go to?

This all might sound grim for commercial real estate and for employers with long-term leases, but Dunsmore makes a serious case for having a workplace. “It’s about having meaningful connections with other people. For a lot of younger workers especially, working with people with different experiences, and having mentor and mentee relationships is very important.” She also addressed some of the work-from-home pain points: “Real collaboration with in person simply works better than a lot of video calls. As humans, we are all social to a point, and we love to work together, but we just hate the traditional office.” It’s backed up by science. Studies, including recent work from Columbia University, show that compared to some types of remote work, “virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation.” In other words, many types of brainstorming and creativity meetings are proven to not be as effective over a video call as they are in person. That, and building and maintaining interpersonal relationships – workplace or otherwise – can be very difficult to maintain remotely long-term.

An Experience Better than Home

Knowing that some work can be done at home, but some work is better in-person, how do you get people to come to the office? Dunsmore is clear: “you have to take a carrot approach, not a stick approach.” Simply telling people when they have to come back to an office to do the same work they were doing at home is a recipe for people to find another job. To make the office attractive to go, Dunsmore adds, “the workplace experience needs to exceed the experience from working from home.”

This means focusing on what people are looking for in collaboration, what they’re seeking in experiences and relationships with coworkers, and understanding how productive people are in different environments.

Think of an entire day an employee experiences when they go to the office, including what happens before and after, and if they go off site for lunch or breaks. What are the things people miss about work that we had pre-pandemic and no longer get at home? Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, in a May 2022 interview with Time, agreed: “the office has to do something a home can’t do.”

Schedule and Structure

Dunsmore raises concern around structuring in-person office time around a hybrid model that conforms to a two or three day schedule but isn’t centered around experiences one cannot get or work one cannot do at home. Scheduling meeting times, collaboration time, brainstorming sessions, and company-wide events as in-person time can make going into the workplace more compelling, while also improving the experience of working from home with fewer video meetings.

A five day office week will only continue to be a reality for companies and organizations that have tasks that cannot be conducted well remotely and require regular, daily, in-person interactions with people or products. As workforces become more distributed, and workers are increasingly opting for remote work, some companies may decide to have in-person time far less frequently and in larger chunks. That is, the two or three days in the office a week might be on the way out too. Airbnb’s Chesky, again: “We’re going to get together one week a quarter. If it turns out a week a quarter is not enough, we’ll get together more. But my suspicion is a week per quarter is probably going to be enough human connection for the average person to come together and bond.”

Recommendations

Figuring out how much time in the office is right for the best balance of productivity and employee wellness will continue to be an evolving challenge, but can be a fruitful one if there is true focus on making the workplace a better place than home for tasks that are better done in-person.

In summary, Dunsmore recommends: 

  • Survey and engage directly with employees on what experiences matter in-person.
  • Examine what type of work is done just as well remotely.
  • Adopt an in-person work schedule that focuses on tasks best done in-person, and doesn’t bring people in just for the purpose of being there.
  • Create an office layout and environment that caters to in-person activities.

Food, Done Right

Do not forget the importance of fostering in-person relationships among coworkers that are not necessarily task related. Out of the “fun” work activities and “team building” exercises, Dunsmore suggested a simple path that shows success: food. “People like to gather around food, especially if it’s good. Bonding experiences over food can go a long way in strengthening relationships.” To make it work, go beyond simply having food available, but structuring a lunch time where people are actually taking time to enjoy a meal together, away from their desks and screens. Compared to many types of office changes, it is a more cost-effective experience that people cannot get remotely, and can help in making the office worth commuting for.

Mind the Commute

Part of understanding the mindset of coming into a workplace now includes the commute. Dunsmore said “commutes are a blind spot for many employers, often missed when thinking of the day in the life of an employee’s experience. At home, it’s easy to just start working. But in order to come to the office – something we all took for granted before – a commute can feel a lot harder to do. This is a concept that is very hard to get across to employers.” Data also backs this up, as some surveys confirm that commutes are a top reason people switch jobs.

While you’re surveying and talking with employees, include questions about commutes. How long does it take to get in? What mode of transportation are they taking? Would people consider taking transit if it was provided? Leveraging incentives for transit, providing employees with comprehensive trip plans, offering bike sharing memberships, offsetting costs of electric bikes, having gym availability or memberships, or even reimbursing walking shoes can play huge roles in shaking up what might otherwise be considered a commute worth quitting over. In some cases, it could convert a negative routine into a healthy, less expensive, and more enjoyable commute worth taking.

Overall, Dunsmore summarizes, “there is no going back to 2019, but there is opportunity to make work suck less and that includes re-imaging how we gather in spaces to work together.”

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