It’s time to dust off those work desks. Millions of employees are set to go back to their offices as work restrictions ease off in a number of regions across the globe. At the height of the pandemic, around 65.5% of employees worldwide were forced to work remotely. In the US, roughly 48.7 million people were doing work on their laptops from home. Many organizations that conducted their business the traditional way—meaning they relied heavily on in-person, face-to-face interactions for decision-making and production—saw that they were ill-equipped to shift to hybrid and remote modes of working. This limitation had inconveniently brought their operations to a brief halt.
To prevent a repeat of what happened during the pandemic, organizations will have to strengthen their operational resilience. The Harvard Business Review defines this type of resilience as a company’s ability to thrive under unexpected situations. This includes their capacity to immediately soften the impact of disruptions to their overall business and their capability to switch gears so that their processes continue running smoothly. The key to achieving this resilience is creating more flexibility in the workplace.
Of 1,500 US-based office workers surveyed, 96% stated that they needed flexibility at work, but only 47% claimed that their current companies provided it. So, what exactly makes a workplace flexible? Among the criteria used to measure work flexibility is location. Several employees had expressed their need for more leniency when it came to where they were allowed to perform their duties. They preferred employers who permitted them to do tasks outside of the office for a portion of the day or work remotely as a fixed arrangement.
Responses revealed that if employees were granted more flexibility, 22% of them would feel that their companies valued their contributions more. Real-world data also showed that, for most employees, remote work resulting from COVID-19 restrictions did not negatively affect the quality of their output. In contrast, a lack of flexibility decreased the overall productivity of around 34% of employees, who stated that inflexible working conditions made performing their tasks more difficult. Half of the respondents even said that they would resign from their current job if another company were to offer them more leeway.
Over the course of the pandemic, the finance industry saw 29% of female employees vacate their corporate positions because of rigid workplace conditions. An additional 34% who were surveyed said that they are also planning on resigning for the same reason. Analysts recommend offering more workplace flexibility to female staff in order to improve employee retention.
In a similar study done in New Zealand, where it’s now mostly COVID-free and businesses are reopening en masse, 52% of employees said that they enjoyed the flexibility their workplaces afforded them during the height of the pandemic. Around 47% of the total number of respondents even went as far as saying that they would rather resign than go back to their respective offices and deal with their old work structures.
Back in the US, around 6.2 million people in management positions are expected to return to the office full-time. They are the most likely to be physically present at work as their role is to personally manage and mentor functional teams. 4.6 million workers from the financial sector and 3.5 million from computing-related fields will more plausibly demand for increased flexibility since their tasks are mostly solitary and do not require them to be at the office to perform their duties. In situations where these employees will need to collaborate with their office-based peers, they can do so just as they did during the pandemic: through video conferencing and other cloud-based platforms.
Bolstering operational resilience through enhanced workplace flexibility is crucial since it will help organizations maneuver around drastic changes brought about by rapid shifts in industry and society, advancements in technology, as well as unforeseeable events such as natural disasters and pandemics. Analysts suggest that enterprises look into making their workflows more modular and prioritize acquiring tools that would grant them more flexibility and opportunities to collaborate.
By 2025, it’s projected that around 41% of companies will have permanent remote and hybrid working options available to their employees. In terms of investments, we already saw notable increases in the middle of 2020 that support this forecast. 65% of corporate spending was funneled towards procurement of collaboration tools and systems, while 51% went to cloud-based technologies and platforms.
Many leading companies including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have recognized the importance of flexible work models and have decided to extend their employees’ work-from-home options beyond the pandemic. IBM, for example, is proactively embracing the hybrid work model. A majority of their employees will now only have to be at the office for at least three days per week. Around 80% will work using the hybrid model; a maximum of 20% of employees will be allowed to work fully remotely, especially parents who have to care for their kids until schools resume operations. To accommodate this change, IBM is altering their office spaces, letting go of almost half of their 70 million sq. ft. office and redesigning the remaining workspaces for better collaboration.
In a recent survey of US executives, it showed that two-thirds of them were already making plans to cut down their physical office space by as much as 40% over the next three quarters. To augment these changes, they are looking to invest in technologies that would allow office-based teams to work with their remote and home-based peers.
Since many organizations already have existing meeting rooms and work areas—spaces that they may have already invested significant resources on—there may be a tendency for decision makers to be apprehensive when it comes to further revamping their office facilities for hybrid work. They may choose to keep these spaces as they were, and force their old working models to fit their new normal. But as current trends show, maintaining the status quo may be detrimental to company performance in the future.
Redesigning a workplace for operational resilience does not have to be too drastic. Simple adjustments can go a long way. Decision makers just need to assess the utility of their workspaces in the event of a major disruption: Will their current meeting rooms and employee cubicles still be usable or would they again be left vacant for months on end? If the answer is the latter, then they need to decide what steps to take so that they can ensure business continuity while making the most out of every inch of their office space.
For this mini article series, we want to focus on key areas in the office that would greatly benefit from a few tweaks in design. For these spaces, we want to show how you can take advantage of technology to maximize room utilization by converting them into safe, multi-purpose workrooms suited for highly productive in-person collaboration and hybrid work.