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Contrary to popular belief, the office is not dead

Sep 15 2020

The nature of the office has evolved dramatically over the last 100 years. From 20th century Taylorism to the cubicle farms of the 1980s, and the more recent rise in activity-based working and sprawling amenity-filled corporate campuses. How people work and the environments they operate within have shifted in the last century as more flexible options have gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have, and technology has enabled new opportunities for innovation.

Today, as the world grapples with the effects of COVID-19, these same enhancements permit millions of employees to stay safe and work from home. As a distributed team with offices in San Francisco, Boston, and Minneapolis and staff in multiple countries, VergeSense was among the fortunate companies able to adapt to fully remote working in March quickly. Yet, we still look forward in anticipation to the day when we can reopen our office. And we’re not alone. 

Despite initial optimism causing people to ask the question, “do we even need an office anyway?” workers are starting to voice their frustrations about the inefficiencies of working from home. The reality is that projects are taking longer to complete, collaboration has become much more difficult, and employee anxieties are increasing, leading many to label remote work as unsustainable. For example, a recent JLL survey of 3,000 workers found that 58% of employees miss the office and those under 35 show the strongest desire to return. At VergeSense, we believe the office is actually on the cusp of an exciting rebirth instead of heading towards imminent death

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the office’s revival and take a look at how COVID-19 has transformed the workplace as we know it. From how it has affected office utilization to what it means for the future of CRE portfolios. Today, we’re examining how the office is finally freed to be what it needs to be for today’s workers — a hub for collaboration and innovation. Here are 4 ways we see the office transforming in the “new normal.” 

1. Workplace Technology Takes Off

Since its emergence 20 years ago, technological advancements have created a significant buzz as companies strive to support, enhance, and even disrupt long-established business models, like the employee: sqft ratio and long-term leases. Its influence is so strong that a 2018 survey by KPMG found that 97% of real estate decision-makers said they believe proptech will have at least some impact on their business. As today’s corporate real estate leaders plan their safe workplace returns, we imagine their answer to this question would be an even stronger resounding yes. 

Just as fintech grew out of the 2007-08 recession and software ate the financial market, many predict proptech will provide the same innovation needed to solve the various challenges and inevitable changes facing real estate as a result of COVID-19. In the banking industry, laggards were essentially forced to adopt new technologies or crash. And today, corporate real estate teams are experiencing a similar wake-up call. For example, to help forward-thinking companies meet the unanticipated challenges caused by COVID-19, VergeSense recently announced Restore, a data-enriched system designed to support workplace return strategies and beyond. With new safety, security, and compliance applications, our company’s solutions are proving invaluable in our customers’ plans to safely and confidently return to the office. 

And as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, the companies that had already invested in the digital workplace, including conference call technology and virtual collaboration tools before COVID-19, have fared far better at being able to stay productive. Meanwhile, the pitfalls of not investing in workplace technologies have been fully exposed and sent laggards scrambling to catch up. 

In light of all of the above, we can expect office spaces across the globe to become more technologically advanced as workplace leaders aim to COVID-proof their offices, and employees demand more workspace flexibility. 

2. The New Hybrid Workplace 

With companies like Google and Microsoft choosing to extend their work-from-home policies into 2021, working parents are increasingly providing childcare while on the job. We expect this will accelerate the hybrid workplace to becoming the new norm, with knowledge workers rotating between remote and office-based work throughout the week. According to a recent survey conducted by Salesforce Research, 64% of workers want to spend at least some hours at the workplace instead of working entirely remotely. This correlates with the findings of a survey commissioned by Slack to more than 9,000 knowledge workers, with 72% saying they too want a combination of office and remote work. 

And it’s easy to understand why they feel this way. By splitting their time between the office and home, employees can remain flexible while also maximizing the workplace’s value when it comes to collaboration and socialization. In fact, a recent Glassdoor study found that over 70% of U.S. employees say they are ready to return to the office, and the biggest reasons why is because they miss mingling with their co-workers and collaborating in-person. Offering current and prospective employees the option to rotate between the office and home seamlessly has significant benefits for all parties. It will likely become a vital component of the ever-important employee experience long after COVID-19’s demise.

3. Data-driven Decision Making Becomes Key for Office Optimization

With all this variability, annual occupancy surveys are no longer a viable option in today’s workplace. Workplace services teams will need to optimize space daily and not just once per year. To do so, data-driven decision-making that accounts for the new ways people work will become more critical than ever before. 

For example, VergeSense provides real-time room and desk usage. This ensures employees can reserve space on-demand through their companies' reservation systems, and workplace teams can monitor and optimize usage. Companies can also use VergeSense occupancy data to calculate the new ideal employee to space ratio. 

Longer-term, as workplace utilization rates continue to fall as a result of rotating workforces, occupancy data will enable companies to optimize their real estate portfolios and identify when and where flexible leasing may be more appropriate. 

4. Workplace Wellness Takes Center Stage 

With COVID-19 shining a spotlight on sanitization and cleanliness within the home, the office, and across public spaces, perhaps the most significant influencer of employee experience today is how an organization boosts building health and employee wellness. Although the benefits of both were overlooked pre-pandemic, studies have shown that there’s a significant correlation between the wellbeing of workers and their performance. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. John Macomber, co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, told VergeSense recently that this focus on air quality can set employers apart from other companies when it comes to recruitment retaining talent. Also, it has significant bottom-line implications -- most notably because of how companies save on healthcare costs when their employees’ wellness increases. 

As a result of such studies, it’s no surprise that employee demands call for more focus on their wellness and healthy spaces. Even Gartner predicts that despite the growing benefits of working remotely, 66% of employees will prioritize working within a wellness-equipped smart over their home office by 2022. COVID-19 has naturally made wellness a top priority for most, meaning it will be a top priority for C-Suites looking to attract the best talent to their organization and, ultimately, deliver superior employee experiences. 

In part two of our Rebirth of the Office Series, we’ll explain why, despite their short-term benefits in creating healthy barriers between workers, the cubicle is not making a long-awaited comeback.