DO WE NEED AN OFFICE?
Written by: Andrew Jameson SIOR CCIM
Andrew Jameson has 25 years of experience in the sales and leasing of office space as well as investment sales and tenant representation. Andrew’s primary focus has been in the Columbus suburban and downtown office market. His work ethic has led to being awarded virtually every year Co-Star Power broker award, Columbus Board of Realtors – Top 10 producers, and even Colliers national awards (top 5% in the country in production). Keep reading for Andy’s take on the future of office space.
Remote work: the future of work or just a fad?
In my discussions surrounding the status of the office market and where I believe the industry is heading, the permanence of remote work has been a frequent topic of debate. It's the elephant in the room and the question on everyone's mind: "If my workforce can successfully continue to work from home, what need do I have for office space?" I believe the answer to this question hinges on the word successfully. It is easy to underestimate the hurdles, challenges, and limitations of transitioning to a purely remote workforce. Here are a few things to consider –
Not everyone has a great work from home or home-life environment.
Employee productivity while working from home has been widely discussed as it pertains to distractions in the home, such as children, pets, and co-inhabitors. However, distractions are not the only factor to consider.
An assumption many make when evaluating remote work's permanence is that everyone's home life and home environment is positive and conducive to work. In an ideal scenario, remote workers would have a private office or designated space in the home in which to work. They would have superior Wifi and technology capabilities. They would feel safe and relaxed in their environment. They would have plenty of space to move around and change scenery. However, for many employees, this is not the case. What is to be said for the employees who live in an 800 sq foot apartment (the average U.S. apartment size is 837 square feet)? How about the employees who don't have access to stable Wifi or the resources and tools to perform all job-related tasks? Special thought and consideration should also be given to those employees who utilize the office and work as an escape from abusive or otherwise disagreeable relationships and circumstances. These are important questions to reflect on when making a decision that can have immense consequences on your employees' physical and emotional wellbeing.
There will be extra costs in supporting WFH employees.
A commonly referred to benefit of shrinking one's office footprint by employing a remote workforce is the savings realized from reduced spend on real estate. While this is a valid viewpoint, many neglect to consider or underestimate the increased costs of equipping employees with adequate technology and infrastructure to successfully perform their jobs from home.
While many companies are still operating in a temporary, pandemic-induced remote work arrangement, it's not likely that employees have raised questions regarding reimbursement of work-from-home related expenses. If this arrangement becomes the norm, additional costs will likely fall on the employer. These costs could include internet/Wifi expenses, company laptops (if not already provided), home office supplies and furniture, essential equipment, and more. To illustrate this by example, our marketing and research staff currently utilize shared professional cameras and equipment to take property photos and videos. If we were to permanently send these employees home, we would likely need to purchase this equipment for each individual to avoid the chaos of coordinating their shared use outside the workplace.
At first, these costs may seem minor, but as companies begin to compete for talent through robust work-from-home offerings and packages, the expenses can quickly add up. Furthermore, current technology is still far behind where it needs to be in order to adequately support a remote workforce, and we don't know what the future costs will be.
Onboarding employees virtually is challenging.
A computer screen is no match for the physical office when it comes to opportunities for social bonding, managerial oversight, and mentorship and support. Many companies already struggle with employee training, learning and development. While improvements in technology and e-learning platforms may help improve the quality of knowledge-based training for new employees, providing adequate skills-based training virtually will likely remain a challenge.
Skills-based training often relies on the instruction of top performers and subject matter experts, who may be difficult for employees to seek out and gain instruction from in a remote environment. It can also be difficult to gauge the trainee's absorption and understanding of material in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Instructors may miss puzzled expressions or inquisitive glances that signal difficulty with the material. Furthermore, it is difficult to monitor employee engagement in a virtual environment where politeness and proper etiquette doesn't dictate one's behavior and level of attention.
Poorly-trained employees will, inevitably, lack the knowledge to use company resources effectively, which will lead to waste. In the service industry, the lack of knowledge about procedures affects customer interaction and retention.
Work-from-home burnout is real.
A recent study of U.S. workers found that the average workday since the start of the pandemic has lengthened by 48.5 minutes, and the number of daily meetings has increased by 13 percent, which are conservative estimates compared to other such studies. The study, which examined the anonymous email and calendar data of more than three million users from an unnamed tech provider, also found significant increases in internal email and in meeting sizes.
This does not come as a great shock to the 69% of employees (according to a survey conducted by Monster) who report experiencing burnout during this period of mandated remote work. This burnout has occurred as individuals struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. In the absence of visual cues that signal shifts in the workday, it's easy to feel like you're "always on" while working from home. Afternoons begin to blend with evenings; weekdays start to blend with weekends, and little sense of time off remains.
It's hard to leave work at the office when the office is also your home. It's important for employees to take a mental break from work and technology, which can be difficult to do when you lack physical separation of roles.
Maintaining company culture while physically distanced takes effort.
Building a positive company culture is vitally important to business success; it is the heart of your organization and it affects how your employees and customers perceive you. Anyone who has worked to transform business values and ideals into a set of behaviors and attitudes can attest to the fact that building a culture is not something that can be achieved overnight, but rather, it’s a participatory effort that takes time.
In the absence of physical interaction, an organization needs to come up with creative ways to replicate the in-office experience and cultivate an environment of belonging. It is difficult to replicate the casual exchanges between employees that occur while on breaks or in between projects (often referred to as the 'watercooler effect') that ultimately help build cohesion among employees. Many studies have shown that, when employees are able to take the time to chat and bond, they are happier, and happier employees tend to get more done. When an employee feels disconnected from their team or organization, they lose their connection to the business mission and values. And since this is what commonly drives energy and performance at work, productivity and work performance tend to suffer over time.
While not impossible, building a strong company culture with remote teams makes an already difficult task even more challenging. Companies can expect to devote a significant amount of time and resources to solving this problem when making the transition to a remote workforce.
The "grand experiment" of remote work is forcing companies to rethink their operations and ask themselves difficult questions regarding the future of their workforce. Regardless of what side of the debate you fall on, it's clear that businesses will inevitably need to adapt and perhaps drop outdated mindsets as a result of the pandemic. It may be time to shift away from the 8 to 5 workday and welcome flexibility and adaptability and discover more efficient ways of working. It is my firm belief as an industry expert and participant in the workforce that physical offices will always be a permanent fixture in our society.