The smashing of the cultural barrier to remote work, as a result of the pandemic’s work-from-home success, could be the biggest change to the workplace since the invention of the shared central office. So why is so much of the discussion around Return to Office focused on expanding office space to accommodate social distancing, rather than employing a longer-term value-add remote work strategy?
Survey after survey shows many companies are operating at the same or higher performance level than when their entire workforce came into a centralized office. According to a May 2020 survey sponsored by the International Facilities Managers Association, 70 percent of leaders say their team’s performance is the same or better since working from home. Further, architecture firm Gensler found that 73 percent of employees would feel positively about an increase in working from home.
But even with countless data supporting the benefits of a remote workforce, there are still those bullish on expanding brick and mortar. Not surprisingly, many of these voices are from large commercial real estate companies whose profits rely on office space being occupied. They note that compliance with social distancing accommodations will require more space versus less space. Some are also saying that remote work is a an experiment which will fail in the long-term because it risks putting employees in a situation where they feel diminished, disconnected or distracted.
So, what is the real answer? Like many conflicts, the reality lies somewhere in the middle of the opposing viewpoints. Of course, no one wants their workforce to feel diminished, disconnected or distracted—which is why a safe return to the office is so critical. But at the same time, companies don’t want to miss the unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the potential advantages of a long-term, broad-based remote work strategy—which might include leasing less space, not more. If a company determines that remote work is improving productivity, creating a better ability to recruit and retain talent, and ultimately leading to better financial results, why wouldn’t they thoughtfully explore its possibilities before leasing potentially unnecessary space?
Companies will need to develop a balanced workplace solution that seeks to capture the benefits of remote work while addressing its challenges head on. For instance, although companies may have seen recent improvements in employee productivity, managers may not have experience supervising employees they cannot physically oversee. They need training resources for sustainable work from home programs. Organizations need to be purposeful as they decide which job roles are a good fit for remote work, or which job functions can be converted to digital processes that work well in a remote environment. Companies need to gain insights into employee aptitude for remote work and how to best manage them to avoid burnout and increase engagement. And organizations with valid concerns about maintaining their culture need to uncover best practices to keep their culture strong.
For most companies, experience with remote work programs is limited to a forced reaction to complying with stay at home orders. Before making long-term commitments about how much space to lease and its design, companies will want to go through a thoughtful process of evaluating all the critical requirements of remote work. They will need to identify gaps in capabilities and create a formal plan that optimizes what they have already been doing. This will allow them to move forward in confidence when making long-term real estate commitments and capturing the potential benefits of remote work strategies.
Corporations who plan, train and empower their leaders will find success leveraging new ideas about remote work, while still preserving the significant benefits of working together in a shared office. Real estate advisors can best support this effort by shifting from a compliance-only focus to a strategic mindset which helps clients define the optimum future, not just variations of the past.
Jason Jones is a principal at Cresa, a commercial real estate company that exclusively represents tenants and occupiers.