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What Do Office Employees Want? It’s Not What You Think.

Indoor air filtration, private workspaces and assigned desks are the features that make offices truly attractive to workers.

As the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be subsiding around the world, more and more companies are taking tentative steps toward normalcy. Some are dropping indoor mask requirements for vaccinated employees. Some, like Microsoft, are setting hard dates for when they expect most of their workers back in the office. But while for the past two years much of the debate surrounding the office sector centered around infection prevention and the merits of in-person vs. remote work, relatively little attention was being paid to what white collar employees want once they get back to the office. Much of the push on the corporate occupier side has been toward the same trends that dominated pre-pandemic set-ups, with emphasis on collaboration via “shared” spaces, shrinking office footprints to save money in the name of hybrid work schedules and flexibility in the form of features like desk booking. But is that what most employees want from the office? We looked at a few recent surveys to find out.

The office is still important

“The pandemic has created fundamental shifts, not only in how we work, but our expectations,” says Janet Pogue, a principal and global workplace research leader at global design firm Gensler. “Our priorities have shifted, and we have a new awareness and appreciation of how we spend our time, how we work best and what experiences we want to have.”

Gensler research indicates that working from home during the pandemic has increased the value and relevance of the office, with workers wanting to return to the office full-time or for part of the week. “Over the course of 11 different Gensler surveys of office workers, the primary purpose of the office has remained reasonably consistent: people want to come to the office to collaborate with their team or colleagues,” Pogue says.

In addition, the office remains important to employees for accessing specific spaces, materials and resources. Even during this winter’s Omicron surge, Gensler’s survey registered an increase in the number of people wanting to return to the office, at 31 percent vs. 25 percent in the summer of 2021, during the early stages of the Delta variant.

In fact, the results of Gensler’s Winter 2021 survey, which included 2,364 U.S. office workers, showed that 80 percent of respondents reported already visiting their company’s offices during the pandemic. When asked which features would make them feel comfortable going back to the office, 80 percent cited indoor air filtration systems, 74 percent cited access to more private spaces and 65 percent cited vaccination requirements. Sixty-five and 61 percent cited operable windows and outdoor workspaces, respectively. “More collaborative spaces” didn’t make the top features list of employee preferences.

Pogue notes that in pre-pandemic surveys, workers’ preference from more private space had already been growing, so now it is more important than ever to re-think the mix of spaces and different degrees of layout openness in the office.

A focus on health and hygiene

A Workforce Barometer Survey from commercial real estate services firm JLL, which included 3,368 participants from the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia, found that health and quality of life are among the top priorities for office workers today.

These priorities might now be just as important to employees as the level of financial compensation the company offers them, according to Peter Miscovich, managing director, strategy + innovation at JLL. “A focus on wellness in the workplace has become not just a nice to have, but a necessity to keep employees safe and healthy and to enhance human performance,” he notes.

In the JLL survey, 75 percent of respondents expect a workplace that employs health and safety measures that include clean-air filtration systems, “contactless” technologies, operable windows that can be opened and LED lighting. “These are not new concepts, but workers are now demanding these health and wellness workplace considerations, and building landlords and tenants are having to look very seriously at making new workplace health and well-being investments in order to remain competitive,” Miscovich says.

In addition, JLL research shows that 37 percent of workers cited less dense work environments, 33 percent cited physical space separation in the office and 25 percent cited no desk sharing as being crucial to them in a post-pandemic environment.

Office workers want privacy

A survey by office furnishings giant Steelcase, which asked nearly 5,000 office workers about their preferences and concerns when returning to the office, also revealed a major push for more privacy in the office, with 55 percent of respondents saying they would trade remote workdays for an assigned workstation in the office. And 42 percent said that whether they have an assigned desk will strongly influence whether they choose to work in the office or remotely on any given day. (In fact, the survey found that people who said they preferred to work remotely more than three days a week were also significantly more likely to say they will leave the company in the next six month).

This suggests that while workers appreciate the autonomy and flexibility of hybrid work, they are also looking for choice and a sense of belonging, says Chris Congdon, director of global research communications at Steelcase. There is still a gap between what employers think office workers want and what they actually want, she notes.

In the midst of a trend called The Great Resignation, “The ability to work remotely and compensation are incredibly important, but our research shows employees also want to feel a sense of belonging, which has a big impact on culture, engagement, productivity and retention,” Congdon says, adding that this should be a key consideration for organizations re-designing their workplaces.

Employers shouldn’t assume people will only want to come into the office to collaborate, she cautions. “They will also need places where they can focus and get individual work done.” When assigned workstations are not offered, Congdon notes, moveable screens can be quickly and easily adapted to provide territorial and visual privacy.

As with the other sources, Steelcase research shows that office workers based in the U.S. point to air quality as their number one priority for in-office work. Adherence to safety protocols is second, facility cleanliness is third, physical boundaries are fourth and the density of workers within the office is fifth. Availability of informal gathering areas came in at a distant eighth place, behind safe access to food and beverages.

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