Driving to office just to use laptop and phone a thing of the past, says expert
COVID-19 has changed the way people use technology and how often they go to the office, but companies and workers in the booming tech sector still want offices to go to.
“The pandemic demonstrated to everyone that we can work remotely if we have to. But whether we should or whether it’s the best option is something employees and companies need to think about,” says Scott Addison, president of brokerage services at Colliers Canada.
The technology sector and white-collar businesses, in particular, are looking closely at how to strike a balance between flexibility and connectivity – how to enable employees to work at home at least part of the time but also come to the office regularly to connect with colleagues and clients.
Giants such as Amazon and Google have announced policies allowing employees to work at home at least part of the time, though in some cases companies say they’ll cut pay for those who stay home because these workers save on commuting costs.
Surveys of Canadians conducted since the pandemic began in March 2020 suggest that workers want the option to work outside the office sometimes and in the office at other times.
One survey released in September 2020 by ADP Canada and Maru/Blue found that preferences vary with peoples’ ages; 61 per cent of workers aged 19 to 34 prefer to work remotely at least three days a week, but only 43 per cent of those over 35 want to do so.
“Most people don’t admit it, but work is a social event too,” Addison says. “Having worked from home for an extended period of time, employees are missing the physical connection and camaraderie they experience being in the office.”
“Flexibility has become paramount. People want choice,” says Wayne Berger, chief executive officer of IWG Canada and Latin America, a global leader in co-working and flexible workspace facilities.
“The desire to be able to work both in offices and offsite has accelerated greatly in the last 18 months, since the pandemic started,” he says.
There are two reasons for this, he explains.
“One is that people want to be more purpose-driven in their work. The idea of driving to a corporate headquarters just to use your laptop and phone is a thing of the past,” Berger says.
The second reason is that people don’t want to waste time commuting, Berger adds: “We have found that only 13 per cent of workers actually want to go back to an office if their commuting time is longer than 30 minutes to get there.”
The desire for flex work is leading to new ideas about how offices should be set up, says Daniel Holmes, executive managing director for the Greater Toronto Region at Colliers.
“Office designers and managers are learning that there’s value in people having quiet space to work,” he says. “People want the noise and the energy of a big office, but they also want places where they can concentrate. Remote working has brought about concerns and expectations that employers will need to consider as employees return to the office. Part of this is really thinking about both the purpose and the design of the office.”
There’s a trend to configure offices to enable people to get away from distractions when they need to and to regroup when it’s time to share ideas, he explains. “At the root of it all is flexibility – considering the shifts in how people now work and innovating to provide an environment that reflects these changes. With different roles and responsibilities come different ways of working optimally – open, productive conversations need to be had to figure out how people can best do their job such that their needs are supported, and the goals of the business are met.”
Addison says another long-term trend is to upgrade offices to reassure workers that they are safe. Steps being taken include improving air quality, installing more touchless facilities, raising the height of cubicle walls and having fewer bench-style workspaces where people would be working in close quarters.
Holmes adds, “Having a more ‘activity-based’ work environment where employees can do focused work and collaborate with colleagues – seamlessly and safely – is beneficial.”
It costs money to reconfigure offices but it’s an important investment, Addison says. “It can take up to two years to design and manufacture new furniture, for example. But companies should realize that their office space isn’t necessarily the biggest expense in their budget — people are. So, the office should be a good place for productivity and for peoples’ mental health.”
Workers are still considering their options, but many are discovering that a mix is what they want most. “A lot of tech workers were doing their work in small condos or back in their parents’ house, and they found that wasn’t optimal,” he says.
It takes time to absorb changes that are driven by major global events like the pandemic, Holmes adds.
“While no one knows exactly what the future will look like, as humans, we’re resilient; and while it takes time and we don’t forget what transpired, we resume our activities following extreme events and change, armed with lessons learned and new – and hopefully better – ways of doing things.”