6 ways to create a people-first office after the pandemic

The workforce's changing needs mean that HR leaders need to do considerable legwork before bringing employees back to the office.
By: | September 22, 2021

After spending the last year-and-a-half making sure employees were safe and productive while working remotely, companies are now focused on how they can adapt their office environment to satisfy new workstyle needs. For most, this future will involve some element of hybrid work—a mix of work done in the office or remotely that’s part of an ecosystem of solutions and services that support work from anywhere. A recent JLL survey of 3,300-plus office workers, for instance, found that, in a post-pandemic world, 63% of the workforce want to work in a hybrid style.

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In managing this complex challenge with JLL’s own workforce of 92,000 people across 80 countries, I’ve learned first-hand how companies can adapt the physical office into a space that meets employees’ changing preferences. As more companies start thinking about putting a return-to-office date on the calendar, C-suite leaders can use the following elements as a framework to regenerate their work environment and satisfy the changing needs of a post-pandemic workforce.

Rethinking the future of work

Author Mary Bilbrey.

Companies need to determine where they fit on the continuum of hybrid work models, which stretches from almost everyone working from the office always, to a 100% virtual workforce. Leaders should ask themselves: What model is best for my company’s business and culture? If employees switch between working from home, the office or a third location like a co-working office, how can they be supported to create a frictionless transition between all these different workspaces?

As the definition of “hybrid” continues to evolve, technology will play a key role in evolving our work modalities to suit current wants and needs. The more tech-enabled offices will inspire employees, while continuing to connect remote or hybrid workers more seamlessly. For anyone who primarily works remotely, for instance, providing the essentials will be critical to enable higher performance; this includes laptops, second monitors, ergonomic chairs and strong Wi-Fi connections.

Changing workforce preferences

Surveys can often uncover how employees want to work, but employee preference shouldn’t be the only factor that determines who works where. Three factors I suggest HR leaders explore include:

  1. Who wants to work from the office? Preferences can change over time, so companies should consider surveying their employees on a routine basis to get a regular temperature check on shifting needs. JLL’s latest research analyzing employee attitudes, for instance, found that the desire for remote work is declining, with 33% of the workforce never wanting to work from home post-pandemic, as opposed to 28% in October 2020.
  2. Who needs to work from the office? By talking to employees, managers may find that some people are struggling to work remotely because of technology, space or family responsibilities. JLL’s research found that working parents, in particular, seek structure and reprieve from caregiving, where the office provides much-needed separation from home responsibilities. Further, as productivity at home is declining (down to 37%, compared with 48% in April 2020), many employees find the socialization and “real” human connection that the office provides can enable a better work experience and environment.
  3. Who must work from the office? For some, working on site is critical to an organization’s operations and success. This could include roles working with sensitive information, researchers, product designers or in-store retail staff. If someone is designing footwear or clothing, for example, collaborating in person with a team is usually much more productive than trying to workshop new products remotely.

See also: Hybrid, remote, on-site? Employees have weighed in

Understanding the workforce of the future

Armed with information gathered from surveys and benchmarking, C-suite and human resources leaders can create employee personas. With the pandemic making any resemblance of a “one-size-fits-all” approach obsolete, personas can determine which job functions should be in the office most or all the time, those that could be done remotely and which positions could flex between the two.

Companies should also be analyzing employee groups’ office use and mobility profiles to calculate new office-space requirements and desk-sharing ratios. Post-pandemic, people in certain job functions may only need to work from the office a few days a week and likely won’t require dedicated offices.

Building the right hybrid model

Coming up with the right hybrid work model means striking a balance between what works for the organization and what employees want. Based on this thinking, the office is remaining front and center for most firms, even those considering hybrid options. JLL’s own people survey, for example, found that the vast majority want to be able to access the office at least a few times per week. And for JLL, this was true across age demographics, which is counter to some other reported surveys. Another piece of research from JLL tackling the issue of human performance showed that remote working is not for everyone in the long-term, as one in two employees do not feel as productive at home as in the office.

Related: How to embrace the new world of hybrid work

People always vote with their feet, so companies should also keep a close pulse on forms of hybrid work that their own employees value, rather than relying on what may be deemed “conventional wisdom.” Additionally, considering a company’s brand, culture and approach to employee health and wellbeing are all critical foundational factors to keep in mind when creating a hybrid work environment.

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Transforming and maintaining office culture

A switch to a hybrid work environment will require being intentional about what the company’s culture is so it can be incorporated into new ways of working. To guide this process, leaders should be asking themselves:

  • What is our culture, and what role do HR and business units play in cultivating it?
  • What virtual or in-person activities can we offer that support our culture?
  • What behaviors can we encourage to help people feel like part of the culture regardless of where they work?

This discussion of a company’s culture should then lead to a conversation of the physical space needed to support it. If bringing people together for face-to-face meetings is important, then offices need magnet spaces where that can happen. If the culture supports people choosing which days they work in the office, leadership will need to ensure that they are bringing the right people in at the right times so the desired collaboration can be encouraged.

Enabling resiliency for the future

If we learned one thing during the pandemic, it was how to be flexible. As more companies consider plans for returning to the office, organizations must continue to extend this agility to accommodate changing business conditions and employees’ work preferences, while ensuring their building and workspaces are safe, resilient and ready.

Beyond following local safety guidelines when planning office seating and desk sharing, resiliency also means testing different technology and apps to ensure people remain productive in their jobs. For employees who prefer to work remotely because they don’t want to commute, companies can consider setting up suburban satellite offices or lease co-working space to accommodate those looking for greater flexibility. With work now boundary-less, people expect a safe, productive and seamless experience that satisfies their personal and professional needs wherever work happens.

As organizations look ahead to the next chapter of the future of work, it’s important to keep in mind that, while this massive remote work experiment has created opportunities, it has also exposed new social risks. To retain and attract top talent, companies must be bold and proactive in understanding how their employees are feeling today about this new normal of hybrid work. By creating an open dialogue with the workforce and being open to adjusting the physical workspaces based on their new workstyle needs, companies can seize this inflection point as an opportunity to shape our future world of work for the better.

Mary Bilbrey is global CHRO of JLL.