COVID has delivered to many companies around the world a knock-out punch which has put them on the mat. They aren’t knocked out; just dazed, as any experienced fighter would be when caught off guard with a hard blow.
One way companies have dealt with the hard blow is in their Work Environment. At the beginning of the pandemic, many businesses simply sent office workers home. Some had corporate guidance and IT support; others simply were told to “make it work”. Post COVID, there will be a New Natural State of Equilibrium in the Work Environment and the business world. In this blog, I will talk more about the Work Environment.
First let me explain my interest in the subject. I have been a full-time mobile and part-time remote worker for over 13 years with a global technology company. I have designed many mobile office environments throughout Asia, working with business units to understand their needs and to educate them on the changes required and the change management process. For over 10 years I have taught this subject around the world to fellow professionals – across industries – in Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe and the USA. I was based in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS outbreak. These experiences have given me a keen understanding and perspective on what happened in the early days of COVID-19, and insights on what the future could look like for many businesses.
Let’s look at some basic Work Environment facts:
- It costs a company an average of over US$10,000/year per employee for their physical space.
- Remote working happened very quickly at the start of COVID-19, almost overnight for some companies and employees.
- There are many venues available to conduct work from, over the long term: Office, Home, the 3rd Space (coffee shops, etc) and other venues.
I recently read the Harvard Business School (HBS) working paper titled, What Jobs are Being Done at Home During the COVID-19 Crisis? Evidence from Firm Level Surveys. Key findings from the report include:
- While overall levels of remote work are high, there is considerable variation across industries.
- Remote work is much more common in industries with better educated and better paid workers.
- Employers think that there has been less productivity loss from remote working in better educated and higher paid industries.
- More than one-third of firms that had employees switch to remote work believe that it will remain more common at their company even after the COVID crisis ends.
The Emergence of the Future of Work
Mobile & Remote Work. The cost of housing a worker in an office environment has always been a concern for senior management. The cost quickly adds up, even for a small or medium-sized firm. The physical cost of the office is typically the second largest expense for a company, after employees’ salaries. This is one reason that “densification” has occurred in the office environment over the past 10 years or so. It is also a reason remote working (working outside the office – from home, coffee shop, hotel, airport lounge, etc.) has been attractive to companies. If the office environment is designed with multiple work-type spaces (e.g. collaborative, non-collaborative, quiet, etc.), a permanently designated workspace is not required for a worker. This type of Work Environment is known as a mobile environment. Both of these Work Environments – remote and mobile – have been the trend for many companies (especially technology and financial firms).
Co-working. Beginning a few years ago, another Work Environment emerged: Co-working. One of the early market leaders was WeWork. Co-working is very similar to the mobile environment. It has the added benefit of not requiring any capital cost for the fit-out (tenant improvements). The company or individual rents a desk or space in a co-working environment and just pays the monthly fee. There is no delay to find the space, sign the lease, design, or construct the space, and no capital required for the construction cost. It is a “plug and play” space.
Blended Model. Given the selection, worker typology, and flexibility of space, all these alternatives will be used in some capacity in the Future of Work (FoW). The Work Environment will be a blend of these environments. Some have predicted the death of the office building. Ecosystm research finds that only 16% of organisations are looking to reduce their commercial office space, going into 2021. People are social creatures and need interaction with others, either for effective work collaboration or just to socialise.
The Future of the Work Environment
Figure 1 shows a compilation of the various type of Work Environments which office workers use and how they came about.
Each company, especially post-COVID, will have to look at their business strategy and determine how they will best solution their Work Environment to get the maximum benefits. These are the main questions each company has to ask and answer at a strategic level:
- What is the best workspace solution for my company and employees?
- Do employees want the corporate leased space? Does it help make them more productive?
- How is the marketplace (landlords) responding to this demand if a company is leasing space?
Role-dependent Remote Workers. Returning to the larger topic of the Work Environment, the HBS paper states there are different rates of remoteness across industries. I would assert that in addition there are different rates of remoteness among the types of workers. A salesperson needs to interact differently with fellow company employees compared to an accountant or an administrative person. Workers in the Banking industry interact differently compared to workers in the Technology industry. The article also points out that a better educated and better paid worker – or a knowledge worker – can more easily be a remote worker. For those of us who have been working in the mobile/remote Work Environment for many years, we know and understand this. Knowledge workers are not employed for their physical skills. For example, an assembly line worker in an auto factory cannot be remote.
Determining Work Typology. The paper also states that remote working will be more common in the companies that have not experienced a dramatic decrease in productivity from remote working. This has been asserted and demonstrated by us, the professionals in the corporate Real Estate industry. The industry has been experiencing increased productivity for many years. We have also conducted in-house studies of the various business groups that have experienced remote working. We have even gone so far as to provide work typologies for the various types of workers. Each typology uses the office Work Environment differently and has varying levels of remote abilities.
Need for Change Management. A critical component of remote work effectiveness is the mindset shift by both the employee and the manager. The managers have to modify their style to more of a “management by performance”, versus just walking around and checking whether people are busy. Similarly, employees have to understand they are being trusted to work unsupervised but will have to accomplish the required work and be held responsible. The manager and employee relationship will require new performance measures to hold people accountable and determine whether they are being effective and productive in their remote environment. All of this requires a change management program to educate both without compromising the corporate culture.
When the pendulum finally comes to rest in the near future at what will be the New Normal, the Work Environment will be modified. But, more importantly, the mindset of employees and managers will have to be adjusted. This new mindset will be required so each company can be more agile to meet the new challenges that will be awaiting every company and industry throughout the world. This will enable a company to not only survive but thrive in the next wave of quantum shifts. And yes, there will be another wave of quantum shifts in the future, lest we forget the examples of the past (eg. the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, 2003 SARS, etc.).
This article has focused on the Work Environment. The Work Environment is one of the four components of the 360o Future of Work practice at Ecosystm. The other three components are: People, Technology, and Business. All four are required to be in balance to enable companies to meet future challenges, competitors, and unknown black swans.