A CTO’s Perspective: Rethinking the Office Space Post-COVID
9 July 2020
When our company first began to understand that COVID-19 might shut down our offices, we decided to do an all-remote drill. The thinking was: let’s send everybody home and see how it goes now, in preparation for when it’s not an option. That was back in early March.
The punchline of that story is probably obvious: the "drill" quickly turned into a reality, end date indefinite. Our transition was assuaged somewhat, since we’d already been increasing remote work as our team was growing globally. We’d already implemented technology infrastructure to make remote work possible and secure. Still, the pandemic was a sudden move to all-remote, making it challenging for workers to adjust—not to mention that many of them are now dealing with a lack of childcare or other stresses associated with the pandemic.
Our team has remained incredibly resilient in the face of this change, and we now have the opportunity to continue the transition to a new type of work—one that the pandemic didn’t create, but accelerated. With restrictions letting up, leadership teams are planning what returning to the office looks like—and some are implementing temporary in-person policies already. But if companies are working towards "business as usual," they’re missing an opportunity to pause and think about how we need to change the office for the future of work. We likely won’t return to the office in full force for many months to come—and in my view, perhaps we shouldn’t, ever. Instead, companies should be more focused on creating new types of work and collaboration space and on implementing more flexible work policies.
Remote Work Boosts Engagement—and Hiring Opportunities
There’s data suggesting that many workers, having experienced working from home during the pandemic, are interested in continuing to do so—whether that’s full-time or part-time. And while companies might be worried about a lack of productivity as a result, research suggests the opposite. A recent study from Accenture found that employees crave the flexibility to "achieve the productivity that helps my mental health." And one study found that, being granted this flexibility, at least 60% of employees feel more productive and engaged at work.
Not only are employees better engaged in their jobs, but employers can increase their access to great talent. Employers no longer have to hire around their HQ or local offices, which often limits the talent pool to those employees who can afford to live in high cost of living areas. And by offering remote work to candidates, employers see higher application rates, greater candidate diversity and lower hiring costs (including incentives and/or relocation fees), among other benefits. It’s no wonder, then, that this trend was already taking shape before the pandemic, with remote job postings increasing 270% from 2017.
Embrace the Opportunity to Rethink the Office Space
If I could point to one positive impact of COVID-19 on the way we work, it’s absolutely that we’ll start to move away from the open office to mitigate personal health risks. It’s the worst-kept secret in the tech business that the open office, despite its revolutionary promises to spark creativity and spontaneous collaboration, failed miserably. One study found companies that switched to an open office format saw in-person interactions actually decline by 70%. That’s because in the absence of physical walls, the office culture often creates them—and instead of interrupting someone in-person, digital communication increases.
The open office did save companies money by being able to fit more employees per square foot of office space. But the good news is that, in this new world of work, they likely don’t need more office space to accommodate the workforce with more people working remotely part-time or full-time. As companies reopen, they should consider dividing the office into thirds:
Permanent desks: Remember that some employees don’t have home environments that are conducive to working from home regularly—or maybe they are just happier and more productive coming into a physical office everyday.
Hoteling: Allow employees to reserve a desk when they need it to come into the office a few times a week or on an as-needed basis to collaborate with colleagues in-person.
Collaboration Space: This is meeting room space with white boards and other tools that facilitate in-person collaboration and design sessions.
Make the Remote Work Experience Better
Before everyone was working from home, remote employees were at a slight disadvantage when the majority of their colleagues were in-person. In-person, it’s easier to be part of every conversation, feel connected to colleagues through casual conversations or office happy hours and even feel a stronger affinity for the company because of that personal connection. Loneliness and low engagement make remote workers more likely to leave a company. But as more people opt for remote work, improving that experience will be critical not only to help employees collaborate more effectively, but also for retention.
Organizations, specifically IT teams, should consider remote work best practices, such as allowing for more flexible work schedules, assigning start-to-finish projects with definitive deadlines, and leveraging pulse surveys to regularly check-in with your teams to make sure they have the support, resources and motivation to stay productive.
And all of that needs to start now: Many in leadership might think that no one will be leaving in the middle of the pandemic—but that’s simply not true. And in fact, it’s easier than ever before for employees to leave: they don’t have to clean out their desks or even say goodbye to colleagues. Finding ways to help employees feel connected to the company, its goals and its success will be critical post-pandemic now and as unemployment begins to fall and employees are more comfortable job-hunting.
Companies have been making space for remote work for the last several years, and the pandemic has only accelerated the need for investing more in making remote work tenable for more employees. It’s critical that companies embrace this opportunity to give their workforce more autonomy and flexibility—rather than revert to former best-practices.