As 2021 draws to a close and we look forward to 2022 with the hope for a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, businesses across the region are looking towards the great office return. At the same time there is still concern among employees about what this will look like and how it will affect their now established ways of working. While no one really knows what the new year will bring, one thing we do know is that getting the balance right between employee and business needs is crucial and the hybrid office approach is one way of achieving this.
Fears and Concerns Vary According to Demographics
A number of concerns about returning to the office were raised by respondents to our recent ‘What Office Type Are You?’ survey. Unsurprisingly, the top two concerns remain centered around flexibility and safety. But, while these concerns are widely acknowledged, how employers can adapt the way of working to alleviate them is not as straightforward as you might first think.
You see, what really became apparent in our research is that the priority of these concerns differ according to employee demographic. Understandably, it appears that older employees have a greater concern for the safety of the office environment, whereas younger workers are more concerned about losing the flexibility they have gained by working from home. On the surface this makes perfect sense, as typically more mature workers are more likely to have older, more independent children and so the flexibility becomes less important in their priorities, but they are also more likely to have elderly or vulnerable parents and so their workplace concerns quite rightly centre on health and safety. Conversely, it makes sense that younger employees are more likely to have small children at home and so having the flexibility to manage their homelife alongside their work commitments becomes more important to them. Interestingly, it appears that gen-z employees below 25 years of age more readily cite the commute as their main concern – could this be because they see this as dead or wasted time where they could be doing something more productive and valuable?
Differing Views Across the Region
The ‘What Office Type Are You?’ survey also uncovered some interesting variances among different countries. While respondents from Thailand and Philippines cited safety as the top priority, participants from India appear to worry more about flexible work arrangements. Singapore meanwhile is concerned about the prospect of having to wear masks for long periods of time while in the office. Again, these differences in concerns come as no surprise if we consider the different countries’ approach to managing the pandemic, the status on the ground, and the typical commute and office environment within these countries. For example, it is not unusual for employees in India to face long commutes to and from the office. The switch to remote working for them has enabled employees to regain this time and use it to focus on other things, whether that’s work related or not, and of course losing this will be a great concern.
Is Hybrid Working The Answer
One good thing that has come out of all this is the realisation that a one-size fits all approach to workplace design does not work. For employers this becomes challenging as they try to balance the needs and wants of their employees with the requirements and objectives of their business. The first step is understanding these differing factors and then, rather than focusing on how they may contradict each other, look for solutions that address them holistically. This includes designing an office environment that addresses employee concerns, provides the kind of work spaces they want for their return to the office while ensuring the space helps promote the productivity and collaboration the business wants. Following that, it’s about implementing policies that address concerns around safety and flexible working that are practical, manageable, fair and enforceable, and ensuring these are disseminated and communicated to employees.
Implementing a Hybrid Office approach provides employers with the opportunity to deliver the perfect balance between employee and business need. And it’s important to remember that when it comes to hybrid working, there are myriad ways of executing the concept.
For example, for businesses that want to build a collaborative culture where teams come together to ideate and problem solve, the office space need to include open, multi-purpose spaces that allow employees to come together, but to balance this with employee concerns over safety, there needs to be good ventilation and the space needs to be sizable enough to allow for safe distancing. On the other hand, the business will also likely have employees that need to focus on completing tasks individually. Those individuals need enclosed areas where they can focus on their work with maximum privacy and minimal distractions. Getting the balance in dividing the available space between these differing requirements requires careful consideration and planning. Indeed, it may be that the right solution is not to have one single office space that caters for all but to provide a series of satellite offices with varying functions and purpose while also allowing employees to work from home where the environment there is more conducive to the task at hand.
A Hybrid Model Delivers the Best Outcomes
When the pandemic hit, many businesses scrambled to implement remote working effectively. Today, working from home still remains the default for some but as the peak of productivity that we saw in the early days now faces a decline, employers are keen to get their workforce back into the office at least for some of the time. Meanwhile, many employees echo the sentiment and while they relish the freedom and flexibility offered by homeworking, they miss the sense of belonging and comradery that is built on face-to-face interactions. Increasingly we are seeing that adopting a hybrid model delivers the best possible outcome for both employers and employees in terms of balancing their differing needs.
It’s now clear that hybrid working is no longer the future – it is quickly becoming the norm. But, there are still those that need to plan now and begin to evolve the workplace if they are ever to get employees back to the office. So, as we look to close out 2021 and transition into 2022 it’s the perfect time to assess what your employees need and want, and to define your office objectives. Once you know this, uncovering the right hybrid approach to adopt becomes relatively straightforward. Bringing it to life is where the fun really begins!
We developed the ‘What Office Type Are You?’ tool to help our clients understand their employees’ concerns and needs when it comes to returning to the office. You can try the tool for yourself here or feel free to contact us to see how you can use the tool for your business planning.