Millions of office workers and the companies that employ them will find out in 2021 whether the working practices they hastily adopted in the pandemic are a new normal or a solution to the crisis best left behind. During the process, employers will begin to know whether the workplace bets they make for the future are winning or losing.
The stakes are high. It’s only when going back to the office becomes a safe option that we’ll see what employees think about it after months of working from home. Beyond the policies of the WFH, employers will be faced with important decisions about commercial real estate, including how much to have, where to place it, and how to design it. The future of cities, some with zones almost desert now will begin to reveal itself. Perhaps most importantly in the long run, employers will learn more about the hard-to-measure value of bringing employees together and compare it to the easy-to-measure savings of letting them work remotely.
CEOs are deeply divided on these issues. High-level tech companies –Facebook, Twitter, Zillow, others – told employees they could work from home indefinitely. Twitter sublets more than 100,000 square feet of its offices in San Francisco. Outdoor retailer KING went one step further, selling its new unused corporate campus in Bellevue, Wash., and making remote working a “standard model,” as CEO Eric Artz put it.
But other heavyweights in the business, including AbbVie, Alphabet, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & johnson lean the other way. They want their office workers to get back to the office as quickly as possible and safely. Their reasons share a theme. “We believe that collaboration and innovation are largely fueled by the relationships between people”, Johnson & johnson Director of Human Resources Peter Fasolo tell Fortune. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told MSNBC that “there is tremendous value in working together in terms of collaboration, creativity and training the youngest.” IBM Human Resources Director Diane Gherson notes the “trust bank we all build when we work together physically”. Studies show this confidence is essential to creativity, and nothing builds confidence like face-to-face interaction.
Will permissive WFHs find their company’s culture and creativity to fade over time? Will back-to-office advocates discover that many employees now view the commute as a miserable experience they would like to give up? Both groups of employers face risks, which 2021 will illuminate.
Most employers will make changes to their workplace, often major changes, if they haven’t already. In the strange new post-COVID world, they will have to somehow reconcile conflicting imperatives. Employers will reduce office space because they don’t need it or have to cut costs; 76% of CEOs in an October survey through Fortune said they would reduce office space. But they will also have to allocate more square feet per worker. Even if the distancing warrants are eventually repealed, employers will likely continue to use more spacious floor plans – “de-densified” in the real estate discourse – to make workers feel safe.
Another conflict: The hottest trends in office real estate in recent years have been “community” and amenities, which employees and employers always want – but how to deliver them to people who can remain leery for a long time to come. ? The owners provide a community by hosting book and travel clubs, tastings, speakers and other events that had to be canceled or digitized. “The community will be central,” says Emma Buckland, global president of property management at CBRE real estate service company. “This crisis highlights the need for community.”
But meeting this need will not be easy. It is the same with the equipment of office buildings. “Restaurants, gyms, terraces – they’ll all need different planning,” Buckland says. Employers who enthusiastically bring workers back to the office may invite them to an unfamiliar location.
Most CEOs think they are coming up with a hybrid model with some employees in offices and others working remotely. In one Fortune survey conducted with Deloitte, they said they expected 33% of employees to work remotely by January 2022. Those reducing space say they are most likely to eliminate satellite offices.
But that’s the perspective from inside the pandemic whirlpool. The world can look and feel completely different as vaccines are distributed and human interaction without a mask slowly resumes. Right now, it seems like everyone is predicting the future of work. In 2021, it will happen.