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Designing the ‘Once-a-Week’ Office of the Future

Sasin Paraksa Alamy Stock Photo.jpg

Image: Sasin Paraksa - Alamy Stock Photo
When employees started returning to the office this year, many workplace strategists were unsure how many employees would return and at what frequency. In a lot of the hype surrounding the return to the office, the most common hybrid work model referenced two or three days in the office and the rest at home (or somewhere outside the office). But based on recent research, the two or three days in the office might have been a bit optimistic — with some employees only coming into the office once a week.
Occupancy analytics company found that half of surveyed employees made one weekly trek to the office in the second quarter of 2022, up from 44% in the first quarter, as reported in this Fortune article. At the same time, the number of employees working in the office four of five days a week fell to 14.8% from 21.5% in the first quarter. Workers may have realized they could get away with fewer visits and thus stopped going into the office, and the CEOs that thought a recession would give them the leverage to mandate more in-office working haven’t seen that happen yet, Fortune suggested.
Real Estate Investments Under the Microscope
If this go-to-the-office-once-a-week model takes root, it could have profound impacts on how workplaces invest in commercial real estate, and ultimately, how workplace leaders do their day-to-day jobs.
One possibility is that we will see a rise in smaller, smarter offices — think the hub-and-spoke model. Organizations with large real estate holdings could downsize and maintain a lean office presence in key geographic markets. These offices will most likely be equipped with the latest amenities and technology to enable hybrid work, including space utilization technology, hotdesking software, easily reconfigurable workplace amenities, video collaboration that connects in-office employees with remote colleagues, and many other products and services.
Alternatively, we might see companies aggressively divest their real estate holdings: Twitter recently announced that its downsizing its San Francisco headquarter, and Etsy is completely closing up shop in the city, as NBC reported. Last week, rideshare company Lyft announced plans to sublease about 44% of its office spaces in New York City, Nashville, and Seattle, as The Real Deal shared.
These companies might also rely more on coworking services to fill in the gaps. Over the last year, coworking services like WeWork, Upflex, and others have pivoted their marketing messaging to supporting hybrid work. Earlier this year, I discussed how coworking services could cater to the “most-of-the-time” remote workers who might need a physical place to work outside the office to button projects or meet with colleagues for a crucial brainstorming session.
The Future of Work: How You Want It
Like many workplace decisions, the chance to downsize or restructure their real estate holding will come with a bunch of caveats. A key one is whether there’s a market for the subleases and property that’ll be available when many large organizations are more critically examining their own real estate investments.
Also, let’s not forget that special consideration needs to be given to departments and job-specific work requirements. Organizations with a strong frontline workforce will most likely need to maintain their current physical locations or even add more to meet customer and employee demands.
The survey seems to suggest the workforce might be reaching a crucial moment of reflection on how and where we work; one where we need to challenge the assumptions many of us made about the future of work. At the beginning of this year, a consensus between many workplace vendors, thought leaders, and those in executive leadership seemed to form around a standard hybrid work model — two or three days in the office and the rest WFH — and how that was the model for the future. However, employees had other ideas.
As we inch closer to the end of the year, it seems the standard hybrid work model hasn’t been the universal case. Instead, organizations have adapted a range of working styles from primarily remote working to mostly in-office and every shade of gray in-between. However, it’s not to say that all companies are in line with this idea, and some are seeing the post-Labor Day timeframe as ushering in a surge of employees heading back into the office.
At this point though, it might be time for workplaces to scrap any remaining notion of a one-size-fits-all approach to working arrangements (something my colleague Lisa Schmeiser discussed in a recent article). Workplace leaders might need to reconsider everything from the technology that they use to the HR policies that support their employees in a range of different working styles. Cheesy employee gimmicks like ping-pong tables, outdated perceptions of what work can and should be, and rigid policies aren’t going to float in today’s climate, especially as employees seem to be standing their ground on workplace demands even in the face of troubling economic news. Crucially, workplace flexibility will be key, regardless of what — if any — working model will prevail as the standard for the future.