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Bigger Offices, Fewer People?


Receptionist wearing medical mask
Image: Marina Andrejchenko -
“The Death of the Office” has been an easy hot take for COVID-era commenters, and like any other broad, definitive statement about a complex reality, it’s bound to be wrong. But just how wrong? A survey from consulting firm PwC earlier this year gives some idea.
PwC surveyed 120 U.S. executives and 1,200 U.S. office workers in early June to get perspectives on multiple aspects of the remote work transition. When asked about total office space in three years half of executives said they anticipated needing more office space over that period. Specifically, 26% expect space needs to increase between 5% and 15%, while another 16% foresee an increase of 16% to 25%, and 9% anticipate needing 25% or more additional space.
In contrast, 30% of PwC’s executive respondents expect space needs to decline over the next three years. Fifteen percent see a space reduction of 5% to 15%; another 12% of executives believe space needs will decline 16% to 25%; and just 3% of them see a reduction of more than 25%.
The remaining 19% of those executives surveyed anticipate their space needs remaining the same over the next three years.
PwC attributes the expectations for increased space needs to a combination of natural economic growth and new office designs that require more space, even if accommodating fewer workers, to ensure proper distancing in the wake of the pandemic. Needing more space to accommodate the same (or fewer) number of workers each day gibes with the widespread assumption that many enterprises will move to a hybrid system where employees who used to report to the office every day will be able to work remotely at least a few days a week.
Relatedly, the fact that only 3% of PwC’s executive respondents expect to reduce space by 25% or more suggests that any enterprises that choose to go all or mostly virtual will be very much the exception in the coming three years.
If the executives’ responses suggest support for the hybrid model, how might this strategic direction sit with employees? When PwC asked employees how often they worked remotely before COVID-19 and how often they’d like to once COVID-19 is no longer a concern, the top preference for post-pandemic, overwhelmingly, was five days a week. This option garnered 32% of respondents; the next-closest was three days a week, at 17%. Just 8% said they would choose not to work remotely at all post-pandemic.
On the first part of that question — how often did you work remotely pre-pandemic? — 39% said they didn’t work remotely, the largest group by far. The next-largest was a tie at 18%, between those who worked remotely less than one day a week and those who were already full-time remote workers.
That’s a dramatic shift when it comes to enterprises denying employees the option of working remotely, from 39% pre-pandemic to only 8% preference post-pandemic. This is a large cadre of workers whose demand for remote work options will have to be addressed.
Put it all together, and the PwC survey suggests that while enterprises will still demand office space, they’ll be filling that space with considerably fewer people post-pandemic. And this lighter office population will in large part be driven by employee demand for more remote working.