Our Thoughts
Wed, 02/09/2020 - 12:00
· 7 min read

Away Days - Requirements of the Hybrid Workforce

Organisations are very fond of “away-days”. The exercise of taking employees out of the office, as teams or sometimes everyone, to go elsewhere to discuss, plan and bond is as popular as ever. 

What organisations were not anticipating for 2020 though were unplanned “away days” for staff that may end up lasting months.

COVID-19, the trigger for the unplanned dispersal of staff, is also creating the conundrum of how to unwind it or even whether it should. Corenet’s global survey from June states 16% of members say occupancy will never return to full levels. 

The clear implication is that away days through remote working are embedded. BNP Paribas Real Estate’s latest report, COVID-19 and Teleworking, looks at some of the outcomes that remote working is presenting for real estate.   

Hybrid Workforce will Change the Office

Our main scenario is that teleworking will remain limited to a certain number of days per week, with differences depending on the types of jobs and work organisation.

In other words, European companies are heading to become hybrid work organisations.

We think this because the end outcome depends on how the mismatch between technology, organisation and workplaces evolves. Technology often runs ahead of the ability of organisations to use it effectively. While COVID-19 is generating trust in its reliability at management level, it does not mean that a fully dispersed organisation is going to follow in its wake. Instead, remote technology is forcing companies to address long-standing issues employees have with the workspace in an office.

Assessing Productivity is Problematic

The main issue is productivity. All the survey and anecdotal evidence draw attention to this, broadly stating “productivity is improved” with teleworking. We accept “improved productivity” claims at face value. Yet it is important to remember that measuring productivity is a slippery concept in the service sector.

Productivity is usually an equation: output divided by input. It is easiest to sectors with a physical product like manufacturing, where if output improves without substantial increases in costs, there is demonstrable gain.

Where productivity applies to real estate, gains are made where space is a direct input cost.  Space is a clear component of the manufacturing process and optimisation techniques can improve productivity (better layout to increase throughput). The same is true in retailing, although here it has become more complex. One reason why internet retailing prospers at the expense of physical shops is the input cost of space is now less direct and the range of goods (the output) greatly enlarged; the “long tail effect”. Productivity becomes about audience capture through clean web design and search engine optimisation, plus fulfilment efficiency.

It is at its Most Difficult with Office Work

In office work though, space is an indirect input; the real inputs are the people doing jobs.  Outputs are equally difficult to measure. An employee who writes two reports instead of one is not more productive if the second is unneeded. Productivity is usually measured by hours worked per employee so the principal input is time. It is very blunt as it is not measuring time spent creating a service or product. Yet time is a big factor behind the prevailing hours-based employment contracts in the working world.

It’s More About Privacy than Productivity

In assessing productivity, we are relying on surveys that state similar responses: “I feel more productive at home”.

The important word is “feel”. Productivity measured not by increases in deliverables (outputs) or by a reduction in inputs like time, but by the emotional state of the worker. What the current surveys seem to indicate is that workers appreciate the absence of distraction to complete their existing functional tasks.

Workers are conflating better privacy and control over professional interactions with improved productivity.

Although the home worker may not have control over home distractions, there is absolute control over workplace interactions and complete privacy. The balance of these issues shapes the personal motivation of choosing to work in the office.

Technology as a Substitute

The need for some form of privacy and controlled interactions are consistent themes in academic research into the open-plan office run over the last three decades.  The presumptions of improved interaction (the prevailing rationale for open-plan) have been studied. A commonality in research conclusions is the benefits of enhanced ”ease of interaction” are smaller than the penalties of open-plan layouts. Testing with sensor technology gives further support by generating increasing amounts of hard data. The broad conclusion is that the technology is used in the office as a substitute for privacy: it is no wonder that workers do not state communication problems working from home as they are replicating their office experience.

Doing What You Know

Hence, COVID-19 has pushed business up to a crossroads for remote working and the office. Attention is (correctly) focused on the role of technology. Yet not enough attention is given to what has not changed, specifically that people are doing jobs they already know.  They are not being asked to do something different and nor are they being assessed in another way. Their jobs contracts are the same as before and they are working in organisations whose structure has not fundamentally altered.

The majority of fully dispersed companies are small to medium enterprises (SMEs) that are highly focused on the product/service they are delivering. They also tend to have flatter organisational structures with employment contracts defined by a focus on results-based output.

Rolling Out Technology is the Easy Bit

In contrast, most long-established big companies have hierarchical organisational structures. Employees have contracts primarily based on time, something that encourages the well-known office productivity problem of presenteeism.

To tilt a large organisation away from multi-layered structures to flatter ones that work better in more dispersed companies will be tough. The long-term impact of a majority working from home, doing the same job with an unchanged organisational structure is potential deterioration in innovation and cultural cohesion. The reverse is seen in successful dispersed companies that grow large – they establish hierarchy and with that acquisition of real estate. Offices help to solidify the culture, promoting new interactions and approaches. 

Workspace Away Days

If employees want complete control over their workspace then the logical thing is work from home. Correspondingly, if a business is being honest about cost control as the main goal then remote work is the way to go.

The post-GFC approach to workplaces and workspace was mostly about cost control. That can be seen in the densification levels attained shown in BNP Paribas Real Estate’s teleworking report. The remit more often than not was how many people can be crammed into less space.

Technology deployment in COVID-19 responses has vaporized that requirement. Space, in theory, is now vast and so the cost control genie is clearly out of the bottle again. But it is risky.

Business is inherently about cooperation. The COVID experiment has now run long enough to see some of the downsides being reported: project delivery delays, hiring and integration difficulties, and training obstacles.

It is not surprising. Business goals drive the employee behaviours needed for success and in turn, the workspace required. And vice versa, workspace drives the behaviours that attain the business objectives.

COVID’s forced introduction of remote technology will mainstream the concept of the omnichannel workspace.

Research back in the 1990s, when remote technology was emerging, identified the most important workplace qualities. Ranked they are:

1. Ability to do distraction-free solo work

2. Support for impromptu interactions

3. Support for meetings and undistracted group work

4. Workspace comfort, ergonomics and enough space for work tools

5. Workspace side-by-side work and “dropping in to chat”

6. Located near or can easily find co-workers

7. Workplace has good places for breaks

8. Access to needed technology

9. Quality lighting and access to daylight

10. Temperature control and air quality

None of this is necessarily anchored in the office as a workplace but in a wider definition of workspace, the immediate working area for employees. But you’ll be forgiven if it looks familiar: it’s the components of the agile office. The office continues to be the optimum workplace for the team because of the efficiency of shared resources.

Much in the same way as omnichannel in retail blends the physical and remote, the hybrid workforce will simply use the right channel to meet the organization’s objectives. Away days are set to continue.

Away Days - Requirements of the Hybrid Workforce