PULSE Magazine

Work From Home – What's Happened, Emerging and Coming Next


Colliers' Workplace Strategist Shares Survey Findings and Expertise to Do WFH Right

Kate North, Vice President, Workplace Advisory, Colliers & Global Chair, Workplace Evolutionaries

When COVID-19 struck, most companies sent their employees home, essentially creating remote workplaces overnight. Five months later, we ask: Is going to the office a thing of the past? Will water cooler talk with coworkers of long ago ever return? How are we maintaining our sanity in the Zoom world?

PULSE talked with Kate North, Vice President of Workplace Advisory for Colliers U.S., about the firm's latest research on the work-from-home (WFH) movement. North also serves as Global Chair of Workplace Evolutionaries (WE) and has been recognized for her leadership with HCL's Red Ladder Women in Outsourcing 2020 award.  

There's plenty of good in the findings and lots of reason for optimism. The bottom line: We can work remotely and it is changing the future. Companies who can do it right have a unique opportunity now to seize the best talent, gain competitive advantages and create new positive experiences. 

"It's time to be open and reimagine work," says North. To listen to the full interview, click here.  To watch the full interview, click here.

What's Happened

P:  Colliers has been doing a lot of research on this topic since the COVID outbreak.  What is your data telling us?
North: Certainly, the pandemic has been a challenging situation for us all.  However, as a workplace strategist studying that has been studying the "future of work" for 25-plus years, this is clearly the MOST interesting time in my career.  As a society and even as organizations and individuals, we have the opportunity to co-create a new way of working, living and being.  COVID has fundamentally shifted us and there is no going back.  It will continue to evolve. 

In reviewing our recent survey data on the work-from-home (WFH) experiment, the findings show:  

  • 76 percent of respondents felt more productive and 74 percent felt more connected to colleagues 
  • 87 percent of respondent feel their managers know how to manage remotely
  • 67 percent felt their wellbeing has improved 
  • 83 percent want to continue working from home post-COVID at least one day a week permanently. However, as employees and organizations gain more confidence and also realize that WFH may be our reality, the desire to expand the number of days working from home may increase.  The bottom line: WFH is here to stay.

We all need to keep in mind how rapidly we are evolving as we adapt to our new COVID imposed world.  We expect the data we collected in our survey in March will look different when we launch part two of our Workplace Experience survey in September. Many organizations continue to postpone the return to office dates until there is more clarity on the availability and adoption of a vaccination. The key driving force continues to focus on keeping employees safe, healthy and engaged.  

Also, everyone has unique circumstances that could impact their experience WFH.  Those with children and eldercare responsibilities are not having the same experience as those that aren't and they may need more flexibility in their schedule. We are all not having the same experience during WFH. This is an opportunity for companies to demonstrate greater understanding and compassion with creative solutions. 

P: Do they miss the office? 

North: Yes! Our data clearly shows people miss being together, bumping into coworkers and collaborating. Some prefer the separation of life and work as we know that working from home can undoubtedly blur boundaries and designated hours.  For those that don't have appropriate conditions at home, coming into the office may also be necessary and one to consider.

Research has taught us that “flexibility and choice” have been the #1 non-cash benefits across all generations and our survey data builds upon this as it indicates people want both.  People want choice.  They prefer to WFH when they are doing focused work and they prefer coming to the office to connect, ideate, get a dose of the culture/community and collaborate. This is why the notion of a “hybrid office” is becoming so appealing to many organizations. 

P: Will companies begin bringing employees back to the office soon?

North: The expected Return to Office (RTO) varies across organizations and appears to be directly tied to the safety of employees.  The RTO date will often reflect the status of COVID-19 cases in their city, state, or country; the dependency on public transportation, the industry type, etc.  Based on these and other factors, we are starting to see many organizations publicly communicate their RTO date will be postponed until there is clarity regarding the safety implications to their employees.  Some organizations like Facebook have communicated a July 2021 date for their RTO.

For those employees who have returned to the office, it is a very different experience than the good old pre-COVID days. There are significantly fewer people, more rules, masks hiding smiles and community areas for a cup of coffee have been closed off. To ensure employees are safe, these new restrictions and governance require revised office layouts for social distancing, training and a commitment to new behaviors.  These shifts have impacted the “workplace experience” and in many cases, dampened the “vibe” that was once relished.

Psychologically we are all living with much more ambiguity related to the virus, social unrest and uncertainty in the economy. It's unsettling and causing an uptake in stress and anxiety, which if not addressed, could potentially impact the employee's productivity and engagement.

Pro-active organizations are recognizing the impact of stress and seeking ways to stabilize and help people feel more grounded and connected.  The attempt to create a more stabilized environment in the short-term may be another reason why companies are setting dates in the future, as it takes away the yo-yo effect of wondering when the RTO will happen.  

P: How should we feel about the findings – Optimistic? Concerned?

North: These are certainly challenging times filled with a great deal of complexity. But as an eternal optimist, I believe that right now is an ideal opportunity for organizations to step back, reflect and see what is starting to emerge. Companies that take time to explore, capture data and reimagine work are going to be able to continue to evolve. I believe we are at the crossroads of transforming work as we've known it and we are well on our way to recreating a new work experience.

P: Do the results vary by demographics? 

North:  Of course! For example, it was interesting to find that the older the respondent, the higher they stated their ability to concentrate while WFH versus those ages 21-30.  This is not completely surprising given that life experience matters but also employees at this stage in their early careers are keen to learn, be mentored and socialize with colleagues. I also found it interesting that the 21- to 30-year-olds turned on their video cameras less than those over 50 years old. And indeed, those living with children and roommates have more disruptions throughout the day. We also found fascinating insights relating to gender. 

What's Emerging?

P: What should organizations be prepared for moving forward?

North: As shared earlier, the novelty of WFH is wearing off and WFH has become business as usual. With this, new challenges and opportunities and emerging.  Many organizations today are quickly assessing existing work processes and deploying new methods, some borrowing from agile methodologies and other disciplines to improve team dynamics, work practices and work processes.  If done successfully, it could have an immediate impact on both productivity and wellbeing for the organization. 

Also, as organizations rethink their business models to support the post-COVID world, these models could require new skills and as such, reactivating their strategies to compete for talent. Some forward-thinking organizations are already adopting distributed (remote) work strategies as a competitive tactic.  By offering remote positions that would avoid the impact, disruption, or cost to relocate new hires. Providing a robust WFH policy will also be a competitive advantage. 

P: What can organizations do to make the WFH experience positive?

North:  Organizations that place a priority of effectiveness are seeking to understand the employee experience when WFH and the impact on productivity, engagement and work-life balance. As we all know, increased stress is taking a toll on our mental health.  Organizations are paying attention to the stress and exhaustion their employees are experiencing – longer days, Zoom fatigue, too much screen time, poor ergonomics, overall stress, etc.  If you haven't started already, it is an ideal opportunity to offer support, training and programs to help employees feel empowered to establish healthy work habits. 

Some ideas include:

  • Formalizing and establishing team norms to seek agreement on “how we work together.”  Even signing social contracts within the team can build trust and team cohesion.
  • Considering mindful scheduling – perhaps setting aside mornings for focused work and afternoons for meetings. Schedule noon breaks without meetings or emails.
  • Embracing new technology platforms to keep the work visible and fluid.  Explore emerging technologies such as virtual reality and others to support innovative collaboration 
  • Focusing on wellbeing and creating a healthy work-life at home. We've all realized the importance of wellbeing, but it's up to all of us to own it and be more empowered to set boundaries, move and exercise, unplug and take re-set breaks to recharge.

P: How can companies be leaders in this "new norm" and emerge stronger?

North: Smart organizations are leveraging WFH as a competitive strategy and are rethinking critical that need to virtualize.  This could include onboarding, technology training, helping managers understand best practices for leading remote/distributed teams and finding ways to connect in a meaningful way.

Here are some recommendations to ensure success

  • Start by creating an integrated team that includes HR, IT, Risk, Communications, Facilities/Real Estate to build a distributed work program that is fully aligned to the new employee experience.  
  • Collect your data! Don't depend on trends from others.  Each organization and its culture, vision and values are unique.  Create a strategy that uniquely supports your DNA.  This will ensure its success and the ability to sustain.  This type of process engages employees and allows them to be a part of the process and feel heard!
  • Focus on what's important to the employees – their safety, health, job stability, etc.
  • Provide choice and flexibility to employees regarding where and when they work.  
  • Remove friction to help employees be productive.
  • Help employees connect and belong by providing meaningful virtual and physical experiences
  • Reinforce your organization's values and culture virtually. Get creative!
  • Celebrate accomplishments 
  • Be good stewards of the environment and be mindful of your company's social impact. This is particularly important to Millennials.

P:  How can companies adjust to all the ups and downs effectively?

North: Culture and leadership trump all. Communication needs to be consistent, evolving and authentic. Managers need to be visible virtually to keep a pulse on the team's performance.  Leading a team that you can't see is a new skill set that many managers are desperately trying to understand.  Emotional intelligence has never been so relevant, especially as some team members struggle with isolation. There are comprehensive e-learning programs and assessments readily available to help managers become more effective and confident.  Also, by empowering team members to come up with fun celebrations and unique ways to socialize, it gets others engaged can generate new ideas and solutions.  
What's Next

P: What will the hybrid work model of the future look like? 

North: For each organization, it will be different, but begin by reimaging the purpose of place. If we can do focused work at home, the workplace can become an experience to connect, engage, feel the culture, innovate, and build relationships and team cohesion. I believe the offices of the future will be more alive and collaborative…a place you WANT to be.   When rethinking your workplace, keep in mind:

  • Some of the COVID habits will most likely be woven into organizations forever, such as less dense environments, cleanliness expectations and a greater focus on health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace. 
  • Develop a workplace strategy that integrates a distributed work program and define an approach to manage your capacity and utilization.  Some teams will want to have a designated day for all team members to come into the office and other organizations or groups may wish for greater fluidity and prefer more of a spontaneous model.  Creating a workplace strategy is foundational to your organization's success and may be required outside expertise to guide you through the complexities and processes.  
  • Recreate a great employee that is well supported in both the digital and physical worlds.  Employee journey mapping or a day-in-a-life exercise is a great place to start. 
  • Last but not least, establish new guidelines that reflect this new way of working, helping employees feel welcome and confident. 

P: How can organizations prepare for the changes to come?
North: Companies should develop an evidence-based workplace strategy using their data and scenarios, leveraging an integrated team.  Creating a "pilot" to test, learn and evolve can be a great way to reduce risk and gain greater adoption. By getting, employees involved in the co-creation of the office space will make your solution better, plus their engagement and ideas will add new insights. And of course, make sure to integrate a robust change communication and management strategy.

In summary, companies that embrace this new way of working and are pro-active during this time will gain a competitive advantage in productivity, attraction/retention of talent and possible cost reductions.  Building a culture based on trust and flexibility is the secret sauce to creating and sustaining a great place to work.  You can do this…lean in!

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