Arecent Global Workplace Insights report, “Returning for Good” from Unispace draws insights from 9,500 employees and 6,650 employers across 17 countries, offering a comprehensive understanding of shifting workforce habits, motivations, and the challenges employers are facing in the return to the office.
During a recent Q&A session, Albert De Plazaola, Senior Principal of Strategy, Americas, highlighted several interesting survey findings for facility managers:
Facility Executive: What surprised you most about the findings from this report?
Albert De Plazaola: One of the most surprising findings from the survey data is the significant disconnect between employers’ perceptions of the workplace and employees’ actual experiences. While a staggering 89% of U.S. employers express confidence in the productivity of their current office setup, employees hold a different viewpoint. Over half (52%) of employees report struggling to carry out their core responsibilities due to frequent interruptions and a high volume of meetings in their current office environment.
The research reveals employers have misinterpreted the factors influencing employees’ reluctance to return to the workplace. When asked about their perception of employees’ dislikes regarding the office, many U.S. employers identified the commute as a primary concern, with 20% assuming employees wanted to reclaim the time spent traveling, while 14% believed that employees simply did not want to commute. However, the reality is employees are reluctant to come back to the office due to noise and distractions.
Employees indicated a general concern for lack of privacy in the workplace, with 28% of U.S. employees reporting they dislike the lack of privacy in the workplace and 22% felt more productive in the quiet environment of their homes. The office is not merely competing with working from home; it’s competing with the advantages and benefits associated with working from home.
What’s behind employee disconnect in the workforce, and how can employers address it?
De Plazaola: Many employers believe workplace set up for collaboration will improve productivity. Their mindset is often centered around the idea that any loss in individual productivity in the office is compensated for by gains in collaboration. However, it’s essential to recognize what employers truly seek is not just more collaboration, but more effective collaboration with a clear purpose.
“The office isn’t competing with working from home, it’s competing with the benefits of working from home.”
Most workplaces are still laid out according to outdated neighborhood models, where workstations are surrounded by conference rooms. These two types of spaces— workstations and conference rooms— were created to support all kinds of different behaviors, everything from focus to collaboration to learning to socializing. As a result, they were like a Swiss army knife; in theory, they were built to do a lot of things, but in practice, they didn’t do any of those things very well. The neighborhood concept tends to generate noise and distractions, which leads to employees’ reluctance to come to the office. If you need to do some concentrative or private work, you don’t want to sit at a workstation.
In our view, the neighborhood model is outdated and no longer functional. It is gradually being replaced by zoning spaces that cater to different needs. These spaces are categorized into “me,” “we,” and “us” spaces. The “me” spaces consist of individual, focused workspaces such as pods, phone booths, and small private rooms. “We” spaces include a range of areas for small group collaboration, such as conference rooms and meeting spaces. “Us” spaces include lounges, cafes, and other casual areas with varied seating options, providing an alternative environment for individual work or small group meetings while facilitating connections with colleagues. Offering this kind of variety helps to replicate and enhance the flexibility and control that employees experience while working from home.
The key to creating the workplace of the future lies in how these spaces are organized and zoned. Returning to a neighborhood model in a hybrid work scenario can result in wasted space within those neighborhoods.
You mentioned more than half of employees surveyed say they struggle to carry out their core role in their current office environment. How can FMs help employers confront this and drive employee engagement and performance?
Employers need to stop trying to “woo” their workers back with random amenities like cooking classes. Instead, employers should focus on enabling their staff to work more effectively in the office than they can at home. Creating an environment that genuinely enhances productivity, both individually and in groups, is crucial. It sounds simple, but this starts with ensuring a reliable and strong internet connection. One of the top priorities for employees is having stable internet access and the ability to seamlessly connect to the company network, along with functional resources and tools.
The first step for FMs is to ensure the core tools work including information technology infrastructure and audio-visual equipment. How many times have you entered a conference room for a video conference only to encounter issues like a non-functional TV, broken sound equipment, or markers that don’t work? Issues like this create disincentives for employees. To manage these challenges, FM’s need to collaborate closely with IT, AV, and other departments.
When considering different zones and spaces within the office, such as the “me,” “we,” and “us” spaces, they should be designed to be flexible and adaptable. There might be times when you need more “we” space. So come up with solutions that are modular, so you can maintain that flexibility. One thing people tend to forget is you can change the use of a space by simple etiquette. For example, if there’s a room that’s on the border between a “me” space and a “we” space, you can reinstate its use as needed. For this to work, FM’s can help create a strong change management and communication plan.
FE: Employers with office mandates reported a higher-than-expected level of turnover and have more trouble hiring. Do you foresee this changing anytime soon?
De Plazaola: No, that’s the paradox of power—the more you push, the more your employees will resist—and that’s not all. Our research indicates, not surprisingly, mandates have a negative effect on talent retention and recruitment. Half (50%) of U.S. employers with office mandates reported a higher-than-expected level of turnover rate, and a quarter (27%) are facing difficulties in hiring due to workplace attendance policies.
This doesn’t mean employers should avoid implementing mandates entirely. A more effective approach is when leadership establishes clear guidelines, while allowing teams to determine how to implement those guidelines in a way that works best for them. If you tell people they have to be in the office four days a week, people are going to resist. But if you say, “Hey, we’re looking for the teams to be in three to four days a week, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a full day – we just want you to be in the office,” then teams can figure out how to manage that.
The flip side of this is employees find a lack of guidance confusing. They want to know what’s expected of them. We built personas and archetypes around reactions to mandates. Some individuals have always loved going into the office and are enthusiastic about being there. High performers may consider quitting if forced to return to the office. Others may agree to go into the office but will behave and perform the same way they do at home. Additionally, skeptics might resist returning, citing their previous dissatisfaction with the office environment.
Those personas aside, a significant majority of employers emphasize if employees do not return to the office, their opportunities for career advancement may decrease. This has been communicated to employees, but they don’t seem to be getting the message.
According to the survey, 88% of U.S. employers reported employees’ career advancement prospects are in question if they don’t return to the office. Additionally, 79% of U.S. business leaders have communicated to employees the opportunity for promotions, pay raises and bonuses will be limited for those who choose not to be in the office. Surprisingly, only 60% of U.S. employees believe their advancement opportunities will be restricted by not being in the office.
As some major legacy institutions enforce strict return to office mandates, many FinTech companies are seizing the opportunity to attract talent by highlighting their work strategies for those who are reluctant to go into the office.
While some people may assume with the state of the economy and widespread layoffs, organizations have more power to mandate a return to the office. The reality is, it’s still an employee market for. high-performing individuals like software engineers, hedge fund managers, and people with strong analytics skills. Organizations need to make sure their workplaces are tailored to support their workforces or risk losing their biggest asset.