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Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has uprooted our lives and radically changed how we think about the office.

From regional shutdowns to new remote-work policies, we have navigated a new set of challenges. These challenges, of course, pale in comparison to those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

But in the world of commercial real estate, the central question is what impact COVID-19 will have on our industry’s future. This has been exacerbated by headlines heralding companies who are implementing “forever” remote policies.

Here’s the good news for office real estate: The future looks different, but promising.

In a recent survey of 1,000+ U.S. office workers sponsored by Hana, we found a workforce embracing flexibility but missing their time in the workplace. Why? Because the office is an irreplaceable catalyst for face-to-face connection that can’t be replicated online.

Here are three central takeaways from our survey we find especially valuable as we prepare for a time after COVID-19.

Flexibility is now a given

A curious thing has happened over the past decade: Even as The Harvard Business Review and Bill Gates have called flexible work benefits a must-have perk for employees, some companies have moved to limit remote work.

Those days are done.

In our survey, employees said losing the flexibility to work remotely is one of their biggest concerns about going back to the office, falling just behind potential health concerns.

Strikingly, 56% say they expect to have the flexibility to work outside the office after COVID-19 — and only 37% said they had the flexibility to work outside the office before COVID-19.

chart showing that more people want flexible work benefits after covid-19

That’s an almost 20-percentage point shift and it underscores a significant change.

With employees now expecting the flexibility to work outside the office for some or part of the week, employers will need to think through everything from company policies to the impact of reduced occupancy within their existing workspaces — and shifting office space needs.

This puts companies in a unique position to rethink basic assumptions about the workplace. It also reinforces the case for incorporating greater flexibility into employee policies and working arrangements.

One approach we see occupiers considering at Hana is a hub-and-spoke real estate strategy with urban hubs and suburban spokes. In our survey, we found urban employees who lived in the suburbs particularly enjoyed benefits such as saving money and commuting time when it came to remote work.

This isn’t surprising, but it does offer occupiers an opportunity to evaluate their current real estate portfolios and cross-examine where their employees live. If there are a large percentage of employees who live outside of an urban center, occupiers can consider downsizing their central urban hubs and expanding out with satellite, or “spoke,” offices for their employees to minimize travel time.

Activity-based workspaces are taking on new importance

Despite the new value employees are placing on flexibility, they also value time in the office and expect to have an office to go back to.

But COVID-19 is forcing a reappraisal about what matters most at the office. And it isn’t being there from 9-to-5, five days a week — it’s having space to effectively connect with colleagues, both serendipitously and intentionally.

Chart showing what employees value more about working an an office after working from home due to covid-19

This became abundantly clear when we asked what employees valued most in the office after working remotely during COVID-19. Employees listed encounters with colleagues, in-person meetings and in-person collaboration as some of the top benefits of being in an office.

Notably, in-person work was a particular benefit associated with time in the office — and the inability to replicate this effectively online was a pain point associated with working remotely.

In our survey, more than a quarter of people say the hardest part of working remotely is effectively connecting with colleagues. This makes sense. Despite the proliferation of Zoom and Slack, these tools are often transactional and poor substitutes for face-to-face time.

Moving forward, we believe there will be an increased emphasis on activity-based workspaces, or office space designed for specific in-person tasks. Key workplace settings such as meeting rooms and project spaces, in particular, will fulfill specific needs that can’t be accomplished via remote work.

But an activity-based workspace will also need to accommodate the serendipitous and random interactions unique to being in an office. In our survey, employees listed random connections with colleagues as the top benefit of time spent in the office.

Figuring out how to accommodate that with more people working remotely after COVID-19 will take a mix of effective space planning and thoughtful company policies.

Productivity over play matters most with workplace amenities

Where COVID-19 is forcing a reappraisal of when we need to go to the office and why we need to be there, it’s also forcing people to rethink what amenities and workplace perks matter most. And for many, the answer is clear: People go to the office to get work done and want amenities that make the workday more comfortable and productive.

Chart showing what people value less about working in an office after working from home due to covid-19

In our survey, employees listed social events, networking events, in-office fitness classes and games as the least valuable reasons to go back to the office after COVID-19.

For companies, this signals a significant shift. Over the past decade, workplace investments have largely centered around amenities such as social spaces and programming options.

While employees do see value in social activities, employees now place less value on the solely fun office perks. 

Companies will need to rethink how to best stand out by crafting more productive workspaces and offering amenities that make employees’ workdays more efficient.

This isn’t an entirely new sentiment. In a 2019 survey we sponsored, we found office workers placed more value on workplace benefits that made their workdays more efficient.

This doesn’t mean there won’t still be a place for fun social and lifestyle benefits at the office. Instead, we expect companies to reconsider the value they place on these benefits.

Take this with you

As COVID-19 upends countless facets of our lives, it’s also forcing many people to think about what they need most in the office — and what their workdays will look like after the coronavirus pandemic.

In our survey, we uncovered a workforce actively thinking through what matters most at work moving forward — and what will draw them back to the office. For many, the workdays and workspaces of tomorrow are more flexible, more intentional and more focused on productivity.

These changes carry big implications for companies and their employees and shed a light on what a return to the workplace will look like after COVID-19. You can learn more about what changes to expect in Hana’s latest white paper, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility.

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