Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series from the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) on the return to the workplace and how the office is evolving due to the pandemic.
More than a year has passed since the pandemic sent the majority of the population home to work, learn and piece together our “new normal.” While the early success of remote work has prompted some companies to eliminate their physical offices, the adverse effects of working apart are difficult to ignore. Moving forward in a post-pandemic society, returning to in-person office environments will be pivotal for the future of work.
So, what’s the benefit of still working from home?
Remote work offers ultimate flexibility. No commute buys extra time, and video conferencing relaxes dress code. Innovative technology and telecommunications solutions have made communication seamless, meaning that employees can work more independently and establish more flexible hours.
Working from Home or Living at Work?
It’s this same flexibility and constant communication that now poses an issue for productivity and wellness. Employees are experiencing burnout at alarming rates—up to 76% of Americans, as estimated by a 2020 Spring Health study. Adding to the stress of the pandemic, blurring boundaries between the home and office have fostered unhealthy work habits.
The early productivity from remote work was bolstered by the novelty of merging public and private roles into the same space. Employees could manage multiple responsibilities of family, home, work, education and entertainment all from the same desk. While multitasking is generally assumed to be productive, our brains actually struggle to “reset” in between roles and priorities. This may be why 32% of employees experience better focus when working at the office versus at home.
Additionally, with “nowhere to go” and constant communication through technology, the natural breaks from work have eroded. Prior to the pandemic, the commute to the office allowed employees to plan their day or unwind from it. The physical journey of leaving the office also justified the end of the workday. In the home office, a few extra minutes can turn into hours, as there is no excuse not to send that extra email or finish the project.
The effects of continuous work are staggering. A recent report from Gallup revealed that fully remote employees have experienced higher burnout during the pandemic than those who’ve remained on-site. Burnout not only leads to a decline in productivity and engagement, it also bears a health risk. According to Gallup, employees experiencing high levels of burnout were 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
Why the Office Matters
Widespread remote work has also inadvertently highlighted inequities of different home office configurations. For the average employee or student, the home office or classroom is not separate from their living space. Resources like reliable Internet, comfortable seating, undisturbed space and office supplies might not be available for some employees depending on location or housing situation. Company office spaces democratize necessary resources, providing on-demand technology and a place to focus.
In contrast to the burnout at home, employees tend to have higher productivity at the office. In a recent Gensler study, employees overwhelmingly stated productivity factors as their reasons to choose in-person work at the company office at least some of the time.
In-person interaction at the office is also what develops social capital—the value derived from positive connections between people. Social capital is measured by the strength of our relationships, the information we learn and share, and the perception of our work’s meaning. In workplaces with high social capital, employees thrive, enjoying each other’s company and helping each other succeed. They feel that their values align with the company.
It was due to the office, to years of working side-by-side and amassing social capital, that teams could be so productive during the pandemic’s early stages. Trust, the ultimate relationship “glue,” preexisted the pandemic and the shift to remote work. It had been built in the moments between meetings or out at lunch.
Prior to the pandemic, workplaces were already transitioning towards physical spaces that helped foster social capital. Sprawling campuses with on-site health and sports facilities, childcare centers and complimentary dining experiences encouraged employees to stay together longer. “Open-offices” empowered employees to roam between independent and collaborative spaces.
It’s very difficult to create social capital in remote settings. The ability to collaborate in-person, to build meaningful work relationships through informal interactions contributes to a thriving work environment. Employees with some level of office time have reported higher personal creativity, problem-solving ability and overall quality communication than those that worked full-time at home.
The office space is crucial in providing a productive and socially energizing work environment. The honeymoon of working from home full-time is over, and companies must respond to burnout that has been the result for increasing number of their workforce. Returning to the office not only celebrates a reunion of employees in a shared space—it creates the social ties that are necessary in trying times.