The pandemic has sent people out of the office and into their homes. Business leaders must decide whether to cancel or renew office space leases or, if they own their office spaces, whether to sell them.
If leaders stop requiring people to work in offices, they can preserve cash that could help their companies survive and/or be reinvested in growth opportunities. But ending in-office work could limit opportunities for chance collaborations that lead to new business ideas.
If you are like most leaders, you may be thinking that you can cut back on, but should not eliminate, in-office work. That leaves open many questions: How much office space do you need? How many hours a week should the space be open for workers? Where should it be located? How should the spaces be designed? How can it be made safe as the pandemic rages on?
While I can't answer all these questions for your business, here are four principles that may help as you work out answers.
1. Decide how many different work styles to support.
Business leaders choose employees based on their cultural fit and the skills the company requires to compete. That could mean a company has employees who can follow many different work styles. But here are three ways to work, along with how these approaches affect people's personal lives:
- 100 percent from home so they can take care of children or aging parents,
- Visiting the office once or twice a week to brainstorm with their team members while avoiding the commute the rest of the week, or
- Working in the office five days a week, so they can get away from a noisy living arrangement with roommates and enjoy the social aspects of being with colleagues.
Before you can decide how much space you need and how it should be designed, you should choose which work styles you want to support and how many of your people are likely to follow each.
2. Provide spaces that match each work style.
It's likely that to provide space that matches your company's work styles, you will need to make it what the Wall Street Journal dubbed, a "dynamic" workplace--which seeks to persuade employees to come into the office.
Such a workplace would include desks for those who want to focus (particularly those in the third category) and "couches and clustered seating arrangements for collaboration and socialization" (for those in the second category of work styles).
The Journal listed 11 office space design elements that could support both work styles. For instance, for workers who want to focus in your office, these elements could include, "high-backed couches and screening plants [that] allow workers to partially isolate." For those who want to collaborate a few days a week, there are digital whiteboards and clusters of desks.
3. Rethink your values and culture to support the work styles.
In theory, everything about how people work in your company should flow from values and culture.
But if your company values collaboration and many of your people are unable or unwilling to come into the office, you may need to rethink why collaboration is important to your company and whether a new value should replace it.
To be sure, your people may be able to collaborate via teleconference. However, if these employees have not worked together in the past, getting to know and trust these colleagues enough to spur effective collaboration could be difficult in the absence of in-person meetings.
If too many of your people do not choose to work in the office--for instance, because they do not want to fly to an all-company meeting at headquarters--you may need to adjust your culture accordingly.
4. Don't impose a master plan; experiment widely and adapt.
As with any new initiative, don't make a master plan and force all your people to follow it. You'll enjoy much better results if you experiment with how you will provide office space for each of your company's work styles on a small scale.
To do that, implement your ideas in part of a single office location. Ask employees what they like, what they don't like and what is missing from the experimental space. Use that feedback to make changes. In addition, you should measure the productivity of the people in the experimental workspace.
Don't roll out this design to the rest of your offices until you have received consistently positive feedback from employees and it's contributed to increased productivity.