Leaders and professionals know that our human compulsion to acquire and defend territory is little different from that of mockingbirds and finches defending their hedges. Robert Ardrey eloquently wrote about this in his foundational 1961 book, The Territorial Imperative. We've fought for larger offices for years and years. And then Covid happened, and we were all thrust out of our defended hedges to work from home.
In my workplace's most recent research project, completed last month, we set out to explore what this new world of work will look like regarding four important vectors, namely culture, workspace design, technology, and the pandemic itself.
One of the more interesting cross-vector insights was this rise of the "New Territorial Imperative"-- the shift of values in how hybrid workers feel about their "primary work territory."
Today, roughly a quarter of U.S workers work from home five days a week, with another third or so defined as hybrid workers who work from one to three days a week in a traditional office. The remaining 40 percent or so work four to five days a week in a traditional office. In the U.K, this number is skewed slightly toward work-from-home, as almost a third work from home full time and just over a third work from a traditional office four or five days a week, with the remaining third working in a hybrid model.
After Covid hit and knowledge workers moved to a work-from-home work style, fewer than a quarter reported that they'd want to return to an office five days a week, with between 50 and 60 percent in both countries suggesting that two days or less in the office would be ideal.
This Covid-driven change has shifted our values, as well. Half of the workers in both the U.S. and U.K. agreed that their home office is now more important to them than their traditional office. Further, half of the workers in both countries believe their "office" is now their laptop, their headset, and wherever they can get a strong internet connection.
This is yet more evidence that workers want greater control over their lives and outcomes -- and a central part of this psychology is the physical space they control, namely their home offices.
In the rush to embrace the new work-from-home normal, it's easy to forget that the other third to half of the workers have returned to traditional offices. But as the world has shifted toward work-from-home, sensibilities in the traditional office have changed as well.
"Free address" is a hot topic in boardrooms today, as utilized square feet have decreased because more workers are working from home. But is taking away assigned seating a good thing?
Ardrey's original hypothesis that territory signals prestige tells us to tread cautiously. Only a third of U.S workers say they'd be comfortable not having an assigned seat, with a full half rejecting the idea. The U.K., in strong contrast to both the U.S. and other European countries studied, is split on the question, with roughly 40 percent expressing some degree of comfort with the idea, versus an equal percentage expressing dissatisfaction.
There are consequences to ignoring this discontent. Forty percent of workers in both the U.S. and U.K. said eliminating assigned seating would harm loyalty, versus almost a third expressing no opinion. Interestingly, almost three-quarters of workers in both countries said they would still try to sit and work in the same spot every day if their assigned seat was taken from them, reminding us that the territorial imperative at work is still alive and well.
So what do we do now? I'd say that there are three implications.
First, leaders need to actively design the new workplace to meet the new needs of the hybrid worker. If half of all meeting attendees will be remote, how do we improve the experience for those not in the room who can't hear what's being said or see what's being written on the whiteboard? What do we do with huddle rooms if we're no longer willing to huddle? And are we even sure that all-virtual meetings aren't better than meeting face-to-face?
Second, leaders need to re-imagine workspace design so that territory is defined at a team level, not the individual one. Can we successfully create a workplace where "overlapping hunting grounds" exist between different members of the same workgroup/tribe?
And third, how can leaders proactively tap into a suddenly location-independent digital nomad talent pool? This calls for a cultural shift and a managerial skill set that few have.
The human need for territory and the status it confers is as old as the human race itself. We need to give thought to this New Territorial Imperative and think about how best to coax the best performance out of our people and ourselves.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the study's name.