Fast forward to the future of work

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Investa's blog Thrive provides workplace insights from industry experts that will enhance your worklife, both inside and outside the office environment.

Future of work by the numbers
The good, bad and the ugly
Hello hybrid workplace?
Forget the free-for-all
A hidden sustainability story
Uncertainty has upsides

What will the workplace look like on the other side of the pandemic?  

This is a question that business leaders around the world are asking. And the answer from Investa’s Head of Research and Strategy, David Cannington is emphatic: “It will look different for every organisation.” 

“While we don’t know how the next 12 months will play out, let alone the next five or 10 years, our research team is building a picture of the future of work so our customers can navigate some of the uncertainty.” 

David says most Investa customers have a common set of question: What are the best tools to support employee wellbeing? What technology should we be using to enhance connectivity? How do we support flexibility and collaboration at the same time? How can our space adapt to suit the new normal? 

None of these questions comes with a single answer. The concept of collaboration, for example, is not one-size-fits-all.  

“Some businesses might need more open space to foster collaboration, while others undertake a lot of one-on-one client meetings. Some businesses, with a focus on innovation and ideas generation, are asking for more group settings, while others want more private meeting spaces or Zoom rooms. It’s all dependent on the size of the business, its industry and culture and the type of work that people perform,” David explains. 

There’s no “magic silver bullet” because every business is different. But there are some key considerations that are common to all businesses and that can “help leaders find answers that align with their unique culture and business strategy,” David says. 

Future of work by the numbers
Investa’s recent future of work survey of its customers reveals some key trends: 
  • 73% of office-based businesses say a central location remains the most significant driver of their office choice. 
  • 50% of office-based businesses intend to increase the amount of collaboration space in their workplace. 
  • 1.9 is the average number of days per week that Australian office-based businesses are expecting employees to work from home. 
  • 89% of businesses consider employee wellbeing either ‘extremely important’ or ‘very important’ in their office workplace decision-making. 
  • #1 factor impacting future workplace decisions is technology and connectivity. 

The good the bad and the ugly
The idea of working from home is hardly new. Back in 1970, in Future Shock, Alvin Toffler predicted the rise of home offices, writing that our houses would one day resemble “electronic cottages” that would give people greater work-life balance and a richer family life. 

Before the pandemic, 24% of Australians worked from home at least one day a week. But fast forward to February 2021 – before the latest round of lockdowns – and that figure had climbed to 41%, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

For some of us, remote work can enhance productivity and job satisfaction, especially those who enjoy working independently and need lots of quiet time. 

But scientists from Imperial College London, who have been studying multi-disciplinary collaboration in a work-from-home environment since before the pandemic, have found working-from-home is not for everyone.  

People employed on creative projects in virtual teams often report feeling less valued or appreciated, the researchers have found. One respondent said of employers: “They don’t see how early you show up in front of your computer…They don’t see how hard I’m working.”  

Other researchers have suggested that remote work can be damaging to team cohesion, disrupting the “team flow” required to focus everyone’s collective attention on a single problem. 

Hello hybrid workplace?
Not every role can be remote. McKinsey suggests up to 60% of work across occupations is site-specific – meaning people must turn up to a designated location to do their work. Even within offices some teams, say the IT team, must be onsite full time. McKinsey has warned companies that a “two-track culture” could erode team cohesion. 

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, has called hybrid work a “hacker's dream” and a “cybersecurity nightmare” as companies adapt to the constantly changing mix of office and remote workers, “devices that move in and out of the company networks” and security staff that are “stretched thin”. 

There’s the extra costs to ensure employees’ workstations meet ergonomic standards as companies are increasingly held responsible for workers’ home set-ups. Younger workers in the UK workers – those aged between 18 to 34 – have been twice as likely to work from their beds during the pandemic than older workers. And then there is the potential minefield of hot desk management as people transition from work to home settings on a first-come, first-served basis. 

None of this should come as a surprise. History shows us that hybrid work is harder than it first seems. Way back in 2013 Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer called time on the company’s remote-working experiment because “we need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together”. HP made a similar move the same that year to “build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration”.  

Forget the free-for-all
David’s research team has found some sectors, like finance, are moving from one to two days a week of remote work, while legal firms are, on average, shifting from just half a day to up to two-and-a-half days. Government employees, on the other hand, are working remotely just an additional half a day each week, on average. “In some sectors, the marginal increases show us just how much people were working from home before Covid,” David notes. 

“What we also see from the data – and from the sectors that had successfully adopted flexible working prior to Covid – is that detailed policies and governance are essential.” 

David says each business must work through the issues to develop its own form of hybrid work. “Some organisations are allowing workers to decide, others are setting particular days,” he says. 

A structured hybrid model – rather than a work-from-home free-for-all – is the way forward. By bringing together flexible working with compulsory office attendance, employers can offer choice and freedom while also fostering collaboration and team culture. 

The benefits of taking a structured approach to remote work are clear to both businesses and employees. Take this recent survey from Boston Consulting Group, which found those who are most satisfied with their workplace social connectivity are, on average, 2.5 times more likely to think their productivity is higher now than it was before the pandemic. The message here is clear: creating a collaborative workplace culture – whether virtual or in person – is a key to success. 

A hidden sustainability story
There’s another side to the work-from-home story that many companies are yet to consider. Australia’s carbon emissions have skyrocketed by 21% as more people work remotely, according to real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.  

The problem is our homes are far less energy-efficient than our offices. Cushman & Wakefield’s analysis used an algorithm to measure energy consumption across a hypothetical business where up to 50% of the workforce worked from home. It then modelled a large corporation with more than 30,000 employees nationally. Cushman & Wakefield found emissions from offices fell by 2,500 tonnes, but emissions in homes rose by more than 4,000 tonnes, a net rise of 21%.  

In comparison, Australia’s office landlords have been serious about sustainability for well over a decade. Investa, for instance, has reduced its emissions intensity by 63.3% since 2004. Investa’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2040 is focused on four key areas: operational efficiency, the choice of materials in buildings, renewable energy and working with customers.  

“These are areas of focus that are well outside the scope of most people working from a home office,” David observes. 

Uncertainty has upsides
As Australians continue to work through the implications of Covid-19, it’s still too early to tell what it means for the long-term future of work, David says. But he has a clear message to businesses: Uncertainty has an upside.  

“Businesses should be looking to their competitors and peers, at what their own sector is doing and how other sectors are adapting. But we expect the next year, maybe even the next couple of years, will involve a lot of experimentation.” 

Experimentation may mean testing various flexible working policies, introducing a suite of wellness programs to see which ones stick or incorporating several new collaboration zones to observe whether they are a good organisational fit.  

Change happens incrementally, David observes. “As people experiment, they’ll discover what works best for their business,” he says. 

"What we are seeing from the research is that the future of work is not set. There is no one single solution, so now is not the time to make a massive change. Instead, use this time to experiment. You can make incremental change, adapt, evolve and adjust as we move towards Covid normal.” 
Future of Work Report
Investa’s 2021 Future of Work Report research highlights five key themes that will impact the future of office work. You can read the report on our Research page.