Free time management, early-morning exercise instead of traffic jams and work-life blending instead of burnout: On the one hand, working from home has become very popular for many employees. Companies, on the other, increasingly want their teams back in the office. Experts and manufacturers provide convincing answers and solutions on why this is a good idea in many respects and how it is possible to generate new enthusiasm for shared working environments.
One thing in advance: Working from home or alternating work places are simply here to stay. The international HR and new work scene agrees on this. The 2022 McKinsey study “What is the future of work?”, for example, emphasises that in advanced economies 20 to 25 percent of employees could work from home three to five days a week. Companies that ignore this trend are likely to find themselves on the losing side in the “war for talents”. Interestingly, the pandemic boom in working remotely has also revealed its weaknesses. As Bill Schaninger, HR expert and senior partner at McKinsey, puts it: “We were all amazed at how much we could do working fully remotely. However, it has started showing some withering of the ties that bind in the culture [and] the social connectivity.”
The not so small difference
Companies around the world are currently trying to herald the trend of working from the office again. But current data shows that they have a lot of convincing to do: On the one hand, large parts of companies want teams back in the office, around 50 percent of senior management even full-time. On the other, employees prefer working in a flexible environment. In the USA, for example, this figure is 87 percent. Already 58 per cent of employees work at least one day from home, 35 percent even five days.
Similar differences are also shown by a joint study of the German Ifo Institute together with research institutions from Great Britain, Mexico and the USA. The cross-sector survey in 27 countries revealed a home office share of 1.5 days per week on average. Overall, people would like to extend their working hours at home to 1.7 days per week. Companies, on the other hand, would prefer to reduce this to 0.7 per cent and have their employees physically closer to them again.
Disney CEO Bob Iger is one of the latter. He formulated the reasons for this in his memo to employees at the beginning of 2023: “As I have often said, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. In a creative industry like ours, nothing can replace the opportunity to meet and observe like-minded people and create together.” Just like the media giant, other global players such as Airbus, Amazon, Beiersdorf, KPMG, Starbucks, Twitter or Zalando would like to see their employees back in their offices. But times have changed.
(Re)establishing the connection
Samir Ayoub, managing partner of the Designfunktion Group, knows this, too. He thinks little of the idea of summoning teams back to the office by decree. Rather, he advises redesigning corporate headquarters in such a way that people come voluntarily and willingly because they see added value for themselves. The knowledge transfer mentioned by Bob Iger is one of them: “The mere fact that people move around the rooms together contributes to the transfer of information, experience and corporate culture.”
In addition, the new office expert points to a strong global trend: the declining loyalty of employees to their employers, which has now fallen to an all-time low. Especially in the USA, job hopping has long since replaced loyalty to the company. Already in 2020, the length of stay in a job there was just one and a half to two and a half years. And the change is also evident in Europe: In a German survey from 2022, half of the respondents said they were open to changing jobs or could not imagine staying in their current job permanently. There is obviously a lack of a sense of ‘we’. Companies that want to not only attract but also retain the scarce skilled workers are therefore looking for ways to build and deepen the connection with their teams. We interviewed Samir Ayoub and asked him what role spaces play in this challenge.
“The office kitchen as the most beautiful working café in town” – Interview with new work expert Samir Ayoub
Working from home has become an indispensable part of everyday working life for professionals worldwide. However, quite a few companies would like their teams to return to the office – at least in part. What new criteria do working environments have to fulfil in order to become more attractive again?
Samir Ayoub: I believe as little in a complete return to the office as I do in the idea of only one way fits everyone. From my point of view, the establishment of future-oriented working models is much more a matter of adapting all three physical worlds – i.e. the corporate office, working from home and third places from co-working spaces to workations – to the respective organisation in the best way possible. One thing is clear: In their efforts to attract skilled workers, companies are well advised to make their values, brand and products more tangible. After all, if employees are already on site so much less, companies should take the opportunity to give them a cultural and identity-forming re-charge once they are in the office. This certainly involves more than just hanging the logo in the foyer. It is much more about giving spaces a clear identity and really inspiring people.
A major role is played by convincing equipment and a truly attractive working environment that works with new, people-centred spatial concepts. On the one hand, this includes multifunctional, agile spaces that are geared towards co-creative and collaborative working methods, but also spots that offer quiet and privacy for concentrated work or calls. On the other, attractive places are needed for casual networking and connecting. Or to put it another way: the former office kitchen must become the most beautiful working café – preferably with the best coffee and tea specialities in town. This creates places that inspire and make me want to feel part of the whole again.
You talk about the “space becoming the glue of the teams”. What is the idea behind that?
Samir Ayoub: There is a lot of talk about employee retention at the moment. If we give spaces a cultural charge and make it tangible what the company stands for, people will be inspired by it and connect more easily – both with each other and with the organisation. Because it is always about these two levels: On the one hand, as social beings, we humans seek out other people. This concerns the sense of ‘we’ and team membership. On the other, the overlap of my own ideals and the meaning I see in my work with the values and purpose of the company is the basis for strong employee loyalty. This takes us directly into the purpose discussion, which also makes it clear that designing sustainable working environments is more than just moving a few pieces of furniture.
What can concrete implementations look like? What are the must-haves that companies should focus on?
Samir Ayoub: Essentially, it is about the three types of space mentioned: Offerings for collaboration or co-creation, places for networking and those for focused work. Such multi-space offerings have been proven to increase the enthusiasm and productivity of teams, as our joint studies with the Fraunhofer Institute also show.
In its practical implementation, the spectrum ranges from highly agile room formats for hybrid working to classic, ergonomic sitting and standing workplaces, which, by the way, still have their justification. After all, not everyone has the opportunity to set up an adequate and healthy workplace at home. However, these are now being supplemented by a variety of new office offerings.
These include telephone booths for calls and online meetings, technology-free focus rooms, perfectly equipped small meeting rooms for two to four people, all the way to working cafés that take on a central role in the social framework. The infrastructure can and should also be rethought: Reception, cloakroom, lockers, technology stations etc. All this is needed, but in a different way. And ideally, we have rooms with which we can, for example, bring the large town hall meetings back from the virtual to the analogue space and create occasions for personal encounters.
The market is ripe
Incidentally, innovative new work providers have long been geared to setting up future-oriented working environments. Internationally active companies such as Bloon, Dieffebi, Durable, IOC Conceptpartners, König + Neurath and Vario are leading the way. Their developments focus on human-centred concepts and furnishings that address the various needs of modern working. These range from ergonomically perfectly equipped workplaces to soundproof modules and inspiring creative and meeting rooms to homely islands for communication, meetings or even simply silence.
Hand in hand with this, the trend towards agile, creative and collaborative methods in project-based teams is also continuing, which in turn requires both flexible working environments and the corresponding equipment, from interactive stations to analogue filing systems. For this, too, the market offers an impressive range and creative manufacturers who present both practicable solutions and numerous valuable inspirations.
Header image: Designfunktion