Report reveals needs for future of work

Researchers engaged 32,000 people in 10 countries to understand challenges so Steelcase could create solutions.
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Employees are looking for moveable, open and/or enclosed work areas when they return to the office. Courtesy Steelcase

A new global report by Steelcase reveals those who have been working remotely during the pandemic will be looking for the comforts and convenience of home blended with the community, cultural and productivity benefits of the office when they return to work.

Steelcase on Feb. 17 published a report, “Changing Expectations and the Future of Work,” which highlights what workers need to feel safe and comfortable returning to the office near term and what they want in their office going forward.

The report found 87% of business leaders plan to allow more flexibility around how, when and where people work, up 38% from April 2020. Only 5% of organizations expect to work from home full time while the vast majority, 72%, will take a hybrid approach, working from both home and office, offering greater flexibility to their employees. That will have major implications for office space, with 86% of businesses planning to shift their long-term real estate strategy, the report said.

As business leaders navigate these changes, the Steelcase report also details how organizations can design their workplaces for the new world of work.

To understand how the pandemic has impacted what people need and expect in the office, Steelcase researchers engaged over 32,000 people in multiple studies conducted in 10 countries over the course of the pandemic — Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. The report found eight of the 10 countries rated “no commute” as the top benefit to working from home, and 10 out of 10 ranked “isolation” as the top challenge.

Steelcase researchers augmented quantitative data about the benefits and challenges of working from home by interviewing people in North America and Europe for deeper insights. They found the experiences people described fell into five patterns or personas: 

  • The overworked caretaker, where the home office is a nonstop flow of competing demands
  • Relieved self-preservationist, who feels the home office is the only safe place during the pandemic
  • Frustrated creative networker, for whom the home office is a suspension from normal life and work
  • Autonomy seeker, who sees the home office as freedom
  • Isolated Zoomer, who experiences the home office as a lonely cage

Christine Congdon, director of global research communications at Steelcase and editor of the report, said employers will need to figure out how to address the takeaways that came out of the mass shift to working from home.

“If working from home was a big experiment on a global scale, I think we’re entering a new global experiment, which will be, how do we give workers that kind of autonomy and flexibility to choose what works best for them, but yet also be able to still feel rooted within the organization and feel connected with their colleagues and have a sense of shared purpose?” she said.

Synthesizing the research from the studies in the various countries uncovered five overarching needs that Steelcase concluded will drive new ways of planning and designing offices: employees need to be and feel safe; feel a deep sense of belonging; be productive; be physically, cognitively and emotionally comfortable; and have control over where and how they work.

Congdon said safety was the top concern cited by workers in the report, and workplace safety priorities need to grow from merely addressing occupational hazards and fire drills to also thinking about clean air, general cleanliness and disease mitigation strategies. She said it would be a mistake to assume these will be short-term priorities that will go away after the pandemic — for example, people are realizing the safety strategies that prevent the spread of COVID-19 also work for influenza and the common cold — so employers need to be prepared for permanent changes.

“Leaders want people to be together, but their old office won’t work for the new reality,” said Gale Moutrey, vice president of workplace innovation at Steelcase. “Now is the time for companies to seize the opportunity to reinvent the work experience and the workplace. This report shows employees don’t want to return to the office they had before; they want to return to something better.”

Hybrid design strategies

The report highlights four ideas to help organizations design their hybrid workplace and support the new employee expectations:

Balance the needs of “we” and “me”: While a common narrative says people want to work in the office primarily for group or social activities, Steelcase data shows employees also want the ability to focus and work in a quiet professional environment. Leaders and employees alike listed collaboration and focus among their top reasons for returning to the office. People said they need to be able to quickly shift between working together and alone and between more structured work and informal interactions.

Shift from fixed to fluid: The report finds people in every country reported improved autonomy and work-life balance when working from home, while also struggling with productivity. Leaders can better support employees in the office by creating workspaces that are designed for greater flexibility, giving workers control over their environment. Pre-pandemic, the majority of people wanted to be able to reconfigure their furniture, but only 38% were able to do so. This means equipping workers with highly mobile furniture, power, technology and space division, Steelcase said.

Flip enclosed and open spaces: One of the largest changes happening in the office is a shift from offering mostly enclosed collaborative spaces, such as conference rooms, to providing more open and flexible team spaces, Steelcase noted. Meanwhile, spaces for individual focused work are shifting from dense open spaces to more enclosed or shielded places for privacy. This is designed to provide teams with a sense of safety and the flexibility to resize their space based on activities.

Braid the physical and the digital experience: As individuals and teams continue to live and work on video, employees will need places to join video conferences without disturbing others in the office. Teams will need to integrate space and technology to create inclusive experiences for those in the office and remote team members.

“Our research finds that taking a laissez-faire approach and simply returning to the pre-pandemic workplace will leave employees frustrated, reduce productivity and create inequities,” Moutrey said. “The need to get it right has never been greater. The organizations that use this moment to create a better experience for their people will be the ones that emerge from this crisis ready to compete and win.”

Congdon said one of the biggest surprises for her as the data was coming together was just how quicky workplaces adapted to changing needs of employees, with 87% of employers saying they are going to adopt more flexible work policies.

“I think that’s really a silver lining coming out of all of this, that organizations are realizing that they really need to allow people to do what’s going to be able to work for them,” she said.

She emphasized that the pandemic brought to the forefront the inherent inequities that arise from working remotely, “because we all have different homes.”

“We all have very different life situations. Some people are single, some are married with kids, some have partners, dogs, some people have big homes, some people have small homes. So just the fact that our homes are different (makes it) inherently unequal. And sometimes those inequalities that are negative are (because) the same people who struggled before the pandemic are struggling at home, and the same people who had advantages before the pandemic are advantaged at home. And so, I think it’s really important that organizations not make assumptions one way or the other or that they not design work policies that kind of force people into one way of working or another,” she said.

About the research

Since the onset of the pandemic, Steelcase has been conducting ongoing research to help organizations understand what is really happening to their workforce and the impact it is having on their business. The Steelcase data includes findings from eight qualitative and quantitative primary research studies conducted in 2020. The work was designed to measure the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on work, workers and the workplace. The studies were fielded in as many as 10 countries and have included more than 32,000 participants around the world using methodologies based in the social sciences.

The full report can be found at bit.ly/steelcasefutureofwork.

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