Podcast: What Will Post-Pandemic Workplaces Look Like?

Employers are facing many challenges as they weigh what a return to work will entail, and how it can be done safely. On this podcast, Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister joins XpertHR Legal Editor David Weisenfeld for a wide-ranging conversation about the future of work and what offices may look like in the years ahead.

"The genie is not going back in the bottle with telework," said Lister. "The surveys we've done show the large majority of people who hadn't worked from home before want to continue doing it." Meanwhile, amidst the business downturn, she noted that many employers are taking a fresh look at whether they really need all of their office space. She also noted that a typical employer can save $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. Some other areas Lister addresses include:

  • Concerns about employers rushing a return;
  • Reversing course on open-floor plans and hot desking;
  • Employee "A" and "B" days; and
  • The future of management and business travel.

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Additional Resources

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Preparing Managers to Lead With Agility in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Podcast: Managing Employees During a Global Pandemic


David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld for XpertHR.com, published by Reed Business Information and proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

While states have begun talking about reopening their economies, employers are facing a host of logistical challenges as they mull what their post-pandemic workplaces will look like. What will normalcy be for instance? And how eager will teleworking employees be to return to an office setting?

On this podcast those questions and more with Kate Lister, the President of Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting organization. Kate is a recognized authority on the future of work, and recently spoke with The New York Times about what tomorrow's workplace may bring. Kate, it's good to have you with us. [0:01:01.4]

Kate Lister: Great to be with you, David.

David Weisenfeld: Kate, you've said the genie is not going back in the bottle when it comes to telework. Talk a little bit about that and what you foresee. [0:01:12.0]

Kate Lister: For the past really decade, perhaps even more, the ability to work flexibly has been the number one request for job applicants. It's something people are dying for a little bit of flexibility in their life, and the companies that are offering get to pick from the best and the brightest. But even though 70% of companies say they offer remote work options, only 7% of them do it for all or most of their employees. So I kind of call it the '7% privilege.' It's sort of been for the older, more tenured, more senior employees, and not something that's been available to everybody.

But boom, now we've got 80% of the workforce working remotely and getting along pretty well. And I think what that's going to do is, once they've tasted it and this is more than just think, in the surveys that we've done, it's showing that more than half of these people have not worked at home before, and the large majority of them - 88%, 90% - want to continue doing it. So we're going to see a strong push from the employee's side.

From the employer's side, they've been looking at all this space that has gone unused for months and months and months, and facing an economic downturn they're going to start to think, "Geez, do we really need all of that space? We were getting along okay without it." Investors are going to be looking at the same thing: "Hey, you weren't really prepared for this. We need you to be better prepared for a future emergency." Risk managers are going to be looking at the same thing.

But I think also the managers that have largely been the biggest resistance, the biggest reason employers have not gone to remote work before is that they don't trust their employees. They think that somehow seeing the back of their heads sitting at a desk shows that they're busy. They've now learned that, "Hey, we can manage." And one of the biggest indicators of whether a manager supports it is whether or not they've done it. So I think now, after a couple of months of experience - again we're already seeing this in the surveys - managers are becoming more comfortable with it.

David Weisenfeld: I want to pick up on that point because that was a great observation you had because the sky is not falling. The managers might have been concerned about that, but that hasn't been the reality. So with that said, do you think we're going to see companies inundated by requests to make work-from-home arrangements more permanent? [0:03:39.7]

Kate Lister: I really do, but I think the companies at least in the short-run - and by 'short-run' I mean probably a year - are not really going to want all of the employees to come back. They're still figuring out all the social distancing issues. Anybody that doesn't want to will probably be allowed to work from home for some period of time. People that have a low immunity will be allowed to work from home. And I think the longer we do it the more we'll become used to it and the more we'll begin seeing that, "Wow, we really didn't need all that space."

So I think this is bad news for the commercial real estate industry. No doubt we'll find a way to repurpose that space. But I think over the next period of two to five years we're going to see a lot of space reduction.

David Weisenfeld: So it sounds like you anticipate employers potentially rethinking whether they even need office space in some situations depending on what it is they do? [0:04:38.5]

Kate Lister: Yeah. Some of them have long-term leases. They can't get out of them overnight. But when you're talking about doubling the amount of space for people, you just don't have room for them all. And so it's going to force the hand, as did this crisis, to get better and better at remote work.

I don't see offices going away. People like to make those conversations polar, "We're never going to see our colleagues. We're never going to see our managers. We're all going to be in the office all the time." Really the sweet spot is somewhere in the half-time, two to three day a week range. It gives people home space for concentration and office for collaboration. And entire office footprints are being redesigned around this concept and have been for the past five years.

When they've looked around, and they've done their occupancy study, they found that offices were vacant 50-60% of the time. So they were already seeing that people are mobile. It doesn't necessarily mean they're working at home. They might be at a client's office. They might be at somebody else's office. But really what the space was being used for was collaboration.

And so instead of having assigned desks, for example, many of the large companies have already gone to what they call 'activity-based work,' so that when you do come to work you reserve on your phone what kind of space you're looking for. Do you need a team space? Do you need a meeting space? Do you just want to go in and pick up a space on the sofa for a social space? Not a lot of private space.

So the private space, the place for concentration, is becoming home, and the office is becoming the place for collaboration. So we're still going to need the offices. We're just not going to need as much of it.

David Weisenfeld: Well Kate, you mentioned floorplans and I want to pick up on that because let's talk just a bit about what the offices will look like because in recent years, as you noted, there's been more in the way of hot-desks. It also just seems, even from my own observations at work that a lot more open floorplans where people are sitting much closer than they did in the past. What's this all going to mean for that, in light of all the social distancing? [0:06:52.2]

Kate Lister: Yeah, the return to work scenario, and we're working through it with a number of companies, calls for putting up barriers again, moving people out of those very tight spaces. And we've been in a period of densification ever since the beginning of the last recession. And in some cases people had gotten it down to like 75 square foot per person. Just a couple of years ago it was something like 250 square foot per person. So we're reversing that trend.

We're also going to be reversing the trend of hot-desking. When we're talking about cleaning protocols it means, it's suggesting that people go to a space and work in that space for the entire day so that we know that night that space will be thoroughly cleaned.

There are some companies talking about paper, paper-topped desks, so wherever you go you take your paper and you put it down on the surface. These are all stop-gap solutions. Longer-term we're looking at entire changes to HVAC systems, less surfaces that can be cleaned easier than, say, fabric surfaces or rough surfaces. So even new materials we're starting to hear about. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we're already starting to see some innovation coming out of this.

So the physical space is going to look much different. Some people have said, "Well wait a minute. If we have to be walking around in masks and staying six feet from one another, and the conference rooms are going to be closed and the social area is going to be closed, why do we even want to go to the office at all?" And that's something that we're going to need to work through. I think we're already learning to socialize with our neighbours and with our friends from a distance, and that's going to continue for quite some time.

David Weisenfeld: Yes, certainly Zoom has been one of the big winners, I suppose perhaps one of the only winners during this whole time. But just last week on my podcast I had Tracy Brower of Forbes.com, and she said as great as Zoom is, there's something about being in a physical space together and working elbow-to-elbow that just can't be replaced. What are your thoughts on that? [0:08:58.5]

Kate Lister: I do agree with that. I also think that we've sort of gone overboard on Zoom. I'm an introvert so it takes a lot of energy to be on Zoom, even more than being in person with someone because there's all those tiny cues that you get from somebody when you're face-to-face that you find yourself - I was reading in a New York Times article about this - that the reason it's so exhausting is because we don't have all those cues with video.

So I agree, there is nothing that will replace face-to-face, but I also think that we've found that Zoom and other means of communication can go a long way. Are you really going to travel across the world now for an hour meeting with somebody or even across town? Probably not. We're going to be doing that through video mechanisms.

The X Prize right now is actually for the first company that can come up with the technology where I can reach out on the…not necessarily Zoom platform, but you know what I mean, and touch you. So there's a physical element to this virtual meeting.

David Weisenfeld: Very interesting. And you know I do wonder what's going to happen with business conferences and conventions, whether that's going to be a thing of the past, at least for a few years anyway. [0:10:25.4]

Kate Lister: I'm sure it is. I'm sure you could get conference space very inexpensively right now! Again I think particularly as we head into a recession or an economic downturn, all of those expenses are going to be looked at in light of, "Well what do we really get by going there? Can't we just do this virtually?"

I think the conference producers have already come up with a virtual solution. I know I'm participating in a lot of conferences that I would have otherwise been traveling to Europe or traveling across the country to go to, but I'm still delivering the same content virtually. It took a few weeks of scrambling for them to figure that out, but it's become commonplace now. And now I think it'll be hard to find a conference that you can't participate in virtually.

David Weisenfeld: Absolutely. Well speaking of the downturn, Kate, and so many businesses having a tough time, obviously the unemployment claims have been off the charts week after week, do you have any concern that too many employers may rush the return to work in light of the situation because for some, teleworking is harder than others, depending on their business? [0:11:41.9]

Kate Lister: Well I think the retail sector is really hurting and may in fact rush the back-to-work. We're already seeing, I live in San Diego, they've opened the beaches as of today because the surf is up and the surfers want to go surfing. I think it's too early. I mean we don't even know fully how this thing is transmitted. And I would just hate to see us go back too early.

You think about the liability of requiring your employees to come back and then let's say there's another outbreak. That's going to be a very hard thing to justify. Or if somebody has immune issues, making them come back to work. It just doesn't make any sense. I think we need to do this very slowly, very carefully, and watch what the outcomes are a step at a time.

But in terms of economics we estimate a typical employer can save about $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. And so when they're wringing their hands over the economy, at least the companies that are able to work virtually, I think will be looking at those potential savings in a new light, and from the C-suite.

One of the problems that we've had for years is that a lot of these remote work programs have been kind of siloed. Real estate wants to reduce square footage. HR wants to attract talent. Sustainability wants to get cars off the road, versus coming from the C-suite and saying, "No, this is a strategy. This is something that is important to our survival." And that's what we're seeing now because this has the C-suite attention. We're not going to, just from a risk management point of view, companies are going to be required to have a disaster preparedness plan that includes remote work. So I think that that's going to be yet another driver.

David Weisenfeld: Again we're speaking with Kate Lister, the President of Global Workplace Analytics. And Kate, I wanted to ask you because you spoke about the need to come back slowly and do this in a measured approach, are we going to see A-days and B-days so that, say, not all employees are in the office at once? [0:14:05.1]

Kate Lister: Yeah, some companies are already talking about that. If you think about all the things that happen, if everybody comes to work at nine o'clock, think of:

  • How do you do social distancing when everybody's trying to get through the front door?
  • What do you do about the elevator?
  • Even what do you do about the button on the elevator?

And one of the things companies are talking about is having one-way signs on the floors so that you're not coming across traffic and not getting too close to people. And there just isn't enough space to accommodate that kind of distancing. So very much we're seeing A and B days.

Also I think a large percent of the population - our own estimate is about 30% of the workforce - will continue to work from home at least a couple of days a week by the end of 2021. And I think there's going to be a period when everybody wants to go back and see their colleagues and get their social fix and talk to people that speak in full sentences rather than their three-year old. But I think after that they're going to realize the benefits, and the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages from the employee point of view, and from the employer point of view.

And then let's not forget the environment. Unfortunately in the US it's not a huge focus. It is in Europe and a big driver for remote work. But when we can see in such a short period of time that we really changed the air, it's just irrefutable that it helps to get cars off the road.

David Weisenfeld: Yeah, you're in California, I'm in New Jersey, and these are states where there is just a huge commute depending on where you are. And the ability to have two hours where you could be just working peacefully at home instead of driving to and from work I would think would be enormous. [0:16:03.7]

Kate Lister: The fact that people get back 50-60% of the time they would have otherwise spent commuting is one of the reasons for the additional productivity. But on average, again half-time remote work, a typical employee would save 11 work days a year, the equivalent of 11 work days a year. So it's like 11 extra vacation days by not having to do that commute.

And then there's a lot of the stress associated with it. I don't know if you've been watching the numbers. The car accidents have gone done. Insurance, we're getting a refund from our insurance company because car accidents have gone down. I mean there's lots of follow-on things here. It's not just going to be companies making the decision. Cities and counties are going to be involved. We're already hearing from some of the regions around here wanting to talk about, "How do we continue this program? How do we get people to continue to work from home rather than adding that traffic back to our highways?"

David Weisenfeld: So as we look ahead past this year and into the next, what other changes do you envision employers undertaking? [0:17:10.8]

Kate Lister: A lot of them got caught with their pants down. They weren't ready for this. They hadn't planned this. In fact, most remote work programs have kind of been allowed to happen rather than made to happen. And so we're already seeing companies wanting to formalize this, wanting to have agreements about, for example:

  • "Who pays for technology?
  • What are the standard working hours?
  • How often should I communicate with my staff?
  • What about the people that can't work from home?
  • Are we paperless enough?
  • Do we have access to our files?"

These are all things that, had we been working with a company probably for a year, in terms of a large company, would have been part of the roll-out program. So now we're going to have to step back and get a little bit more formal about that. So I think there's going to be a real emphasis on technology. Do you have the technology to make you successful at home? Do you have the training to make it work? Do you have the access to files? And sort of formalizing all those practices and processes for the way we work.

David Weisenfeld: Well in our final minute, Kate, I just wanted to ask if you had a last thought that you'd like to share with our audience of HR professionals, and also give you a chance to talk about what you may be working on at Global Workplace Analytics, and tell the listeners a bit about that. [0:18:27.0]

Kate Lister: One thing I'm hoping that comes out of this is that we're all a little bit more human. Somehow seeing somebody at home, in their comfortable clothes, with their children, with their dogs, and with some relaxed standards about those things, I think might actually bring us closer together than further apart. So that's one of my hopes coming out of this.

I hope that we will learn to manage remotely rather than virtually babysit. So I've heard a lot of people talking about virtual micromanagement, "What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing? Are you still at work?", check in, check out. That's just nonsense. We've known since the 50s that to get people to do their best work it's about having shared goals, having understanding of goals, and really just getting out of their way and letting them do what they do best. So I think there's going to be a whole different kind of management training that's needed coming out of this.

We actually just launched a survey last month. It just closed on Friday. At least, we started tabulating the results on Friday. It really hones in on:

  • "Okay, what was the work-from-home experience?
  • What worked? What didn't?
  • How many of you are going to go back to work?
  • What can we learn from this?
  • What should be the priorities going forward?"

And I think that employers should take this time to do some of the polling and do some of the benchmarking to figure out where they need to improve their processes and practices going forward.

And I think that HR also needs to pay attention to the whole stress and psychological impact of all of this. These are not normal times and even beyond the COVID crisis there is the economic crisis, the crisis of being at home with your loved ones who may not be quite as loved after spending a month and a half or two months locked up with them!

David Weisenfeld: A lot of family time!

Kate Lister: Exactly! Not having the tools that you need. I mean all of that is stressful. So I think there has to be an outlet for that, and I think it has to be made available now, whether it's through employer resource groups, stress training, just being able to talk about it, maybe lowering expectations.

You know, we're not going to be as productive as we otherwise would be because of all of the stress that we're holding. So I think that there just needs to be a greater recognition of not just getting the places ready for people to come back but getting the people ready to be productive again.

David Weisenfeld: Okay, well we'll let that be the last word. Kate Lister is the President of Global Workplace Analytics and a leading authority on the future of work. Kate, it was so great having you on the podcast. Thanks for the insights. [0:21:16.1]

Kate Lister: Yeah, thank you. Good to talk to you. Stay safe.

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. Continue checking our website for more podcasts on how the coronavirus is affecting the workplace, including our recent look at Reducing Anxiety Amid the COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis, featuring Dr Tracy Brower of Forbes.com.

The opinions expressed in this program do not represent legal advice, nor should they necessarily be taken as the views of XpertHR or its employees. XpertHR.com is published by Reed Business Information, and is proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

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