Companies should think like retailers if they want staff back in the office

Companies must think of their people less as employees and more as consumers of the experience they provide, argues CBRE’s head of UK research, Jennet Siebrits.

by Jennet Siebrits
Last Updated: 04 May 2023

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many workers around the world to work from home, a trend that has continued following the lifting of restrictions. While the shift to remote or hybrid work has provided many benefits, such as improved flexibility and work-life balance, it has raised concerns about negative impacts on productivity.

Indeed, the most recent productivity data for large European countries suggests that labour productivity, as measured in output per hour worked, decreased in the period 2020-2022. However, respondents to CBRE’s recent Global Live-Work-Shop survey reported that their productivity improved over this period. This raises important questions about the nature of productivity and the optimal relationship between employees and the workplace

What factors affect individual productivity?

An individual’s productivity may improve or decline, depending on their unique characteristics, job role and personal circumstances. For example, neurodiverse colleagues may feel overstimulated and overwhelmed in busy crowded office environments, which may lower their output. In contrast, extroverts may need to be in such an environment to thrive.

In addition, WFH policies may accentuate a socio-economic divide; more densely populated and poorer city areas will be noisier, potentially creating more distracting environments relative to WFH, and affecting the productivity of those working in such places.

Home environment factors are also important: those with a separate home study report the highest levels of improved team and personal productivity.

Wellbeing is foundational to performance, and from a wellbeing perspective, hybrid working has been associated with increased work-life balance, autonomy, and trust, which are all linked to increased mental wellbeing. From an inclusion perspective, hybrid working has helped achieve a far more diverse workforce, enabling those with accessibility issues, childcare or caring responsibilities to work more flexibly.

An inclusive workforce fosters diversity of thought, different approaches to work, innovation, and creativity, which is likely to be conducive to higher productivity. Despite this, hybrid managers experienced the highest levels of burnout in 2022, demonstrating the increased demand and complexity leaders face when managing teams in a hybrid world.

The pros and cons of WFH

While survey respondents reported connection, satisfaction, employee trust and self-reported productivity increased when they were given the opportunity to work in a hybrid way, this is not true for all individuals, all the time. The ideal split between WFH and the office depends on the job role and the individual but if managed correctly, hybrid could offer the best of both worlds. 

CBRE partners ART Health Solutions have reflected on the pros and cons of working from home versus office based work and found in their research that:

- Hybrid working supports wellbeing and performance, but only when both home and office are fit for purpose and employees have autonomy and flexibility over their ways of work

- Employees’ self-reported limiters of performance include the commute, noise or overcrowding in the office and lack of interactions with colleagues, all of which can be improved with the correct hybrid model.

- When WFH, employees are more rested and achieve up to 30 minutes more sleep per night than when in the office

- Office workers are more active than home workers, taking 1,300+ more steps per day

- Cognitive performance, while good at home, is improved by 5% when in the office. Still there are environmental factors that influence this, for example:

- Noise levels are 13% more comfortable at home compared to office

- Natural light levels are 20% greater at home compared to office

- Temperatures are 18% more comfortable at home compared to office

- Self-reported stress is 7% lower at home compared to office

The tricks to maximising in-office productivity

To maximise productivity, employers should consider the whole workplace experience, from a physical, human and digital perspective and accept that it is not a one size fits all model.

Employers need to consider a whole host of factors. For example, they should offer a high variety of choice and flexibility of settings within office environments, use suitable language around coming into the office and offer hybrid training for managers.

They also need to provide seamless hybrid meeting technology and drive hybrid behaviours in line with organisational values and culture, for instance not being “always on” when working remotely, or normalising “in-office” notices instead of just out of office messages.

Given the fact that hybrid work is an evolution of work and not exclusively a circumstance of the pandemic, the questions leaders should ask is what workplace best supports productivity, talent attraction, and prudent cost management?

Think like a retailer

Creating a truly magnetic workplace requires shifting the focus from efficiency to experience. Organisations must think of their people less as employees and more as consumers of the experience they provide.
Like retailers, a key indicator of a successful workplace is foot traffic. Here are some practical tips that employers can use to encourage workers to spend more time in the office:

Be clear about why people should come to the office

Using methods such as Team Charters, where teams discuss and agree how much time they should spend together and the types of work they'll do when in the office, can be really effective in driving office use. Think also about the language you use. Instead of 'mandating' time in the office, ask people to prioritise time for face to face meetings and social connection and explain the benefits in doing so. 

Vacancy is the enemy of experience 

No-one likes eating in an empty restaurant, and the same is true for workplaces. We’ve found that while having too few seats on peak days isn't ideal, it isn't as bad as having too few people in the office. Under-utilisation has been proven to be more detrimental to returning to the office than oversubscription of space, so think about concentrating office usage in certain areas of the office. 

Embrace hot-desking

Allocating space to individuals can degrade the utilisation of office space. We are seeing the most successful workplaces adopt space sharing strategies that drive higher utilisation as well as increased efficiency.

Make it interesting

Managing consistency in how space is planned and used is important for flexibility. This ‘sameness’ of space however limits the creation of more diverse environments. Aim to create a balance using varied furniture, settings and technology designed around the reasons why people come to the office. This will drive higher use and provide more choice and interest for employees.

Jennet Siebrits is the head of UK research at the CBRE