The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the relationship between employer and employee. It necessitated greater levels of flexibility and trust, and established new channels of collaboration and communication, at a time when the physical office was out of commission.
Even as offices reopen, it is clear that, for a high proportion of enterprises, hybrid working is here to stay. However, amid all this change, employers are under pressure regarding how best to define, deliver and optimise a model that meets all parties’ requirements. To do so, they must understand how to balance what employees want with what employers need.
In Working theories: What employees want from the future workplace, a recent study conducted by New Statesman Media Group in collaboration with Siemens Smart Infrastructure, 71% of surveyed office workers said their employers intend to move to a permanent hybrid working model. However, only 27.1% of those businesses had fully defined that model and implemented the underlying tech. That leaves nearly three-quarters of offices making the shift still in the process of creating a framework to best support hybrid working.
“Creating flexible working is complicated; there is no one-size-fits-all solution and no two company solutions will look exactly the same,” Matthias Rebellius, CEO of Siemens Smart Infrastructure, remarks. “It is not just about allowing employees to work remotely and making the technology available to do so; companies need to consider this as a fundamental, long-term change in the way they work, rather than a short-term fix to overcome a current challenge.
“It is important that the process is managed – a lack of a defined process for implementing hybrid work is a real challenge. Good change management will ensure [a] greater chance of successful adoption.”
However, companies need to find the right balance between worker flexibility and company collaboration and culture. For its recent Global Workplace Report, Siemens spoke to executives in real estate, workplace and facilities management across North America, Europe and APAC. All worked for companies with revenues of more than $1bn. Two-thirds expected to still be operating a flexible working model in two years’ time, but the vast majority (88%) found a lack of change control processes for hybrid working to be a significant challenge.
That data will come from sensor and workplace app technologies, which will give an insight into employees’ requirements and inform the design of the office space. The Siemens Comfy platform, for example, is designed to guide the creation of a safe, sustainable and cost-effective environment. Office spaces are grouped into ‘neighbourhoods’, enabling desks and other spaces to be assigned to teams, creating more opportunities for group-based activities and ‘casual collisions’ at work.
It is a challenge that will need to be overcome. Those that fail to deliver a framework that adequately addresses worker priorities and concerns will struggle when it comes to retention and recruitment of talent. The definition of an employer of choice, and the weighting of metrics behind that definition, have changed markedly and executing the right hybrid working model can bring significant competitive advantage.
Data drives redesign
Digital technologies that enable businesses to analyse data and understand which spaces are used, who is using them and in what ways will be essential to the development of an optimum working model in this regard. However, keeping the focus on priorities directly related to the pandemic will fail to leverage the long-term, transformational benefits workplace digitalisation can unlock.
“Technology used to reduce high-touch surfaces such as lights, thermostats and elevator buttons has understandably been under serious focus, amid greater caution around the transmission of Covid-19,” Rebellius explains. “But to define and execute a long-term strategy, companies must use technology – and the data it generates – to ensure a successful transition to new working models.”
This data will help companies to better understand requirements, successes and failures as they seek to unlock better flexibility from their existing real estate. The reasons for coming into the office are changing, so the office must also change accordingly. For example, the Working Theories study found that employees now prioritised meeting rooms and group spaces above all other office typologies. Conversely, individual desks were now seen as the least important. This signifies a marked shift in thinking around office space.
“Companies will need to give employees the flexibility to choose where they want to work, and the ability to choose locations and spaces that best suit their tasks – so-called ‘activity-based working’,” says Rebellius. “In-person collaboration is something employees have missed, and it is also hugely important for keeping enterprises dynamic and creative. Data is crucial here. It will take the guesswork out of redesigning office spaces.”
Furthermore, individual desks, rooms or spaces can also be tagged to help employees select the right spaces to meet their needs, whether it is for solitary work or group tasks. Amassing this data will also allow businesses to identify how employee preferences change over time and better manage their real estate.
“Using workplace technology, real estate, facilities and IT teams gain crucial space and resource utilisation data so that they can make data-based decisions on space planning and office redesign, and budget decisions,” Rebellius remarks. “If companies are planning to reduce office space, it is also essential that technology is used to manage the density of employees in the office. Allowing employees to reserve and book spaces ensures no employee will arrive at the office without a space to work.”
Siemens itself is adapting to a hybrid model, and it is proving the value of data-driven technologies in achieving greater flexibility, sustainability and efficiency. Having launched a flexible working policy as its worldwide standard back in 2020, including the ability of employees to work two to three days per week from outside the office, it is now rolling out Comfy to more than 600 locations worldwide.
Working Theories and Global Workplace Report suggest that there is still work to be done on both employer and employee sides in order for a greater proportion of enterprises to follow Siemens’s lead. A total of 43.8% of office workers were either unsure or unwilling regarding the use of a workplace app, while 54% of executives surveyed for the Global Workplace Report expect to increase investment in workplace technologies over the next two years, with 9% undecided, leaving a significant proportion without any plans to leverage the potential of new technology platforms. Sticking with the status quo, or trying to make this leap without harnessing the power of workplace technologies, is a dangerous game to play.
“Companies must consider the risks of inaction,” Rebellius cautions. “It will be an iterative process. We won’t all get it right first time, which is why it is important to have a long-term, data-driven strategy that enables businesses to understand and analyse which spaces are used, who is using them and in what ways to develop a working model that works best for their business and people.”
To learn more, download the full version of Working theories: What employees want from the future workplace.