Can we shrink the office without losing our people?

If you’re worried about balancing the desire to save money by shrinking your real estate footprint because only 50% of your workers are ever in the office at any given time and the risk of losing people because they no longer have a dedicated workspace to call their own, relax. They’ll get over it.

Here’s why, and it’s rooted in a deep-seated belief that people can tell you how they feel but can’t tell you how they’ll actually react when the moment comes. Ask anyone if they’ll spend more on a sustainably sourced t-shirt and they’ll say yes. Offer them two choices – one sustainable and the other a dollar cheaper – and the sustainable one lives the rest of its life on the shelf, while the cheaper alternative goes home. The same applies to asking workers about their new ways of working and how breaking from past practices affects their feelings of belonging.

Magnet (Wave 1)

In early 2022, we launched the first wave of the Magnet: Mid- to Post-Covid Future of Work study in five countries, exploring the cultural, technological, workspace design, and societal vectors of work in the late stages of the global pandemic. It was – and is – critical to study all four of these vectors in one study to fully understand the impact of one area on its other correlative parts. One can’t study culture without understanding technology – nor can one understand the impact of workspace design changes on culture without comprehending both technological change and (remember, this was 2022) sensitivities towards the pandemic.

The premature announcement of the death of the huddle room (2022)

As we sought to understand the impact of pandemic concerns on potential workspace design options, we asked respondents whether they would be comfortable entering a small conference room with other (non-immediate family) people because of Covid-19. Sixty-one percent expressed strong or moderate concern, with a further 13% having no opinion.

“Is the huddle room dead?” we wondered aloud.

Of course, while we were wondering this aloud, the “huddle room” market exploded by a factor of ten, largely putting this rhetorical question to rest.

It seems that what we collectively said we would do stood in sharp contrast with what we went ahead and did. Go figure.

Implications for shrinking the office.

All of this brings us to the present and how enterprises, commercial real estate professionals, and the rest of us need to approach the very real reality of downsizing enterprise footprints and whether in this age of “the great resignation” workers would walk if we took away the name plates on their personal work spots. If we’ve truly embraced the hybrid life and only half of the workspaces are filled on any given day – in the US, this number is roughly 50% according to the most recent data – why lease all of it?

When we asked this question – again, in 2022, as Covid was beginning to wane – workers were somewhat split. Thirty-nine percent said they’d feel significantly or somewhat less loyalty to their employers if they lost their permanent work desk in favor of reservation-based hoteling, with a further 29% having no feeling either way. No open rebellion, in other words, but an even split in the aggregate – although 14% of the 39% strongly believe they’d have less loyalty, which makes one a bit cautious about whether these are your top performers or not. As with all statistics, proceed with caution.

But it’s telling that regardless of whether workers had a regular, permanent workspace with their name on the door (or cubicle wall, take your pick), virtually all would try to sit and work in the same spot every day, with 73% agreeing and a further 18% having no opinion.

The New Territorial Imperative

One of the more profound changes in attitudes towards the workplace we identified in the first Magnet study is the shift in the personal sense of belonging and identity away from the traditional office and towards the home office – what we termed the “New Territorial Imperative,” with a nod towards Robert Ardrey’s foundational work (go read the book – it’s very worthwhile).

When asked whether workers felt their home office is “more important to them” than their traditional “office-office,” a full 52% strongly or somewhat agreed, with a further 23% expressing no opinion. Interestingly, we saw what we describe as a steep “Millennial cliff” in the data, with younger workers agreeing at a 63% rate while older workers dropped off to 36%.

The shift from “how many ceiling tiles do I have in my office?” to “my home office is far more important to me anyway” – the new territorial imperative – is a huge change.

Happiness (@ work) equals control and control usually means working from home

When we ran the Culture & Technology Intersection study (this body of work formed the foundation of the research that went into writing Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World in 2020), the baseline macro trend we uncovered was one we called, “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World.” We believe the world is spinning out of our control and we’ve clearly lost trust in the institutions around us, but despite this we are actively seeking ways to wrest back some sense of control over our lives. In the future of work discussion, this takes the form of working from home whenever possible.

When we asked US respondents how many days they worked in the office versus how many at home, we saw an interesting and extremely consistent phenomenon: workers always wished they could work one more day at home. Those who worked 3 days in the office wished they only worked 2, those who worked 4 wished they worked 3, etc. When we polled workers on their satisfaction with their work arrangements, the numbers fell into line according to the degree of autonomy they had. For those who had full control over their work week, 94% were very or somewhat satisfied. For those who could choose which of a set number of days to work from the office, 82% were happy. Those who had to work 5 days in the office were the least happy, with 64% saying they were very or somewhat satisfied. No open rebellion here, either, but a sharp drop off and a clear signal that all things considered, they’d rather be elsewhere.

Bottom line

Workers said they’d be reluctant to get into huddle spaces but crammed into them in record numbers, regardless. They are split on whether they’d feel less loyal if they lost their permanent workstations, but will work in the same spot every day even if their name isn’t carved into the door frame. They care more about their home offices than their traditional offices, they prefer to work from home all things considered, and are happier when they have control over their work lives.

To me, when I squint at all this, it means to all those RE exec’s wondering about whether they can get away with shrinking their footprint and moving to a hoteling system instead of a half-full and half-dead office that costs twice as much per headcount, the answer is simple

Go do it.

Save the space, save the money, and start hoteling your people. They’ll figure it out.

Scheduling and hoteling technology exists, it works beautifully, and if workers don’t already know how to make it all work, they will in minutes. They’d rather be skipping the commute and working from home, using the unified communications platform of their choice, a professional caliber webcam, and a top-notch headset, anyway.

But what about the office space?

And for those commercial RE decision makers out there – there’s a silver lining in all this.

Yes, the answer is to create the Magnet Office, a place where workers choose to come instead of working from home. Easier said than done, of course, because it takes money, effort, deep discovery, and creativity.

But the Magnet research we did in 2022 held a number of big insights, namely relating to what we need from a professional corporate environment – referring to not just technology and workspace design, but culture, as well – that aren’t necessarily the things you’d immediately think would headline the list.

This needs its own space and a post of its own, which I’ll send along shortly. And yes, as we gear up for the next wave of the Magnet study we’re refining our angles of inquiry based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half. The pandemic is over. The technology works. We’re still figuring out what the office is for. The cultural struggle at work is still in its infancy stages.  

But what we can all agree on, I hope, is that the genie is out of the bottle, that unified communications technology works and that people – the people who used to spend all day in your office buildings but now prefer to work elsewhere – prefer this new, homey solution to the traditional office buildings that are increasingly standing empty.

More on this in my next piece.