Employers are under pressure to make office visits worth it

Companies that require workers to come to the office are under particular pressure to offer an “outstanding experience.”

A commuter wearing a mask on a BART train in Oakland

Some have forsaken the office altogether, and many have trimmed back their office footprint.

Photo: Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The last two years have upended the role of the physical office in most tech companies. What is the purpose of the tech office now, and how can companies make sure that workers actually want to use it?

Some have forsaken the office altogether, and many have trimmed back their office footprint. Peter Miscovich, an executive management consultant at the commercial real estate giant JLL, has seen some clients let go of as much as 20% to 30% of their real estate portfolio, he said. Others are signing new leases, but their office spaces are smaller than before.

“The workplace and the corporate campuses now really have to reinvent themselves to be relevant,” Miscovich said. The office of 2023 will be like a “boutique hotel or clubhouse with technology activation throughout,” he added.

Companies that force workers to come to the office regularly — the Googles and the Apples that require a certain number of days on site each week — are under particular pressure to offer an “outstanding experience” to employees in order to avoid attrition, said Joe Du Bey, co-founder and CEO of the people operations software maker Eden Workplace.

“They’re going to really have to create destination spaces if they’re going to expect people to come in three, four, five days a week,” Du Bey said.

The vast majority of employees do want to have access to an office. Eden surveys have found that around 85% of workers want to have the option, and this number is closer to 90% for early-career professionals, according to Du Bey.

Forget the corner office

The way an office is organized reflects the priorities of the organization within it. Office spaces now have two major purposes: to aid in culture- and team-building and, in some cases, to host customers, said Maury Peiperl, dean of the School of Business at George Mason University.

“What that means, I think, is that the design and the expectations around office space will focus on those things, rather than on turf,” Peiperl said.

That means that the private offices and workstations that once made up 90% of the typical office will be repurposed as collaboration space and amenities, said Miscovich. Some JLL clients are setting up library-like areas for heads-down work separately from more communal work spaces.

It also means a de-emphasis on status signifiers like the corner office, said Peiperl. (This trend is long in the making in the tech industry, but Peiperl said the pandemic has only accelerated it. Dropbox rebranded its offices as “studios” last summer, revamping them to accommodate team meetings, quarterly strategy sessions, concerts and all-hands meetings.)

KPMG’s suburban Washington, D.C., office is a good example of this, said Peiperl: The nicest space is reserved for customers and flexible, shared workspace while the partners’ glass-walled offices are set up “20 feet in,” he said. When partners are away from the office for a couple of days, their desks are available for other employees to use.

This setup, Peiperl said, is “a shift away from the traditional, hyper-masculine, alpha-male way of running things, which we know is not particularly good for innovation and connection and culture-building and motivating a more diverse workforce.”

How to know which perks to offer

Perks have long been synonymous with the tech office, but these, too, are changing. With only part of the workforce in the office on any given day, companies will increasingly be asking employees to know what it makes sense to offer.

Many of JLL’s tech clients are using employee “sensing” to grasp what the workforce wants, Miscovich said: Surveys can help companies understand what amenities are important now. “If what they want is to go to the gym in their local neighborhood three days a week and go into the tech campus two days a week, they may not need the gym on the campus.”

Companies are also using employee sensing to know how many employees will show up to the office on a given day. What could have been a catered lunch in-person might instead be sent to an employee’s home, Miscovich said.

“We’re going to see a lot more workplace technology sensors in the office space,” Miscovich said.

A number of JLL’s tech and non-tech clients are looking at on-site and off-site child care as a perk, Miscovich said, and some are also showing interest in wellness offerings like meditation rooms.

Office perks and amenities will look different depending on the demographics of a company’s employee base. Miscovich has one client that hosts a well-attended movie night at its headquarters every Saturday — an event that he imagines would be less popular at a company with many employees who have young kids at home.

Peiperl expects a “rebalancing” of perks in the interest of what employees really need, rather than piling on plush amenities that they might not even use.

“It’s about getting you to level zero, of being able to fully function,” Peiperl said. “The other things which make it even better to work at a place — fine, good. But let’s see that we’re supporting the full group from each of the places they exist.”


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