The COVID-19 pandemic has made many people rethink how they feel about remote work. Early on, a number of executives considered turning traditional in-office positions into permanent remote ones because productivity remained high and companies were saving money with staffs working from home. Meanwhile, some major tech companies went ahead and implemented full-time remote work policies either permanently or for the very foreseeable future.
While businesses wrestle with when is the right time to bring their employees back to office, there’s another key question that needs to be addressed—how do employees feel about coming back to the office following the pandemic?
Cohesion, a smart building SaaS company and building experience app that integrates building systems, addressed this inquiry in 2020—twice. In May, it released a Voice of the Employee survey to get a feel for office employees’ needs and wants as their buildings started to reopen. Cohesion conducted another survey, Voice of the Employee II in the fall to see if employees’ preferences and opinions had changed, as COVID-19 still impacts American workers physically and mentally.
“I come from the corporate side of the (commercial real estate) industry,” Cohesion founder and CEO Thru Shivakumar told Connected Real Estate Magazine. “We always would push down opinions from the corporate standpoint to say, ‘Here’s what we think everybody thinks on the ground.’ But we were disconnected in terms of what is actually being seen from the employee front. There are a lot of opinions and not everything is always being used. So we wanted to start focusing on the voice of the employee.”
Employees’ interest in returning to the office is rising
What Cohesion found in its 1,000-employee survey was a rise in the number of people who want to return to their office buildings. Employees are cautious about returning, but the amount of people who are comfortable coming back increased in several categories from the May Voice of the Employee survey to the more current one, including immediately (21% to 23%); in two to three months (13% to 15%); when the pandemic subsides (14% to 19%) and when the government says it’s safe (7% to 10%).
Meanwhile, there were decreases in remote work preferences from the prior survey. The number of employees who were interested in having a flexible home scheduled dropped from 12% to 9% and those who wished to work from home indefinitely decreased from 8% to 7%. Employees who said they were “in no rush” to return to the office in May decreased from 11% to 7%.
“Employees not only want to return to the office, but 68% of employees intend to go back to the office in some form in 2021,” Cohesion’s Voice of the Survey II report said. “Now is the time for commercial real estate to prepare for the return of employees to the office by prioritizing what makes people feel safe and healthy to return.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we heard that everything is over,” Shivakumar said. “Nobody is ever going back to real estate. Then you think about 9/11—after a crisis you see that there’s going to be incremental changes, but you’re going to be somewhere in the middle. Things are going to return back to something.”
Safety is employees’ top priority for returning to the office
Employees want to get back to their offices so they can collaborate with colleagues, feel more productive, reignite innovation, get a change of scenery and to be able to have face-to-face meetings again. While they would welcome all of those things with open arms, none are more important than knowing it’s safe to work in their office building again.
Early in the pandemic, 83% of employees wanted to know at least some information about the health of people in their building. Cohesion’s second survey revealed that now 92% of people want that same level of transparency. Some of the types of health-related communications employees are seeking before they return to their offices include updates on building inhabitants’ COVID-19 exposure, symptoms or diagnosis; building occupancy information, air quality information and cleaning schedule information.
Additionally, 85% of survey respondents said they’d like to know their building’s indoor air quality (compared to 77% of employees in May). A majority of employees (85%) also said they would continue to think about others’ health and air quality in their office building after the pandemic, meaning CRE owners should not see air quality concerns as a fleeting trend.
“To prepare for this, buildings need to begin monitoring IAQ and sharing that information with employees,” the survey report said. “We also expect to see a big focus on restrooms as it pertains to cleanliness, air quality, and occupancy. The industry is already exploring single restrooms, capacity limiting on restroom usage, and usage-based cleanings, amongst other trends.”
Connectivity will be critical for making employees’ return safe
Almost 90% of Cohesion’s survey respondents said they’d use an app if their building offered one. Employees said communication of emergency notifications, building cleanliness and air quality and building information were the three main items they’d want included with a building app. Meanwhile, 35% of employees said they were interested in hands-free capabilities that would let them enter the building, call elevators and bathroom amenities that would keep them from having to touch surfaces.
As a building experience app, Cohesion can provide employees with a lot of the items and information they want in order to feel safe such as indoor air quality information, in-app elevator call buttons and the capability to turn their smartphone into a digital keycard. These capabilities, or any other that work over the Internet are only as good as the building’s wireless network however. For employees to feel 100% comfortable returning to their offices, it will be up to CRE owners to ensure that their in-building network is functioning properly so that the amenities employees now consider “must have” serve them to the best of their ability.
“The implementation of such technology not only reduces the risk of the spread of germs, but enhances the tenant experience, allowing them to be more productive when they’re working in the building,” the report said. “The potential to provide a frictionless experience that enables productivity, thus increasing business value, could be a deciding factor for employees considering whether to return to the office in the near future.”
Get a copy of Cohesion’s Voice of the Employee, Part survey report here.
Joe Dyton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.