Post-Pandemic, the Office Will Now Have a Whole New Look

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  • Employers embrace shared workstation systems as post-pandemic office life takes shape.
  • If you want to go to work, make a reservation online first.

Before Shira Berg, 30, heads to her workplace, she reserves a desk in advance.  

The director at Autumn Communications helped her New York office implement a shared workstation system. With clients that include Amazon, Instacart and Goldbelly, the PR agency doubled in size during the pandemic. But adhering to Covid guidelines with just 27 desks for 45 employees required some coordination.   

Plus, like so many other offices phasing in a return-to-work plan, not everyone has to come in all the time.

"There's nothing that replaces that in-person collaboration and facetime but that might not need to happen every day," Berg said.

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Soon, more workers will be heading back to the office, but it may not be the same as when they left it.

Reserving a "hot desk" or "hoteling" is suddenly a popular approach. It allows companies to save money with a smaller real estate footprint, while adapting to new, more flexible ways of working. 

Post-pandemic, most employees still want to work from home, at least part of the time, rather than commute five days a week. Some even said that they would consider switching jobs if their company returned to fully on-site work.

To that point, 30% of employees would prefer to work remotely in some capacity and would look for another remote or hybrid job elsewhere if their current employer doesn't give them the option, according to a survey of human resource professionals in June by the Society for Human Resource Management.

For the most part, employers are responding with plans for hybrid arrangements.

In a recent McKinsey survey, 9 out of 10 organizations said they will be combining remote and on-site working, although most also said they haven't hammered out the details.

A separate survey by Mercer, which polled nearly 600 employers in May, found that of the companies with plans in place, 70% will adopt a hybrid model, which will be a combination of in-person and remote working.  

As new work arrangements take shape, shared desks and workstations will be much more common, according to Ruhal Dooley, a human resources knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"As we move toward flexible work schedules and we move toward folks working different times and different days, the primary advantage is that workspaces don't need to be as big to accommodate everyone," Dooley said.

Monitoring who is sitting where and when also helps companies manage new cleaning and sanitation standards, and reduces congestion.

Flexible schedules are particularly well suited for younger workers, Dooley said, who "have not yet shown the same need for routine" and also working women who had to reduce their hours or take a leave from work in order to take on additional duties at home.  

The downside is that workers forfeit the personal touches that may make them feel at ease, such as photos of their family or a preferred office chair.

"Having your own space is comforting," Dooley said.

While it varies by industry, hoteling is already widespread at tech firms in locations such as San Francisco and Seattle, according to Amy Yin, founder of OfficeTogether, an office reservation and scheduling software company based in San Francisco and New York. 

But others will follow suit, Yin said. "We've seen a huge wave of companies inquire about plans for the fall." As restrictions loosened and vaccination rates increased, a lot more firms started figuring out their plans for September, she said.

"We are in a big experimentation phase."

In an April 7 letter to shareholders, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said: "remote work will change how we manage our real estate."

"We will quickly move to a more 'open seating' arrangement, in which digital tools will help manage seating arrangements, as well as needed amenities, such as conference room space," he said. "As a result, for every 100 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average."

(At the same time, the bank's new corporate headquarters, now under construction in New York, will be able to accommodate between 12,000 and 14,000 workers.)

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