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Who Wants to Return to the Office?

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Photo of young woman returning to the office
Source: Shopping King Louie - stock.adobe.com
Whether asking that question straight up or with a touch of sarcasm, it might be the biggest challenge facing enterprises once the pandemic gets more under control. At some point, businesses need to make fundamental decisions about what form their organization should take, and whether work-from-home (WFH) is here to stay or was just a stopgap for a once-in-a-century aberration.
 
Operational and cultural issues aside, communications technology plays a central role here, and at this point, I would contend that most workers have already made up their minds about where they want to end up based on their current experiences with those technologies. New workstyles are taking root now, and while some can’t wait to get back to an office environment, others are perfectly happy working from home, thank you.
 
To some extent then, the die has already been cast, and IT decision-makers should be thinking now about what scenarios they want to see play out. In that light, they need to understand what those WFH experiences have been like, and going forward, what path they want employees to follow. On one hand, if they really want workers back in the office, they’d better take best practices from the WFH experience, and make sure they can match or even surpass them in the office.
 
Conversely, if WFH is going to stay in place for many workers, IT had better think about what the home environment is going to require for long-term viability, and that includes providing some of the workplace amenities that aren’t common at home.
 
These are complex decisions, not just because home and office environments are so different with distinct challenges, but also because we’re all in uncharted waters. IT doesn’t know what’s going to work, and neither do workers, so even a little knowledge can go a long way. I’ve got some of that knowledge to share here, and it’s from a source that I don’t think many in our space follow.
 
The Leesman Home Working Experience Survey
I’ve written before about Leesman’s research, which focuses on workplace experience, and is driven by extensive analysis on a global scale. Most of the data ties to the Leesman Index, and while that’s too granular for our space, the firm’s Home Working Experience Survey of 10,000 WFH respondents globally to date, is relevant. Leesman compiled data collected during April and May for a look at early results, but the field is still open with another 32,000 surveys due for analysis. With Leesman’s permission, here are some highlights of the first wave of results.
Chart showing survey data on impact of working from home

Figure 1 – Impact of WFH

Source: Leesman's Home Working Experience Survey
 
The report contains many dense charts, and I’m only citing a few to provide a high-level sense of what the research covers. Figure 1, shown above, summarizes how people feel about working at home across 10 attributes. The metrics are derived from a seven-point rating scale for strength of agreement, with the attributes rank-ordered from highest to lowest.
 
In short, the data shows that most workers have the tools they need to be productive — the applications, information, devices, physical environment, etc. This includes access to software and applications needed for WFH; this data should be of particular interest to No Jitter readers since this category would no doubt include communications tools and collaboration platforms like UC and team messaging — although Leesman didn’t explicitly use those terms. This attribute tallied an agreement score of 89.3%, well ahead of the pack, and should reflect well on IT for supporting WFH.
 
Conversely, the lower-rated attributes around feeling connected reflect the realities of working in isolation and away from the office environment. This divergence from the top-rated attributes isn’t surprising, and validates concerns workers have with WFH. Technology can only do so much to allay these feelings, and IT is going to need a broader playbook if organizations are going to extend WFH post-COVID.
 
Chart showing importance of and satisfaction with work-from-home productivity tools

Figure 2 – Evaluating WFH Productivity Tools

Source: Leesman's Home Working Experience Survey
 
Leesman has packed a lot packed into Figure 2, shown above, as it summarizes both the importance of 11 tools and capabilities needed to be productive, along with how satisfied home workers are with each.
 
Two things really stand out here. First is what home-based workers find most important. Not surprisingly, the basics top the list — desk and chair — but right behind are WiFi connectivity and mobile devices. In sharp contrast, the bedrock pieces for digital immigrants — desk phone (“telephone equipment,” again, not clearly defined, but this is a reasonable assumption), PC, and wired connectivity — sink right to the bottom in terms of importance. This should send a clear signal to IT in terms of where to allocate resources for home-based workers.
 
The second layer to consider is how to prioritize needs based on satisfaction. Nothing is more important than desks and chairs, but these attributes were among the lowest in satisfaction, so clearly, upgrades here would go a long way. The wireless attributes rated notably higher in satisfaction, and that’s likely because they are so central to our personal lives and we’d be getting those pieces right regardless of WFH. In that regard, enterprises are getting a bit of a free ride, and aside from desks and chairs, they should pay some attention to other pieces like headsets and PCs.
 
Leesman data showing what's better about working from home

Figure 3 – What’s Better About Working from Home

Source: Leesman's Home Working Experience Survey
 
Image of Leesman data showing what's better about working at an office

Figure 4 – What’s Better About Working at the Office

Source: Leesman's Home Working Experience Survey
 
 
Figures 3 and 4 provide a great summary for the trade-offs that come with working from home and in the office. These figures distill data from more detailed parts of the report, and they tell the broader story well. As one might expect, there’s more privacy at home since there are no co-workers in the next cubicle to overhear you, but it’s interesting to see how much better videoconferences are to do at home. That might be because it’s easier to control intrusions at home, but it might also be a pushback on IT for not providing adequate support for video in the office. I don’t think the research went far enough on this attribute, since it doesn’t distinguish between desktop video, and sessions done in meeting or huddle rooms, so best to move on.
 
In Figure 4, it’s clear to see how the office carries the day when it comes to the social and human side of working. Day-to-day, home-based workers have the tools to be productive, but it’s too early to know if those levels will hold up over time. Not all jobs can be done in isolation, and not all workers are cut out for working this way. To varying degrees, we all want and need social interaction, and virtual only goes so far. Aside from not being able to meet co-workers or clients in person, there’s a real hidden cost in not being part of the culture, as well as the learning and mentoring from others that’s so important for professional development.
 
Overall Considerations
I’m just hitting the high notes here, but even this should provide food for thought for IT, whether managing WFH in the moment or planning longer term. WFH has been imposed on businesses, and along the way, workers are learning new ways of communicating as well as collaborating. If and when they come back, those new ways will come with them, and IT needs to understand them.
 
Based on that, they’ll need to provide the appropriate tools and capabilities. For example, one of the reasons why privacy is better at home is that it’s quieter (notwithstanding barking dogs and screaming kids). Open offices aren’t conducive to private conversations, and that’s going to be a problem for workers returning to the office. One approach would be to provide returning workers with decent headsets to block out noise, and another would be upgrading the office design in terms of acoustics to dampen extraneous noise.
 
Another consideration for IT is that the WFH experience will determine their willingness to go back to the office. Leesman’s research provides several examples where the home office is a better experience, and for many, this will also improve their work/life balance. As noted earlier, communications technology plays a major role here, but so do other factors, and IT will need a holistic approach that may go beyond their comfort zone to bring them back if that’s what the organization expects.
 
In some ways, movie theaters face a similar challenge, and unless they get creative, they’re fighting a losing battle. Our love for seeing movies hasn’t changed, but with the home theater experience being so good now, it’s getting harder for theater operators to lure them back. Maybe IT should covert a boardroom into a theater and serve popcorn after hours on Wednesdays, or just have pop-up screenings, like, whenever. That’s a big step up from having a foosball table, but the stakes are much higher, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.
 
As a parting thought, it’s fair to say that many companies will want to keep WFH going. In some cases, it’s working out better than expected for both parties, and if there’s a mutual desire to continue, then stay the course. The enterprise may also view this simply as a business decision to leverage the cloud to support a distributed organization and reduce occupancy costs.
 
In that case, whatever investments a company had planned to upgrade or modernize the office — furnishings, lighting, devices, cabling, network, etc. —could be directed to supporting better home office environments. The Leesman research provides plenty of direction on how that money could be spent, and by taking a proactive approach here, IT would be positioned to play a leading role to bring the organization out of the pandemic.