Think Humans First: Is Your Post-Pandemic Office Worth the Commute?

In the journey to a hybrid workforce, could a more human-centric office overcome the resistance to showing up in person? 

As leader of Ketchum’s Employee Engagement client specialty, I read voraciously every morning to stay on top of workplace trends and ensure we’re always looking around corners for our clients.

But it was at a six-year-old’s birthday party at a bowling alley – in a conversation with a good friend and fellow mom – when I heard a simple question that stopped me in my tracks: “Is your office commute-worthy?”

a woman sitting in her car in traffic, looking very frustratedHere we are in mid-2022 (how did that happen?), at a time when many companies across America are struggling to implement their mandated hybrid and full-time return-to-office policies.

In a Ketchum study conducted a year into the pandemic, 77% of employed Americans said the ability to work remotely became more important and 60% of remote workers felt they are more effective working from home. Two-thirds (66%) of people working from home said they’d like to keep doing so after it’s safe to go back to the workplace.

The resistance to returning to the office even two to three days per week – much less full-time – is likely due to a number of reasons: a proven ability to be more productive from home; inertia after working from home for the last 28 months; and an unwillingness to return to (the old) “normal” in an 8am-5pm slog bracketed by long commute times, among other compelling motivations.

So, is YOUR office commute-worthy? And what does that even mean? For answers, I turned to my friend who first posed this question, Jayme Schutt. Jayme also happens to be JLL’s SVP of Workplace Strategy, has an award-winning background in corporate interior design, and works alongside the JLL Brokerage Team to help clients envision how workspaces can be transformed to meet their distinctive needs for the future.

Below is part one of my interview with her:

LB: Hybrid work is expected to become the standard operating model across industries for corporate employees by 2024. A March 2022 survey of corporate executives revealed that 81 percent of respondents believe hybrid work will be the primary employment model of the future. As several high-profile CEOs have pointed out, we must be more purposeful about the time employees are in the office.

So how do companies create a “pull versus push” approach and inspire employees to WANT to return to the office?

JS: The office of the future needs to be human-centric, enabling people to do their best work without their “life” needing to be checked at the door. COVID-19, for all the negativity that came with it, allowed us to rethink the way we work for the better. Isn’t it interesting that a global pandemic and years of isolated work have given us permission to voice what we really need as humans, rather than as employees?

The most notable shift towards a human-centric office is flexibility. And there is no single flexible solution. For some, it may mean a shift in hours or days present in the office; for others, it may mean autonomy within the workspaces. But a common thread across all successful, flexible approaches is alignment with corporate mission, values, and culture. From there, we are able to tailor a plan that not only suits an organization but one that can actually propel them into a better future state for all.

LB: How does this differ from the previous model?

JS: We all remember, probably too well, the days where being in the office was synonymous with productivity. If we weren’t in our chair, we weren’t working and that was that. Work began at a certain time and ended no earlier than a certain time. It was imperative we were seen by our colleagues and leadership so they would know “we are committed” and are “getting the job done.” Today, we know productivity isn’t based on where you are but on what you do.

LB: What does the office of the future look like, in the physical sense?

JS: This is a big question and there is no single answer. Yes, for most the space will still have workstations and offices, conference and huddle rooms, and places to eat and gather. However, what is changing is how these spaces are configured to enable – and encourage – hybrid or flexible work.

This does not always equate to a smaller footprint – in some cases, it can be just the opposite. If we believe the reason for the office has shifted, that humans are at the center of the organization and the reason we are coming back is for this human interaction, then we must build spaces to promote this shift in thinking. For some, this means fewer assigned stations giving way to more collaborative space; for others, assigned seating may be here to stay, but the layout focuses on a neighborhood of integrated spaces.

LB: Through our work, we’re seeing a real evolution in the concept of workplace and how employees experience the company, no matter where they are. What do your clients want most for their post-pandemic office spaces?

JS: Connection. Engagement. Productivity. And assuredness that the moves they make will retain and attract talent. The list goes on and on… and that’s okay! These are uncharted waters – and ideal solutions cannot be set overnight. We cannot make people want to do anything. It is a choice. To be successful, we should not attempt to push employees back into the office. We must pull them with policies and strategies that make sense and spaces and experience that make it worth the commute.

As our Ketchum Employee Communications & Engagement team is seeing in numerous client projects, a company’s communications function plays a big role in creating purpose and intention for the days employees are working in the office.

This can be achieved through:

  • Collaborative meetings and enterprise-wide employee events for designated moments-in-time such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, PRIDE and many other inclusive culture initiatives
  • Leadership communications “IRL” (in real life) such as town halls, small group lunches with leaders, informal leader walkabouts
  • Holistic wellbeing activities (outside guest speakers, book clubs, exercise groups, walking meetings)

In part two of this interview, Jayme and I will discuss innovative approaches her clients are taking in their office redesigns and how employees are reacting. Check back here soon for that recap. In the meantime, if you’d like to have a conversation about effective employee engagement strategies for the hybrid workplace or other business priorities, please get in touch.

Lauren Butler is managing director of Employee Communications & Engagement. Lauren believes that employees are the most important stakeholders, and the most successful companies are those whose team members are the heart and soul of their brand. She helps a wide array of clients build corporate culture, understand employee mindsets, create passionate ambassadors and identify the right channels, content, programs and messaging to engage and transform the workforce.