How the global workplace fell out of synch with work itself

Workplace design has to realign swiftly if it wants to keep pace with changing patterns of work according to a global survey by design firm Gensler which studied employees in nine countries

Work today feels different. Emerging from the pandemic, office workers across the world are exercising their choice to work fluidly between different workspaces inside and outside the office in search of environments and experiences that support specific types of work they are conducting.

Meanwhile, organisations are navigating new employee expectations alongside ‘stagflation’—a condition of simultaneous high inflation and low growth caused by emerging geopolitical tensions, uneven pandemic recovery, and bottlenecks in global supply chains.

In the middle of this disruption sits the workplace. Over the past two decades the workplace has mostly kept pace with shifts in how employees work—consistently moving on a trajectory towards more diverse, dynamic and open spaces. But new research from global design firm Gensler reveals that work and the workplace have fallen out of sync. For the workplace to become a work destination of choice, it needs to be realigned.

Gensler’s latest Global Workplace Survey Comparison report highlights insights from 14,000 office workers across 10 industries in nine countries (US, Mexico, Canada, UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore and the Philippines). Despite nuances in culture and post-pandemic policy, the findings reveal remarkable similarities across the world between the way employees are working and how the workplace is responding to change.

How we work has shifted

One of the core similarities in this global study is how employees are working. Gensler measures how people work in five work modes: working alone, working with others in-person, working with others virtually, learning, and socialising. In all nine countries, employees spend an average of 45 per cent of their time working with others either virtually or in-person.

When compared to previous longitudinal studies by Gensler in the US and UK, this is a marked shift from how we worked pre-pandemic. Now, the time spent learning and socialising has almost doubled in the UK and US, and the time spent working alone has steadily fallen over the years from roughly 50 per cent to 35 per cent of a typical week.

Priorities for coming into the office are also mostly consistent across the world. Employees in six of the nine countries surveyed report that the most important reason to come into the office is to focus on their work. UK and Germany-based employees cite sitting with their team as their main reason, whilst Mexico-based workers prioritise coming in for scheduled, in-person meetings with their team and colleagues.

The office ‘sweet spot’

There is a gap between the amount of time employees are currently coming into the office and how much they say they need to come into the office to maximise their productivity. This gap is greatest for workers in the UK, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. On average, employees are working in the office about half (49 per cent) of a typical week, the rest of the time is spent working at home or in other locations such as coworking spaces, client sites, travelling, or alternative company offices.

Yet, when asked how much time is needed in the office to maximise productivity, workers report between 58 per cent and 68 per cent. This is deemed the ‘sweet spot’ of time needed in the office for productivity.

‘If employees say they need to be in the office more often for productivity, then why are office utilisation rates still trailing?’

Why then, if employees say they need to be in the office more often for productivity, are office utilisation rates still trailing behind pre-pandemic levels? While there is no single answer to this, the research reveals that the workplace is currently underperforming for critical work activities; reducing its attractiveness as a place to get work done.

The report highlights that spaces in the workplace for working alone and with others virtually are ineffective, despite being ranked by workers as critical to performing their job. If the workplace is not supporting employees to focus on their work, they will be less inclined to choose it as an ideal place to work.

Offering the right choices

Employees have more choice than ever. Almost three-quarters report that they have choice in where they work within the office. But chances are they are not being offered the right choices. Choice requires diverse and accessible spaces that allow employees to carry out their tasks effectively; ideally, they should also offer a great experience.

Gensler reveals 12 workspaces that have the greatest impact of effectiveness and workplace experience. Spaces for creative group work such as innovation hubs and maker spaces rise to the top, as well as spaces for individual work such as tech-free zones and focus rooms. Other spaces to connect and recharge, and to reflect and restore have a significant impact. Successful workplaces will include spaces from each of these categories.

Designing for change

The physical workplace is transitioning from a phase of experimentation to one of data-based decision making and mass adoption. Gensler’s global workplace comparison survey reveals that almost two-thirds of employees are still working in the same workplaces they left before the pandemic.

New ways of working, increased expectations, and the prevalence of alternative work locations are challenging workplace design to offer more. The stakes have been raised globally to create workplaces that optimise both performance and employee experience. It’s time for the workplace to meet the moment. Read the full Gensler Workplace Survey Comparison report here.

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