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The Future of Offices is Grim

Two dudes working in an office with a ghost

In many parts of the country, a sense of normalcy is returning. Mask mandates have been relaxed in most places, concerts and other entertainment venues are again well attended, and many no longer fear COVID to the same degree given the success of vaccinations and advancing herd immunity. But that doesn’t mean everything will return to the way it was before the pandemic. Remote retail purchases continue to be the norm as does delivery services. And as previously reported, the vast majority of workers prefer remote work or hybrid working arrangements over full-time attendance. It’s this trend in particular that raises questions about the future of offices and the traditional work week.

(Have you read Bold’s survey and analysis over the remote work debate? Check it out here!)

The traditional five-day work week has been a permanent fixture in society for many decades. The 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday work schedule is something most of us have assumed would be permanent. But currently, in-office attendance is only a third of what it was before the pandemic. These shortcomings are not a reflection of COVID concerns or restrictions but instead worker preferences. More than 90 percent of workers today prefer remote or hybrid working arrangements. And given the fact many industries are facing worker shortages, their preferences matter. This is why many experts believe the future of offices will no longer involve a five-day work week.

“Mondays and Tuesday are the fastest-growing days of the week for travel. More people are treating ordinary weekends like long holiday weekends.” – Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb

Signs of Change for the Future of Offices

For many knowledge workers today, there has already been a shift away from the traditional work week. As a result of hybrid working arrangements, many now only show up in the office on Tuesdays through Thursdays. Mondays and Fridays account for the most common days where employees work from home. This shift has resulted in some interesting trends. As noted by Brian Chesky of Airbnb, travel on these flex-days has increased substantially. Rather than having to wait until 5pm on a Friday to leave town, workers are traveling while they work. Once given a taste of this flexibility, it will be difficult to convince many to go back.

Current projections suggest that workers will spend about a quarter of their time at home each work week over the next decade. This is a significant increase over pre-pandemic levels. What this means is that there will be some blurring of the lines when it comes to work time and play time. However, it doesn’t mean that productivity will necessarily decline. In fact. Workers in hybrid working arrangements continue to improve in self-reported productivity. And many find they work some hours on days typically considered the weekend. The bottom line is that work time will no longer be so compartmentalized but instead more fluid.

“Office occupancy has plummeted, but corporate demand for office space is down only about 1 percent. That might sound shocking, but it’s because so many companies planning for hybrid work are expecting most of the office to be in on some days of the week, so they can’t shrink their space.” – Nick Bloom, Economics Professor, Stanford University

The Impact of Flexible Work Weeks on Office Space

The loss of a traditional five-day work week has some important implications for the future of offices. On the one hand, office space will be less utilized when looking at utilization over the week, month or year. But at the same time, workers with hybrid working arrangements will still require companies to hold onto current square footage. This means they will have few options for downsizing unless they choose to go all-in on remote work. Currently, only about 5% of companies are pursuing this approach. Therefore, it suggests many businesses will need to become more creative in how they utilize their space.

A ghost walking into an office
The future of offices is made grim thanks to employees’ desire for remote work and employees accommodating them with hybrid work.

One of the reasons many companies are hesitant to go fully remote involves worker effects. Virtual interactions among employees limits peer cohesion and opportunities for mentoring. Despite the advantages of flexibility that hybrid working arrangements offer, these are some downsides. Given the challenges many industries face in retaining talent, many companies want to preserve that in-office social “glue” among staff. Thus, some will likely experiment to new office designs that offer greater appeal to remote workers. Instead of a typical office setting, the future of offices may look a lot more inviting and entertaining. Using extra space to meet these needs might be the right approach in the coming years.

“Difficulties in forming connections with peers and mentors generates a sense of drift for many new employees, leading them to be more open to moving jobs.” – Lawrence Katz, Professor of Economics, Harvard University

The Ripple Effects of Hybrid Working Arrangements

Most workers today with hybrid working arrangements are white-collar, knowledge workers. Because they can easily utilize technologies to work remotely, they enjoy new flexibilities in their work weeks. But in the wake of the pandemic, many others prefer remote and hybrid work as well. Many healthcare workers, including nurses, now prefer four-day work weeks with extended time off. Other industries are seeing on-site employees requesting greater flexibility in days and hours as well. All of this means significant changes in how work schedules evolve in time.

Understanding this, the future of offices and their work weeks will also change the future of urban landscapes. Many fear that empty spaces will cause revenue declines for major cities. Businesses that rely on on-site workers could slowly disappear as a result. But in most cases, these urban destinations are still highly appealing despite hybrid working arrangements. Property values continue to increase in major urban areas. The difference is that urban activities are expanding beyond the weekend and into the weekdays. Based on this, the disappearance of the traditional work week won’t likely mean an urban demise. It will probably lead to some interesting shifts that make these destinations even more attractive. In short, recent trends suggest the five-day work-week’s time in the sun is fading. What will follow is anyone’s guess.


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