My Take: Is the Workplace Dead?

May 5th, 2021

Lately I’ve seen a lot of articles proclaiming that something or other is “dead.” Take, for example, the famous dust-up between Jerry Seinfeld and investor James Altucher, who wrote that New York City was “dead” because of the pandemic. Like Jerry, I live here and can tell you that’s clearly not the case in New York and, I believe, most other cities around the country. Restaurants will come back, entertainment will come back, the hustle and bustle (both good and bad) that defines city life will come back. We can see light at the end of the COVID tunnel now, and as the vaccine becomes available to the general public, we’ll all emerge from our bubbles and start living in the world again.

One thing that might really be dead, though, is working in an office five days a week. I’ve seen article after article postulating about which COVID-inspired changes will be permanent, and I believe working at home, at least part of the time, will top that list. People like it. And companies, even traditional ones that clung to the notion that people can only be productive in a cubicle, have been forced to give remote working a try, and found it worked just fine. In many cases, it worked better.

Add to that the benefits of a smaller office space footprint, including fewer monthly costs for rent, utilities, insurance, and a whole host of other financial plusses, and you’ve got a win-win for companies and their employees.

A recent survey by KPMG found that 68% of large company CEOs are planning to downsize their office space. The survey targeted companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue and showed that, even after the vaccine is widely distributed, remote work is here to stay.

We’ve seen that trend in our business, too: 73% of our participants who land jobs are reporting that their new role is expected to be partly or fully remote, even after the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

So, what does it all mean for HR? It means that on top of everything else they’re dealing with — maintaining company culture when everyone is working at home, tending to employee needs and stresses, giving seminars on Zoom fatigue and how to stay productive when your kids are home and driving you crazy — it’s time to start weighing in about return-to-work and office footprint decisions.

One company I know of recently sent a survey to its employees about their thoughts on returning to the office. Do they want to return? If so, how often? Do they want a dedicated workspace or are they OK sharing “hot desks”?

It’ll be up to the C-suite to decide how to handle returning to work, but even if HR doesn’t have that corner office, it will be HR’s task to help put those policies into place with employees’ perspectives and preferences in mind.

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