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Employers rethinking office space, collaboration and technology in new hybrid workplace

As the pandemic eases, many business leaders are engaged with effectively offering remote working flexibility and are creating and communicating plans to their employees, setting expectations and guidelines moving forward

As firms prepare for the new reality of work, a number of stand-out discrepancies has emerged between employers and employees regarding working from home and returning to work, says research from Plugable.

In its study, carried out from 9-16 April 2021, the company, a leading US brand for USB productivity products, took the views of 2,000 US owners, CEOs and C-suite members who are planning to offer partial or full remote flexibility. It found that, with employees having had a year-long stint of working from home and employers around the country shifting to a remote or hybrid setup, the pressure on business leaders to meet the demands of today’s workforce and market is greater than ever.

According to the survey, as many as nine in 10 employers report feeling pressure from staff to make a long-term shift to a remote or hybrid working environment, and 87% feel pressure externally as other organisations begin offering more flexibility and remote positions. Although remote work has been on the rise for years, the report noted that employers that were clinging to a traditional full-time office environment are now at a crossroads.

With the major economies beginning to normalise and prepare for the future, many business leaders planning to offer remote flexibility have already created and communicated a plan to their employees that sets expectations and guidelines for employees moving forward. This was indicated by 60% in the study while 35% of business leaders are still creating a plan. Almost two-fifths of business leaders surveyed who plan to offer full or partial remote flexibility had an entirely in-office staff or only select employees with remote flexibility before the pandemic.

As remote work shifts from a temporary to long-term reality for many companies, employers were found to be reassessing their employees’ needs for home workspace. Most employers were very confident (62%) that their staff had a workspace well suited for productivity and felt they have provided sufficient technical resources to support their staff while working from home over the past year (55%). The average employer estimated they had invested $400 in each employee’s workstation at home, providing a laptop or PC (82%), monitor (51%), and keyboard and/or mouse (41%).

However, many employees did not feel they were adequately supported by their employer, saying they lacked essential office supplies at home (42%) and reported that their employer did not help them with remote work expenses (46%). Yet, with the outlook of a more permanent remote/hybrid workforce, most employers reported a high likelihood of investing more into their employees’ remote work setup in the year ahead, particularly in security tools and software (74%), computer hardware and equipment (63%) and internet/Wi-Fi hardware (61%).

Plugable said this indicated there may be improvements ahead for those employees who have felt unsatisfied with their employer’s support on this front to date

For companies intending to shift to a hybrid workplace, where employees flex between in-office and remote working, employers indicated that they were facing a number of challenging decisions on how to move forward. One key area of focus for business leaders overseeing hybrid workplaces is how they will approach scheduling and frequency of in-office presence.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those managing a hybrid workforce felt strongly that staff should be required to be in-office a minimum number of days per week or month, 46% reported that two to three days per week was the optimal requirement for maintaining a healthy level of communication and collaboration, whereas only 30% said once a week and just 24% said one to three times per month.

Many firms were also of the opinion that staff should follow a consistent schedule for days when they are in the office versus remote (51%), and many respondents felt it was unlikely that staff would come in if there was not a clear required minimum and/or consistent schedule (41%).

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Plans for existing office space are another key consideration for business leaders. Many are currently reconsidering how their offices are laid out and/or whether their existing space works for them. A quarter were planning to reduce their office space by moving to a smaller location or leasing less square footage to accommodate fewer employees in the office at one time. Another significant change to the workplace was in implementing a “remote-first” mentality when it came to communication and collaboration.

Almost three-fifths of hybrid leaders said they plan to change up meeting room layouts to make it easier for remote staff to participate in discussions, and 55% planned to add video-conference rooms that facilitate productive collaboration between remote and in-office team members.

Another trend the survey said was likely to become a more common practice in workplaces across the country was hot-desking. Half of business leaders said they will increase the number of shared hot desks and/or open seating areas for employees, and 42% plan to have all, or nearly all, shared hot desks to accommodate the flow of employees in and out of the office each week.

The biggest concerns for employers shifting to a hot-desking office environment related to the technicalities of setting it up (49%) and coordinating schedules for employees (51%), which can be challenging if not thoroughly planned out

While employers are adapting to the new reality of a remote/hybrid workforce, many are still concerned about how well their staff will perform while working in a remote capacity. Employers were most concerned about the performance of staff who recently started their careers (61%), were recently hired (48%) and staff working alongside young children at home (46%). In contrast, they were less likely to express concern for staff in managerial positions (18%) and/or who are well-tenured (30%).

Business leaders also expressed some scepticism about the productivity of remote workers, suspecting that employees were spending time on non-work-related activities throughout the day. Employers also expressed concern about their employees’ presentation of themselves while in a remote setting, finding it highly concerning when interacting with an employee in unprofessional attire (54%), appearing visibly distracted by their surroundings (50%) and, in some cases, appearing as if they had just woken up (46%).

Plugable stressed that as employers and employees continue to adapt to a long-term remote working environment, communication, support and trust will be essential to maintain a positive working relationship with staff, where they feel their work and productivity is aided, acknowledged and appreciated by their employer.

Employers will also need to be transparent about their expectations for employees when in a remote setting, reflecting on the pain points they have encountered over the past year of remote working and setting a precedent for the future.

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