With the work force returning to office spaces in every sector, employers are facing a new reality that includes an increase in hybrid and remote work.
In January, Statistics Canada reported that almost one-quarter (24.3 per cent) of employees work almost exclusively at home, and more than 40 per cent (43 per cent) worked most of their hours from home.
With a large portion of the work force making the transition to flex work, remote work, working from home or a hybrid mix, employers are left with available real estate in the office.
Before the pandemic, a simple square footage per employee ratio worked when businesses were looking at how much office space they required.
Technology started to change all these considerations well before the pandemic with startups, government organizations and the financial industry already moving towards flex work options for staff, says Sheila Botting, president of professional services for Avison Young, a commercial real estate firm based in Toronto.
We are now seeing the rise of the super experience. Employers are looking to make the office and the workplace more engaging for people. It needs to be a compelling destination.— Adrian Berry, principal at Stantec
“Before the pandemic, there was already movement afoot, and hot desks were coming,” Ms. Botting says.
Previously, the average space per employee for an office building worker was 200 square feet per employee. As organizations lean into a hot desk environment – an office space system that operates on a first-come, first-served sign-up basis, where nobody has an assigned desk – that figure is being cut in half as employers move to 100 square feet to 120 square feet per employee.
For Adrian Berry, a principal at Stantec with 25 years of experience in the commercial interior design industry, things became more complicated when considering office space even before the pandemic, and a square-footage ratio no longer applies in many industries.
“Even in industries that are more conservative in their office design, like law firms, there has been a shift,” Mr. Berry says.
Research from 2013 showed that organizations can save on overhead by keeping the “desk-share ratio” – the ratio of desk space to the number of employees – between 50 per cent to 70 per cent.
Instead of desks, most industries are putting more focus on meeting and collaboration space, Mr. Berry says.
Looking at space with a green eye
The labour market is struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, with unemployment still returning to prepandemic levels and vacancy rates in the job market at all-time highs.
Employers are going beyond benefits and pay raises to make coming back to work more attractive.
Adjusting the office to the new working world requires some creative thinking that considers space needs, office culture and a company’s environmental, social and governance commitments.
For example, ensuring the office is connected to public transportation, accessible by bicycle, surrounded by green space, natural light and state-of-the-art air ventilation systems can make an employer alluring.
There is a marked discrepancy between what senior team members expect and what newer employees expect, Mr. Berry says.
“We are now seeing the rise of the super experience,” he explains. “Employers are looking to make the office and the workplace more engaging for people. It needs to be a compelling destination.”
From a design perspective, for example, when access to green space showed that hospital residents recover faster, people began looking at incorporating this into their facility designs, Mr. Berry says.
When it comes to getting creative with office space, “the impetus is on every industry in the war for talent,” Ms. Botting says.
Top employers looking to attract top talent are considering the environment in a new way for the office worker, she explains.
“We know that 40 per cent of CO2 emissions come from buildings alone,” she notes. “Companies are picking a building that focuses on LEED certification [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] and how the building collects grey water.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic placed more importance on the air quality inside our buildings to reduce exposure, people are looking at improving their HVAC systems.
“[But] for some people, wellness means I can work from home,” Ms. Botting says.
When looking to attract tenants, focusing more attention on the well-being of the employee should be top of mind for employers, and for landlords of commercial space.
A new working reality
Considering the way the pandemic refocused our collective attention on spending time with family, making a transition back to the old way of working from the office seems unfair to Amanda Munday, chief executive officer at the Workaround – a space that offers flexible child care and co-working space for remote-working professionals.
“We saw a huge increase in demand for our services after the pandemic,” says the former tech professional. “What made our space different was that we offer childcare.”
The cost of child care continues to be high, and government promises of affordability still seem far away, Ms. Munday says. The Workaround does not require a licence to offer daycare because parents are on-site. This reduces costs for parents and offers flexible child-care arrangements that are very rare.
Ms. Munday has seen families get creative with how they work remotely, stacking all their calls into one day so they can come to the co-working space for one day of child care and work from home the rest of the time. In some cases, the Workaround is billing employers directly for child care because organizations want to go the extra mile for top talent.
“The separation between professional and personal life got obliterated during [the COVID-19 pandemic],” Ms. Munday says, adding that every sector learned how integral caring for children and others is to our overall well-being.
Employers made space and time for caregivers of children who were home from school or unable to attend daycare through the longest lockdowns over the pandemic.
Now with many employers mandating people to come back to the office, but unwilling to reckon with a resistance to return, there needs to be more amenities at a minimum, Ms. Munday says.
“The cost of living is high. The cost of child care is so high. Parents today need answers today,” Ms. Munday says. “Grinning and bearing it and paying $2,000 a month is not an option.”