In the raging debate between “Back to the office!” and “Work from anywhere!” it appears that a growing number of white-collar workers would rather ask, “Why not both?”
A survey released Tuesday by global real estate firm JLL found that a strong majority of office workers in 10 countries around the world would like a post-pandemic future that allows them to easily mix in-person and remote work, with many preferring a schedule of roughly three days a week in the office, and the rest of the week somewhere else.
It’s the sort of data that have major implications for once-bustling downtowns such as Boston’s, as companies assess how to return to the office after 15 months working largely from remote locations during the pandemic. It also has implications for the companies themselves, as they compete for talent amid a wave of pent-up job-hopping and people rethinking how they work and live.
One point the study makes clear, said Julia Georgules, research director in JLL’s Boston office, is that people are thinking differently about what they want in a workplace than they were before COVID-19. After years of piling amenities like gyms and coffee bars into busy, buzzing offices, companies now might consider providing workers with a little more space to stretch out, or the ability to stay home sometimes.
“One thing we’re seeing is that people are much more comfortable vocalizing what would really be a benefit to them, and they have different priorities in mind,” Georgules said. “People want more flexibility, and better work-life balance. That’s the biggest takeaway.”
Another takeaway is that opinions have shifted, even over the course of the pandemic. JLL conducted its survey in March, and ran similar ones last October, and last April.
Compared with last fall, they found more people this spring are eager to get back in to the office at least some of the time, and a general sense that remote workers now feel like they’re less productive, and more burned out, than they did a year ago, when working from home felt new. The isolation, and lack of normal social interaction in the workplace, has taken a toll on many employees, JLL said.
“The psychological wave of the pandemic is here,” the report says. “One in two employees today is struggling to achieve boundaries and manage the mental load.”
And, JLL notes, those loads can vary widely depending on individual circumstances, with early-career workers feeling greater pressure to perform, single people increasingly isolated from their jobs, and parents with younger children often desperate for a break.
“Everybody’s had a wildly different experience during the pandemic and you see some of these results in the research,” Georgules said. “It really depends on your family situation, your housing situation, your role at work.”
These days, with vaccination rates high and Boston’s economy quickly reopening, many businesses are trying to figure out how to design their post-pandemic workplaces to best balance all those different needs. Georgules said about half the companies that work with the Boston office of JLL — which is one of the city’s largest office brokers — are still crafting reentry plans, with September as a popular target date.
As that time approaches, and the worst of the pandemic recedes into the rear-view mirror, a conversation that last year often hinged on questions of going back versus staying home is evolving into a reality that will probably be far more nuanced and fluid, Georgules said.
“We were in crisis management mode, applying long-term thinking to a short-term situation,” she said. “Now we’re starting to emerge from that.”