For years, workplace trends have been shifting away from the traditional 9-to-5 work model and toward more flexible styles. Up until early 2020, telecommuting and remote work were considered perks in many companies, an emerging trend for some, or a rare work option for others. COVID-19 changed things forever, with lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders driving many traditionally office-based employees to work from their homes indefinitely.

This has set a precedent for how workplaces will operate for years to come. Looking ahead, companies are contending with how to embrace variable work setups and what the best use of their workplaces should be to position them for long-term success.

Preparing for hybrid work setups and agile workspaces

Employers of all sizes are contending with if and when they can bring their workforce back to the office and how they can do it successfully. In early February, Spotify announced it will offer employees the option to work from home or anywhere – permanently. Other organizations are planning for returns to the workplace in phases. Microsoft, for example, is in the midst of a six-stage strategy for a return to its headquarters. Meanwhile, organizations such as Citadel and JPMorgan Chase have started to reopen offices to essential and non-essential employees.

The range is wide as far as plans for returning to the workplace go. The reality is that most companies will not be 100% virtual or 100% in-office as long-term work strategies take shape. Instead, the focus likely will be hybrid, agile structures that allow for both in-office work and remote setups. To do so, businesses must reevaluate their current workplaces, determine how it functions in support of employee productivity, and whether a change in lease agreements, designs, and other considerations is warranted for the space moving forward.

Meeting employees’ new expectations

Employers need to focus on optimizing spaces to meet employee needs and keep productivity and engagement high. These are expectations that are far different from those your staff may have had more than a year ago.

Employees working from home since early 2020 continue to contend with the dichotomy of remote work: the flexibility and freedom it can bring and the challenges and isolation that often comes with it. When welcoming them back to work, you should prepare for specific expectations your employees will bring with them:

  • A workspace that allows them to collaborate and rebuild relationships with coworkers.
  • A quiet, distraction-free space where they can concentrate on work that requires considerable focus.
  • An environment that mitigates their risk of illness and upholds all health and safety precautions.
  • A space built with hybrid work setups in mind, where employees can seamlessly go between the office and home without productivity downtime.

The spaces we’ve become accustomed to before the pandemic are not the same ones that will drive optimal output going forward. Businesses that offer employees the flexibility to move freely between spaces for both collaboration and individual work are poised to have an engaged and productive workforce.

Creating workplaces that withstand change

Companies may find that they have unused space or the ways they used space before the pandemic can no longer be used in the same manner. With careful planning, your future workplace will be defined by how agile it can be in response to employee needs and expectations, as well as future crises and business disruptions.

Even though you can’t predict when problems arise, they are inevitable, and you should have plans to address them. COVID-19 is just one example; business disruptions can come in many forms — natural disasters, a sudden mass exodus on the Sales team, or losing a major investor. When an unforeseen circumstance happens down the road, will the work environment you’ve created be able to withstand volatility?

Defining the workplace’s role moving forward will help companies make smarter decisions about their spaces and how to manage them. Reevaluating purpose and making changes are also great ways to make workplaces more conducive to flexibility and efficiency than they had been before. But agile workplaces aren’t for everyone. Some employees find the lack of privacy and noise associated with collaboration spaces to be distracting. Flexible workspaces may be used more for collaboration, while heads-down work is done remotely.

For some companies, decisions will be relatively small-scale, such as whether to repurpose a few unused desks and meeting rooms. For others, it might mean more complex choices, such as revisiting leases to determine whether they are an expense that still makes sense for the size of the business.

There are four strategies to consider when evaluating space use:

Repurposing

Assume that employees’ work habits have changed to some extent since they were last in the office. This is a great time to rework office space in a way that’s safe and supports productivity. Companies that have extra room can find opportunities to square footage through desk-sharing concepts:

  • Redistribute desks and seats to meet safety protocols
  • Alter workspaces into areas or pods where people can create their best work
  • Turn an open-concept office into a diverse hoteling area
  • Transform individual offices into pods for small group collaboration
  • Rethink conference rooms as reservable “conversation rooms”

Remember that any workspace repurposing needs to align with health and safety protocols and should be executed with employees’ space preferences in mind.

Subleasing

Subleasing in commercial real estate is currently booming as a result of the pandemic. In July 2020, subleasing was up approximately 12%, according to a CBRE report. Since then, and in some larger U.S. cities, in particular, subleasing has soared. The prospect of shorter lease terms (standard is typically six-to-nine months versus typical multi-year lease contracts) is attractive to those still contending with the continuing uncertainty stemming from COVID-19.

Subleasing office space also offers an opportunity to help smaller companies to appeal to employees who are returning to work. Great workspaces often come with hefty price tags that are far out of the reach of many businesses. But the cost efficiencies of subleasing can put attractive office spaces within their reach. Most importantly, a space with cutting-edge technology or an office in a great part of town provides a “wow factor” for employees and makes coming to work something they look forward to.

Buying

While many companies lease space, now may be a time when they’re in a position to consider purchasing commercial real estate. Property ownership offers the benefit of an asset on the balance sheet and accompanying tax advantages. But consider location, industry, and other factors before signing a long-term mortgage. A decision this large-scale requires real estate managers to take a close look at company data. It needs to make sense not only for the current needs of the business but must reflect long-term planning and budgeting.

Although there are signs of recovery, the pandemic stifled industries such as hospitality and retail with widespread hotel, restaurant, and retail store closures. It’s also spurred demand for industrial space to support areas such as distribution and storage. Keeping in mind that there are opportunities and drawbacks across sectors and industries, the demand for space that’s conducive to social distancing and worker safety is here to stay.

Downsizing or selling

For the few companies planning to have a 100% remote workforce or that have significantly downsized, a physical workspace may no longer be essential to daily operations. Removing the overhead costs associated with office space, especially if you don’t foresee using it even after the pandemic is over, could be a smart financial decision.

Leveraging technology during the decision-making process

Before making any decisions about real estate, companies should consider their budgets, growth models, business forecasts (think 5-10 years out), and other long-term decisions and scenarios. Technology is crucial for managing every aspect of a back-to-work plan and provides insights for decision-makers when evaluating next steps for the workspace.

Space planning platforms such as those offered by SpaceIQ take all factors into account and allow HR, Facilities, IT, and company leaders to visualize the current space (both occupied and unoccupied) at a high level, decide which option is best for the business both now and in the future, and manage every aspect of a back-to-work plan once decisions have been made.

Planning for resilience

If workspace planning wasn’t part of your strategy planning before, it needs to be now. To stay competitive, the workplace must be a purposeful, engaging environment where employees want to work, collaborate, and be productive. Tap into data insights to help you uncover opportunities, take the appropriate next steps, and build resilience for the long term.

Keep reading: Planning Your Workplace with Office Space Software