Over the past 18 months, a lot has been said about remote work and the future of the office—and with good reason. The ability to work remotely has the potential to reshape how we live and work in ways we haven’t seen since the car was invented. But, amid all the discussion of how to best use remote work, how should we be thinking about the office? Is it a problematic requirement? Or is the office actually an employee benefit?
For generations (all of them, really), work had to be done at a specific location. Telecommunications removed that necessity for many, but working from an office remained the norm. That expectation meant remote work was treated as a flexibility benefit that could be negotiated between employees and their employers.
However, during COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of employees were assigned to work from home. Surprisingly, the transition was so easy for many companies that further investment in their offices seemed unnecessary. Some decided to repurpose their space, while others simply shut down offices and went totally remote.
Ironically, this has turned the remote work “benefit” into just another requirement of certain jobs.
The Office as an Employee Benefit
Let’s do a little thought experiment.
Try imagining a world where offices don’t exist. For as long as anyone can remember, everyone has always worked from home. Nobody has ever done work at a company building.
Now, imagine you’re interviewing for a job, and an employer tells you about a benefit they offer. They have a place for you to work. It’s a building (that they pay for) dedicated to helping employees get their work done.
The employer talks about how the environment is set up to minimize distractions, and everyone maintains a professional attitude and image. They say that their younger employees go on to excel in their careers, having been able to directly observe more experienced workers and get their questions answered quickly. All the employees get to know their colleagues well and socialize with them in passing. They say many employees become friends, and some spend time together outside of work hours.
Wouldn’t that sound kind of amazing to you?
Changing the Discussion
Talking about office benefits isn’t a new thing. Businesses have been using them to market themselves to employees for years. (Last month, we went into detail on changing office perks that we saw in our COVID-19 report from May.) These perks have value, but they can’t be the focus. If companies are only trying to promote their offices as comfortable and convenient, how can they win a fight against yoga pants and a 10-second morning commute?
The truth is that there are lots of benefits to working out of an office—but they are long-term and often taken for granted.
When companies transitioned to remote work last year, many of us adapted easily and found it enjoyable, not realizing we were still enjoying the relationships, skills and professional experiences that we only could have gotten from an office.
As time goes on and employees turn over, that momentum won’t exist anymore, and employees will notice something is missing.
A company with an office needs to start thinking about how their space acts as a unique, long-term benefit. Whether it’s building a social group, professional development or engagement with the local community, working in an office has big advantages—The company just needs to protect, encourage and promote them.
Find What Fits and Do It Well
This doesn’t mean office work is better than remote work. It all depends on the company, the type of work and the individual employees.
However, it’s clear that things have changed. That means companies have an opportunity to rethink the work style that’s most valuable to their organization, embrace it, and use it to attract the right employees.
Want to learn more about the future of work—including the future of health care benefits? Tune in to the on-demand webcast Impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. Workforce and Predictions for the Future of Health Care Benefits, sponsored by UnitedHealthcare.
Instructional Designer at the International Foundation
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