Work hasn’t just fallen in rank behind play. We predict that COVID-19 has reshaped the ways Americans think about how work fits into their lives forever.
Work as Life
Rather than fitting their lives around work, Americans now expect work to fit into their lives. And employers are expected to accommodate.
Although work has dropped in priority, that doesn’t mean it’s become an insignificant part of people’s lives. During the pandemic, the lack of a commute meant many workers just punched extra hours instead, to the tune of an extra 22 million hours spent working each day.21
Clearly, just because employees’ priorities have changed, it doesn’t mean corporate priorities have changed alongside them – and employers are running out of time to adjust. With talks of a post-pandemic “Great Resignation,” research thus far points to anywhere from 25% to 40% of employees intending to quit in the near term.22
So amidst the return to offices this summer and fall, employers need to look to workplaces more as an extension of their employees’ lives: a place to focus and get work done, but also to be social and engage with the surrounding community. This includes fostering more time spent going out with coworkers and giving flexibility to spend time exploring public spaces around the office.
“The truth is most tenants are very unsure of what they want from offices in the ‘post-Covid’ world, but they are trying to manage people’s expectations, concerns, and fears,” says Robert Ward, president and CEO of Skanska USA Commercial Development.
“We have seen a number of tenants reconfigure their spaces to be more collaborative, welcoming, and in some cases ‘fun.’ Sitting at a desk and wearing noise-canceling headphones to do work is less logical today when it could be done from home. What cannot happen at home or over Zoom is real connection, collaboration, or socialization. Those are necessary ingredients for innovation, productivity, and building office culture — that is why the office exists.”
Expected Frequency in Work Behaviors Compared to Pre-Pandemic Life
Excluding "not applicable" responses; numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding
The onus will also fall on human resources departments to sustain collaborative culture and balance the needs of in-office and at-home workers, according to Eastbanc’s Philippe Lanier.
Most employees even say they’re excited for — rather than dreading — watercooler talk with colleagues. People are also abandoning their sweatpants in droves, with joy dressing on the rise as sweatpants sales drop in favor of dresses and jeans.23 And according to Dagne Dover founder and CEO Melissa Mash, fashion and its self-expression never totally left us during the pandemic – it was just a bit different.
Fashion and our overall physical presentation can make a huge difference in how we feel mentally,” says Mash. “During COVID, fashion has been a way for us to ‘fake it till we make it’ in terms of going back to feeling ‘normal,’ alive, and worry-free in the way we did prior. It has also been a way to say ‘You may not be able to see me behind this mask, but you can see how I feel through my fashion.’
- Melissa Mash
Founder and CEO, Dagne Dover
Of course, this doesn’t mean work from home is going away anytime soon. Once the pandemic subsides, nearly two-thirds (59%) of employees expect to frequently (at least once a week) work from home — and this increases to 73% among New Yorkers. That said, the majority want a hybrid schedule that leans more in-person: 65% want to spend most of their time in the office, with just a few or no days spent working from home.
Hybrid schedules can also be a boon for employers, and not just when it comes to keeping employees happy. “The pandemic propelled the notion that work-life balance is essential to one's ability to live a full life. As we ease into a post-pandemic workplace, we’ve found that offering a hybrid schedule offers that balance,” says Room & Board’s HR director Nancy Greatrix Manley.
Office Chic Is Back
69% of employees are excited about ditching the sweatpants and dressing up for the office again.
Startups especially are benefitting from keeping office spaces minimal – or doing away with them entirely, at least for now.
When you have a company that’s fairly early stage — seed to Series A — one of the biggest line items and cost centers for startups has always been rent. The pandemic has allowed startups to get rid of that line item,” says Lerer Hippeau’s Caitlin Strandberg. “During lockdown, when everyone was working remote, there was a very high investment in companies investing in collaboration tools and software to keep everyone together and largely productive. So productivity for many of our companies is actually up now that the employees have kind of figured out how to work remote and what kind of balance they want from a lifestyle perspective.
- Caitlin Strandberg
The Office Reset Button
With this hybrid workforce, the office space will inevitably change. Real estate industry trends point to some companies downsizing, while others invest in more communal space. And some Fortune 500 companies like Goldman Sachs24 and Oracle25 are following consumer trends by picking up and moving out to the suburbs.
Regardless of size or location, the office will need to serve a new, more collaborative purpose and meet rising expectations among employees when it comes to safety, privacy, and sustainability.
“If you don’t offer more than a walled cubicle, you better have magical coffee in the kitchen to seduce your employees back to the office,” says Lanier.
Importance of Workplace Changes Post-Pandemic
Among employed Americans
Many executives are already following this real estate outlook to a T: 48% are planning on increased investment in communal spaces26, and 81% of realtors report seeing more investment in workspace redesigns to increase sanitation, hygiene, and social distancing.27
For those not eschewing office spaces, however, coworking spaces are growing in appeal. “Coworking spaces offer a professional work environment with the amenities associated with a modern office, whilst also being designed to be geographically convenient for employees and cost effective and flexible for employers. I wouldn't be surprised if every company of significant size has some sort of membership into one or more coworking companies,” says Tarek Pertew, cofounder and chief creative officer of the employer branding and talent acquisition company Uncubed.
With about 1 in 10 workers in our survey predicting that they’ll be clocking in from a coworking space at least once a week post-pandemic, this cohort adds yet another element to the careful balance of sustaining company culture across multiple locations.
“With the Internet, we’re not tethered to a desk, and outdoor spaces — even proximate to the office — are liberating,” says Monty Hoffman of Hoffman & Associates. “Regardless, I think we’re learning just how valuable the ‘company culture’ is to us and how simple interactions build much-needed trust and social capital.”
Employee wellness will also continue to be a major focal point, as the working world feels the effects of what many call the most stressful year they’ve experienced in their working lives.28 Even demand for simple perks reflects this. While free food and drinks are most appealing (who doesn’t love cold brew on tap?), wellness and personal development offerings are also perks in high demand in the post-pandemic workplace:
Free snacks (64%)
Drinks on tap (51%)
Fitness classes (49%)
Professional development trainings (49%)
At The Brand Guild, we learned quickly that a hybrid workplace is the way to go. Much as experiences have replaced things in Gen Z’s personal financial prioritization, you will also start to see smart workplaces realize that amenities are table stakes, and winning looks more like onsite professional development workshops and midday fitness classes.
- Jayne Sandman
Cofounder and Co-CEO, The Brand Guild
The Spaces in Between
Changes in the working world also have broader impacts on the communities surrounding them, particularly business development districts. Many of these daytime neighborhoods have struggled thanks to the flood of office workers suddenly drying up during COVID. But now that return to work will look distinctly different, some experts are predicting that downtown businesses will see up to 10% less spending.29
Though more than half (56%) of employees still want to work in a bustling, downtown area, it remains to be seen how much the hybrid workforce will impact surrounding businesses. Some business improvement districts, like the urbanized neighborhood of Rosslyn in Arlington, VA, continue to be confident in the demand for offices in city centers and the appeal of downtown restaurants and shopping for employees.
“While the macro trends around where people choose to live may continue to swing from urban to suburban and back again, the trend of office development in cities of all sizes will continue,” says Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. “Cities provide the raw material for business success — access to transportation, talent, and amenities. And the most successful downtown areas provide ideal environments for employees, with easy access to restaurants, shopping, and activities.”
But even if office square footage goes up, that won't necessarily translate to more commuters, given the aforementioned emphasis on upping space for hygiene and team-building rather than jamming workspaces as tightly together as possible. Instead, perhaps we’ll see a quality over quantity approach to how workers interact with business districts: the growing emphasis on socialization and flexible hours may mean that workers will make the most of the time they are in the office, engaging more with nearby restaurants and retail.
“Downtowns will still be where the most cultural events will be, which will continue to draw people there. However, as many young people moved out of downtowns to the suburbs during the pandemic ... they may prefer to work in the suburbs," says Bruce Lane, executive vice president, managing director, and cofounder of D.C.-area real estate firm The Meridian Group. "People have been flocking to restaurants and sporting events, and I believe that downtowns will come alive again after companies fully reopen their offices."
Or, the novelty of in-person work will wear off and more will need to be done to attract consumers into the heart of business districts. It will be something we continue to monitor into the fall, especially since every city will likely face different results depending on the local approach to remote work and availability of restaurants and retail.
The Brand Guild is a fully integrated agency that builds and grows the most powerful brands in consumer lifestyle, food & beverage, and real estate. Our holistic approach to brand creation, strategy and storytelling creates critical momentum for our client-partners through a comprehensive suite of services that includes public relations, marketing, content, design, experiential and branding.
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