ROOM Survey Says…

Hybrid, modular, purpose-built, activity-based.

Articles abound regarding return-to-office plans, the future of workspace and what employers and employees alike are considering in their near-term and long-term space strategies. These pieces largely reflect market forces, intuitive assumptions around flexibility and cost efficiency, and a whole lot of buzzwords. After all, no one finds the prospect of a ten year lease attractive given the unprecedented disruption to convening in-person. But, what we at ROOM are seeing is a disparity between what is reported and what is enacted. Companies said they would be abandoning the office altogether, but conversely are investing in their spaces—not to be eliminated but to be repurposed, intentional, and future-proof. 

Here at ROOM, we are committed to getting the real scoop. The insights we uncovered in our post-COVID return to office surveys paint a picture of a diversified workforce where employers are compelled to embrace a hybrid model of work, one where employees gain agency in their ability to choose. 

How do we know?

In order to get a holistic view of the evolving landscape, we sent three surveys to both customers and potential customers in April 2020, September 2020 and January 2021. As you can imagine, our common understanding of COVID-19 and its implications for work greatly evolved over that time period, and we are able to see trends in both information and approach. 

  • Across the three points of send, we had over 400 participants. About 80% were from the United States with the rest capturing insights from the UK, European countries and Canada. Of U.S. respondents, the overwhelming state makeup was coastal, with over 70% of U.S. based respondents hailing from New York and California. 
  • The vast majority of respondents to each survey noted that pre-pandemic, their offices were open-format floor plans. This commonality is one that most likely informs thought processes and reopening strategies.

When will this return begin?

The first thing we explored was around return to office, or RTO, date. Anecdotally, this seems to be an ever shifting goal post dependent on many macroeconomic, health and organizational factors. In order to maintain trust with employees, many employers are holding off from communicating definitive dates and instead maintaining a “TBD” forecast. There is a growing population of folks in the planning process, though what that looks like differs based on industry, location, business philosophy and much more. But, what has become clear is that there will be a return to the office, but it will likely be even more phased and gradual than previously anticipated. 

  • Back in April 2020, 64.4% of those surveyed said that they anticipated having more than half of employees back in the office between May and August of 2021, with 21.2% suggesting later and 14.4% saying “not sure.” This data paints a true picture of uncertainty and speaks to the optimism around a summer 2020 return felt nationally. 
  • By September 2020, those timelines were extended and people were still expressing uncertainty. In September, 68.6% said sometime between January and April 2021 and 10.5% of people expressed they were “not sure.” In January 2021, answers were across the board with 26.2% remarking “not sure” and the rest averaging September 2021. 
  • In January 2021, we also posed the question around when a quarter, instead of half, of employees would be back. 9.2% of respondents said that a quarter was already back in the office, 40.1% said sometime between April and July 2021, and 16.9% said “not sure.” 

Who will return?

Even more important than establishing a date when a percentage of employees will be back in the office, is the long term relationship between employees and these physical spaces themselves. Here at ROOM, we are fully embracing that the future is hybrid, even launching our own WFH Kit to accommodate those searching for productivity and value-engineering in their home setups. We have seen that given the newfound freedom employees have when it comes to where they work, companies are propelled to think even more critically about intention-driven spaces. In many cases, they are tasked with curating locales that people elect to go to. 

  • Back in September 2020, over 70% of those surveyed were planning for a hybrid return. 
  • The data from January 2021 was even more illuminating with 76.2% of those surveyed planning and implementing a defined hybrid model, 22.6% planning to fully return to the office post pandemic and only 1.2% planning a fully remote model. 

This is obviously encouraging as a space solutions company, but also suggests a future where office spaces must be superior to alternatives, and must operate for organizational needs and wants. 

How will we return?

In order to dig into whether this information regarding retaining and transforming space was true, we asked “Are you making any changes to your real estate strategy as a result of COVID-19?” and the answer was consistently no. There is an ongoing accordion of downsizing, reimagining, and growing, and such fluctuation is what propels our product innovation, developing units that are modular and can be used to continuously reimagine space.

  • In April 2020, 63% of those surveyed said “no”, 50.8% in September 2020 and 57.1% in January 2021. 
  • In April 2020, 20.8% of people suggested they were getting rid of their office altogether, but only 2.4% of people said so in January 2021. 
  • In both September 2020 and January 2021, 23.1% and 18.6% respectively, indicated that they were actually adding space to provide room for physical distancing. 

But for those that are returning, we wanted to know “What is the biggest investment you’re making to prepare the office for the post-pandemic world?” In April 2020, most answers revolved around cleaning protocols, HVAC and technology. By September, people were “reworking floorplans for longer term utilization improvements” and “investing in office space in other locations across the state.” This demonstrates the hierarchy of needs at work where, once certain things like proper signage and cleaning protocols are in place, the focus can then shift to physical space and how to future-proof it. 

We also asked “Which types of space will be of higher value to your company when you return to the office?” In January, the top valued spaces were private office pods (modular single-person rooms), phone booths, shared spaces (lounge areas, etc.) and smaller meeting rooms/pods. When we think about retrofitting an office or a brand new build out, solutions should be anything but temporary. You want spaces that are high quality and adaptable for the future, not a mountain of plexiglass. 

This information is invaluable for us as a company striving to design to meet consumer needs and market trends. After acoustic privacy, price and air quality, the top feature requested in modular units was video conferencing. Meet the Meeting Room Pro, launched in August 2020, with completely software-agnostic video conferencing technology. 

So, employees keep telling your employers what you need to perform in this new-normal, and employers keep telling us how we can support. We value your feedback and look forward to being a partner in real-estate innovation. The future is flexible and ROOM is leading the charge so start the conversation today around your workspace of tomorrow. 

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