If bosses really want workers to come back to the office, they should forget about offering a free lunch and do something about noisy workspaces and employees’ painful commutes, while also mandating a certain number of in-office days.
That’s according to new research from real estate services company Colliers Canada, which tried to crack the code on what it takes to get people to show up for their in-office days. The prospect has proven surprisingly difficult, and it’s also resulted in emptier downtown cores and caused office vacancies to spike to record highs. What’s become clear is the scattershot approach many employers have taken to woo people back to the office hasn’t been working, but they aren’t sure how to fix it.
“The office market is still in a funk with hybrid (work),” John Duda, president, Real Estate Management Services, at Colliers Canada, said. “What we were noticing is that everyone had an opinion and anecdotal information. But what came through in our last survey was over 50 per cent of the companies were saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.'”
The secret sauce might lie in a combination of mandated in-office days, quiet workspaces and easing the costs and time of commuting, Colliers’ research shows. Those factors might seem obvious, but no one element is enough on its own to entice workers back to their desks willingly. It’s a discovery Duda calls a “big deal” for employers wanting a solid return-to-office formula.
For one thing, simply ordering people back to the office doesn’t always work, the research showed. A funny thing happens when companies mandate in-office days that workers deem excessive: they stop showing up. The sweet spot depends on the organization, but on average, asking people to come to the office one or two days a week results in even more frequent attendance, Duda said. But start telling them to come in for four days or more, and many will find excuses to not make the trip. “It’s not a one-to-one relationship, which is something that surprised us,” he said.
Further, the rush to implement open-concept workplaces before the pandemic may now be complicating employers’ efforts to win people back. “We’ve underestimated how much of an impact the design of your space has on your ability to do your job,” Duda said.
Employees complain they find it difficult to focus in open office setups, since distractions are numerous and quiet zones are hard to find. Such a setup won’t inspire a trip to the office if an employee feels they can do more, and better quality, work at home. Colliers said people stuck in cubicles or other open floor plans spend an average of six hours less a week onsite, while people with private offices spend an average of four more hours a week. The results suggest employers may need to consider overhauling their floor plans. “When it is the right setup, people will come in because they choose to come in, because it helps them to do what they need to do,” Duda said.
There’s another pain point employers can address if they want workers to show up: the gruelling commute in the biggest cities. Colliers calculates that for each extra minute a person spends commuting, they spend 0.2 fewer hours in the office each week. For every extra dollar they spend, they put in 0.45 fewer hours. With the average commute across the country at 31 minutes one-way, and at a cost of $9.50, that adds up to 10 fewer hours in the office weekly. Of course, those numbers are worse in the Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto areas, with commuting times closer to 35 minutes one-way and costs topping $10.