By Denise Starling, Executive Director of Livable Buckhead, and Katie Gable, Program Manager for Mobility Services of Livable Buckhead
The COVID-19 pandemic led to more people working from home than ever before, triggering an interruption in professional and personal routines that has continued well into 2021. With a national rollout of vaccines underway, companies are making plans for their post-pandemic workplaces, and some are beginning to return employees to the office.
Since July 2020, Livable Buckhead has collected weekly occupancy rate data from 30 Buckhead commercial office buildings. During that time, the average rate of occupancy has slowly increased, reaching 19% in January and February of this year. Commercial building managers expect upwards of a 50% or more return rate during the next three to six months.
What will that return to the office look like? Many large corporations have announced that remote work will stay in place permanently, and it’s likely that businesses of all sizes will continue to allow employees to work from home at least part of the time. According to a 2020 Georgia Commute Options survey of Atlanta-area employers, 69% of executives said more employees will work from home periodically. Respondents to Livable Buckhead’s State of Buckhead survey revealed that 90% of employees would choose to work from home in a post-pandemic world, with the largest segment of those respondents (32%) indicating a preference to telework one to two days per week.
Prior to the pandemic, many businesses relied on telework as a business continuity strategy, with ideas that telework programs would have negatives impacts on productivity and workplace culture. They turned out to be half right – the high-touch aspects of operations, such as onboarding and coaching, are challenging in a fully remote environment. On the other hand, most workers’ productivity matches or exceeds their in-office levels and they report better work-life balance as a result of their remote work arrangement. So how can workplaces lock in the benefits of telework while mitigating its drawbacks?
Flexibility is the Future
While there are still many unknowns, the ideal future will be a balance between in-office and at-home schedules. “Companies must reconfigure how they operate to help meet the new demands of workers, prioritizing effective communication and collaboration,” says Cisco Vice President Gordon Thomson.
Employers have the chance to create a completely new work environment that can exceed the standards of the business as well as the needs of the workforce. To ensure business and employee needs are met, companies should implement telework policies that establish expectations for worker productivity and communication without creating the “hidden overtime” that has become common during the pandemic.
Livable Buckhead anticipates a large number of employers will implement flexible strategies that match remote work to the tasks and personnel that are most suited for it, resulting in three workforce classifications:
Remote Worker: Employees whose jobs do not require a high level of collaboration or who don’t live close to the office can work remotely full-time, four to five days per week. These employees will benefit from clear standards for communication and regular engagement with managers and co-workers. They will also have specific technology needs to maximize the productivity of their remote work arrangements.
Flexible Worker: Workplaces with a higher degree of co-worker collaboration or client-facing interactions can still allow employees to telework one to three days per week. Employers may not need to provide computer equipment for these employees, however, ensuring they have access to all technology needs on their home laptops and computers will be key to continuing their efficiency and effectiveness. There should also be clear expectations for communication and productivity on telework days.
Traditional Worker: Employees whose roles require them to be in person will work from the office four to five days per week, and standard communication systems and performance management will apply to their work. Employees working from the office full time should be given all needed technology to be able to connect and collaborate with remote employees.
Using “Broken Habits” to Reduce Traffic
Another workday staple – traffic – has been dramatically reduced during the pandemic. As businesses evaluate their plans for returning to the office, there is an opportunity to use the “broken habit” of driving alone as a way to create new commute patterns for employees. We should all aim to keep as much of the pandemic-related traffic reduction in place as possible, while recognizing that a return to “normal” requires options beyond teleworking.
Livable Buckhead is working with employers on flexible workplace strategies that integrate multiple options – telework, transit, carpooling – and incentives to reduce the number of people who drive alone to work. Each of the worker classifications mentioned above (remote, flexible, traditional) will have unique commuter benefit needs to encourage their continued use of commute alternatives.