The home stretch
The following data is reported as at Q3 2020
Since university, my professional passion has been helping people thrive in their workplace. Despite studying real estate valuation, I was hardly concerned with cash-flow analysis, instead interested in understanding how the built environment creates value for the people who use it. What is the point in a building if it doesn’t serve the people that use it?
There are many ways offices can bring value to an organisation, but foremost is through the impact they have on employee experience. Organisations use their buildings to foster culture and help their employees be as productive as possible. Now, with the key employee experience tool of the office gone, how have employees been faring? And when it is finally safe for us to return to the office again, will the workplace experience be forever altered based on what employees experienced from home?
To understand this, we need to explore how employees have experienced that alternative work environment.
We launched our new Home Working Experience questions at the end of March 2020. Thanks to the amazing organisations that we have the privilege to work with, by the end of September, we were able to collect more than 144,000 responses to these new questions. But what does the data tell us of the home working experience?
The best metric to understand how home working is working is the H-Lmi, which is a 0-100 linear score that quantifies the overall experience. The average H-Lmi currently sits at 74.2 across all respondents, which tells us that working from home has been good, if not outstanding. To give some context, the average equivalent for office workplaces, for the nearly 720,000 respondents who had responded to our Leesman Office experience survey pre-COVID-19 (by the end of Q4 2019) is 63.1. The threshold for an outstanding experience is 70.0.
So how, specifically, is the home environment enabling employees to do their jobs well?
According to our data, areas that are especially well-supported when working from home are: individual work, formal meetings and different types of conversations. For example, 90.1% of employees say that individual, focused work is supported, 94.3% consider planned meetings to be supported and 89.5% think that business confidential discussions are supported when working from home. The support for productivity is also high, with 82.5% say that their home environment enables them to work productively.
Home working also has its downsides. Despite virtual happy hours and pub quizzes, the data shows that the social side of work is more challenging in a digital environment. Just 65.3% feel connected to their colleagues and 69.8% feel connected to their organisation, which is likely to be driven by poor support for informal social interaction (56.1% say it is supported), learning from others (66.3%) and informal, unplanned meetings (76.5%).
We also need to be careful of averages, because they can mask the highs and the lows.
So while the overall, average, home working experience has been outstanding, 21% of employees report a poor experience working from home (with an H-Lmi <60.0).
This means that more than one in five employees find working from the ‘comfort’ of their own homes to be obstructing them from being at their best.
Our data shows that the main driver of the home working experience is the type of setting that the employee has available to them. Employees who work in a dedicated work room or office at home generally have the best experience (H-Lmi 78.9 on average), while those who work from a non-work specific location at home (such as a dining table) report the poorest experience (H-Lmi 67.0). This pattern repeats itself across all questions that we have asked, including whether the environment enables working productively (91.8% vs. 68.6%), whether one feels connected to colleagues (72.4% vs. 54.2%) and whether or not the employee can maintain a healthy work-life balance (79.1% vs. 62.1%). This, unfortunately, means that it may not always be possible to improve the experience for all employees. If one does not have a space at home that can be dedicated for working, then an allowance for a desk and chair purchase won’t help.
We have also found that those with more complex work profiles, who do a wider range of different types of activities in their roles, are more likely to have a poorer experience working from home. More variety in your activities means more things that the environment needs to support. This is a very similar pattern that we see in conventional office workplaces, which mainly consist of workstations and meeting rooms with little variety of other types of workspaces.
But whether or not this home working exercise has meant an improved or impaired experience for employees depends not only on the home working experience, but also on what they were used to before COVID-19. An H-Lmi of 75.0 outlines an outstanding experience working from home, but if your office Lmi is 85.0, then your experience at home has been sub-optimal compared to what you had before. Or if your office Lmi is 65.0, then in comparison to what you left behind, you have probably really enjoyed the change. This will also have its impact on the extent to which you would like to return to the office when possible.
This shows us that assessing the home working experience, without understanding how it compares to the alternative(s) employees may have, serves the purpose of identifying the actions that could be taken to improve the experience in the short-term, while employees are working from home. But in order to make decisions about the long-term workplace landscape, you will need to understand how your office workplaces compare.
Some of the organisations we have recently worked with have taken the opportunity to measure both the office and home experience at the same time by adding our Home Working questions at the end of the standardised Leesman Office survey. This gives the most accurate comparison possible, as each individual’s experience of the two environments can be directly compared. We took a closer look at a sample consisting of more than 22,000 of these responses, from more than 200 different workplaces.
We found that 16% of these employees had an outstanding experience in their office (Lmi >70.0) but a sub-optimal experience at home (H-Lmi <70.0). A slightly larger proportion, 22%, had an outstanding experience at home, while they had left behind a sub-optimal experience in the office. 38% reported an outstanding experience in both office and at home, while 24% had a poor experience in both.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to maximising your employees’ experience; the actions required will be different depending on the group. Here are four, simplified scenarios that employees might experience:
• Outstanding experience both in the office and at home – they already have an outstanding infrastructure available and may need little immediate improvement. As they have a good experience working from home, they may not be in a hurry to return to the office.
• Poor experience both in the office and at home – this group is not likely to have a compelling reason to return, as the office will not offer an improvement to their overall experience. Here, the organisation will need to decide whether to significantly improve the office, to try to improve the home working experience or both. Either way, actions are needed as the employee experience is currently compromised.
• Outstanding experience at home, but a poor experience in the office – clearly, this group is likely to prefer to stay at home. The organisation will need to create compelling reasons for these employees to come into the office, in case they are needed there.
• Outstanding experience in the office, but a poor experience at home – these are most eager to return. If the long-term plan within an organisation is to increase remote working, focus will need to be placed on how the home working experience could be improved for these employees.
Regardless of which of these experience quadrants your employees sits in, specific activities may be better supported in the office, or at home. Across these 22,000 respondents, we found that individual activities are typically best supported at home, while all collaborative work and social interaction is better supported in the office.
This warrants a note of caution: beware of turning offices into mere meeting places. Individual, focused work is still an essential component of working life, important to 91.9% of employees.
To think that employees won’t need spaces for some head-down, concentrated work on a day when they are in the office for a meeting is risky. Offices that employees will want to come to will need to support both individual and collaborative work in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for organisations to rethink their workplace experience. Ask yourself: what experience do your offices currently offer? How are your employees experiencing working from home? To what extent could a more flexible way of working improve the experience? Where would employees be best-off doing the various parts of their roles?
For those organisations where working from home wasn’t an option before COVID-19, there’s really no going back to how it was. Employees’ expectations have now increased, so going back to the status quo would mean going backwards.
Now is the time to focus on what would maximise the employee experience across all places of work. That’s how workplace will maintain and create value in the future.