What is the purpose of the office?

The return to the office debate is in vogue right now. It’s an obsession for many; and while a handful of notable businesses have announced a remote-first policy, most have signalled intentions to create a hybrid form of working, between home and office.

This poses a great dilemma for business: what is the purpose of the office?

The grand home working experiment has been more successful than most people thought: the average home has been found to provide a better workplace experience than the average office. But over the aspects that were lacking—the social dimensions of work such as informal interactions and the ability to feel connected to colleagues and the organisation—looms the prospect of a progressive deterioration of an organisation’s social fabric.

Should businesses dial up the ‘we’ component of their physical workplace? If you can focus better at home, is it logical to turn your office into a place meant exclusively for bringing people together, collaboration and free-flowing exchange of ideas? The question is whether such strategies will work for everyone. In other words, how big of a role does collaboration play for a typical knowledge worker?

‘Me’ and ‘We’: Individual and Collaborative profiles

Based on the experience of more than 860,000 office workers and 221,000 employees who worked from home by the end of June 2021, we identified different work profiles to help judge what might be needed from an office post-pandemic.

The organisations delicately crafting a social hub will be surprised by the data. The individual-leaning ‘Me’ profile represents the biggest share of the office data we have surveyed to date (40%), followed by the ‘Balanced’ profile (31%), while the more socially orientated ‘We’ profile accounts for just 28% of all office employees. Looking at the distribution in more detail reveals that profiles with an intense collaborative component are in fact rare:

Only 3% of all the office employees we have surveyed over the past 11 years are working in highly collaborative roles. In comparison, 20% are working in highly individual roles.

The higher importance of collaboration in the home working data suggests a potential coping mechanism developed in response to working in new circumstances. Since collaboration is done in a more structured way at home, which often involves planning and the use of digital platforms, it may have become closer to an event that employees are more aware of.

Overall experience in the office and at home

In the office, employees working in highly collaborative roles have the best experience (Lmi = 67.1), compared to those in individual roles (Lmi = 62.8). At home, the trend is opposite: employees in highly individual roles have the most positive experience (H-Lmi = 77.2), while those in highly collaborative roles, the least positive (H-Lmi = 68.8).

The overall gaps between best / worst experience are nearly twice as large at home, compared to the office (Lmi gap = 4.3, H-Lmi gap = 8.4). This suggests that the average office is more likely to provide similar levels of support for most types of work, while home offers a clearer advantage to individual activities in the detriment of collaborative work.

What does the office look like for ‘Me’ and ‘We’ profiles?

So, what does the post-pandemic office need to provide to attract employees back? Do people working in ‘Me’ and ‘We’ roles have completely different requirements?

Perhaps surprisingly, the patterns we observed across the different profiles are far less binary than the names of the profiles would suggest.

Within the five most important activities of each profile, three activities are in common:

Individual focused work, desk-based; planned meetings; and telephone conversations are amongst the most important for both ‘Me’ and ‘We’ profiles.

Similarly, when ranking the top ten most important features for the two profiles, eight were in common.

Desk; chair; meeting rooms (small); and tea, coffee, and refreshment facilities are amongst the most important activities for both ‘Me’ and ‘We’ profiles.

This shows that however collaborative a role may be, it still often requires down time as a crucial component, with ergonomics being paramount. Likewise, employees working in individual roles are not exclusively absorbed by solo work, but in fact frequently interact with others via meetings and telephone. Many aspects are therefore common across both profiles. In fact, some of the parameters identified as being important to both ‘Me’ and ‘We’ profiles are known to be employee sentiment Super Drivers, the key foundations of employee workplace experience.

Your workplace futures

Each organisation is on its unique path to find—or confirm—its workplace purpose. While insights from the largest employee experience database ever amassed can act as useful guidelines for what different employees value in the workplace, the ‘Me’ and ‘We’ puzzle is one for each organisation to solve for itself. Your workplace future must enable everyone to thrive; don’t leave anyone behind.

Read more insights from Leesman