What We Learned From Our ‘Back To Work’ Survey

As workplace designers, we spend much of our time pondering what the corporate workplace of the future will look like. We research new design trends, listen to client perspectives, and debate the kind of environment that employees need to do their best work. 

The problem with this approach is that our design decisions can sometimes be based on a hunch, rather than quantifiable feedback. What we feel is best for our clients’ employees is no substitute for hard data, especially at a time when companies are desperate to entice workers back in-person.

To remedy this, SMMA carried out a comprehensive survey on workplace preferences. We connected with hundreds of people—clients, partners, friends, family—to gather data-driven insights into how we should be designing for the post-pandemic workplace.

The results were encouraging—and often surprising.

Who did we ask?

From the outset, we made a point of excluding from the results anyone who works in the A/E/C industry. We wanted to hear from people outside the design-world echo chamber—the kind of people who work for our commercial clients.

Our final pool of respondents is spread across a broad range of industries (see below). Unsurprisingly, the New England market is well represented, with Healthcare/Pharma, Education, and Technology forming 42% of the total.

The respondents also lean senior: Over half said they had more than 12 years of total work experience.

What did we learn?

#1 – Hybrid work is here to stay

The headline metric will come as a relief to workplace designers everywhere: most people do want to return to a physical workplace, at least in some form. A thumping 91% of our respondents say they want to return to the office when it is safe to do so.

However, this comes with a caveat. Of this group, only 19% say they want to return to the office a full five days a week. 61% say they want to return for 2 to 4 days a week, working remotely the other days. 

Long story short: Hybrid work is here to stay. 
 

#2 – Workers want flexibility… with structure

When asked to explain what they liked about working from home, flexibility was a common theme. Respondents said that home working “relieves a lot of personal stressors”—the dreaded daily commute, for example. Better home-life management, fewer distractions, and the ability to support family needs were also mentioned as a plus.

Interestingly, when asked about in-person work, many of these same respondents said they missed the structure provided by the office. Complaints about home working included a “lack of routine and rigor,” and “no definition between home and work time”—in other words, too much flexibility.

This paradox is revealing, as it explains the key attraction of hybrid work: It gives employees the best of both worlds.

  • Employees mixing in a workplace cafe at Cambridge Mobile Telematics HQ

Above: A lively work café with flexible seating at Cambridge Mobile Telematics HQ, designed by SMMA. Employees say they want spaces in which to take a break and share ideas with colleagues—"convenient collaboration"

#3 – Socialization is king

It’s not just structure that people miss about the office. As we predicted in part 1 of this series, socialization ranks as the most highly valued workplace benefit. 79% of people listed socialization as the number-one thing they miss about the office. When asked to elaborate, respondents cited a “sense of community,” “organic fun,” and “convenient collaboration” as compelling reasons to return.

When asked what kind of spaces they want to see, respondents were clear: more spaces for personal interaction. Whether a break space (“Where we can talk freely and not interrupt each other’s work”), a living room/café area, or an outdoor patio, employees need a place to make unscheduled connections. 

To be clear, socialization isn’t just about taking a break from work. These shared spaces also help to foster collaboration and brainstorming—tasks far better suited to the office than on Zoom.

 

#4 – Less Privacy + More Choice = Greater Productivity

Drilling down into the numbers, some of our old assumptions about employee preferences turned out to be false. 

Take privacy. We assumed that most people who work in an assigned cube would, on balance, prefer a less “open” layout on their return to the office. In fact, 55% of respondents said they did not want more privacy. 

Given what we know about socialization, this is not surprising. If workers crave the social connections provided by an office, they are less likely to want to retreat into a private cubicle.

After 18 months of home working, people have come to value the variety of postures, surfaces, and spaces available to them. Several respondents said they would feel more productive if given a choice of different spaces to spend time throughout the day: “Whether that’s an outdoor patio, the park, a café, library, or even my cubicle.”

 

#5 – The office should be a “one-stop shop”

Gone are the days of a stressful three-hour commute involving childcare pick-up and a detour to Trader Joe’s. Our survey showed that people want their amenities and conveniences brought to them. On-site childcare, fitness centers, groceries, meals-to-go, Amazon lockers, and dog daycare were all wished for by respondents.

“Anything that saves time and continues flexibility,” as one reply put it.

  • On-site daycare at Olympus Corporation headquarters in Westborough MA

Above: An on-site daycare facility at Olympus U.S. Medical HQ in Westborough, MA, designed by SMMA. Our survey showed that people want conveniences brought to them post-pandemic

#6 – Wellness spaces must keep up with new expectations

At SMMA, we’ve been designing wellness spaces for a few years now. However, feedback from our survey underlines just how much more we need to do as designers to meet post-pandemic expectations.

Working from home has given people the freedom to recharge without being watched or judged. And that’s a good thing. As such, workers want to capture this same sense of freedom during days at the office—in a nap pod, a meditation room, or on a Peloton machine.

 

Move over, omicron

All this adds up to an encouraging start to 2022. The omicron variant may have bumped back plans for a “hard return” to offices, but our survey results suggest a clear preference among workers to spend more time mixing with colleagues. A lot of this comes back to culture—in-person work remains the best way to form relationships, access perks, and reap the benefits of socialization.

In the meantime, employers and workplace managers must stay focused on moving toward a hybrid work model. The way we design for workplaces is already evolving to meet post-pandemic expectations. In a future installment in this series, we will get into the nitty-gritty of designing for the future workplace and explain how smart design can help to boost socialization and productivity.