Guest Post by Sanjay Rishi, CEO of JLL Work Dynamics

The pandemic created a seismic shift in the way people live and work—and what they want moving forward. By understanding how employees feel about new ways of working, organizations can seize this historic opportunity to rethink the workplace for the benefit of people and profit alike.

Before COVID-19 propelled the world into the greatest ever work-from-home experiment, many employers weren’t too sure about remote work. Could employees really feel engaged—let alone work effectively—without the vitality and accountability of in-person work? On the flip side, many office employees saw remote work as a kind of holy grail, one where they’d magically achieve work-life balance by skipping the commute or wearing sweatpants to a meeting with no one noticing.

Fifteen months after the first shutdowns began, however, both parties have come to see things differently. Employers learned that teams could maintain the status quo from home offices or living rooms. And workers, for their part, had their own epiphany: after a several-month “honeymoon period” with remote work, they started to miss the office.

According to the latest readings of our Workplace Preferences Barometer, working from home may have whetted people’s appetite for flexibility—but being forced to do so exclusively led to a sense of digital burn-out and social isolation. Now, what most workers crave is an outstanding shared workplace—paired with the flexibility of a thoughtful hybrid work model.

Barometer: Outstanding office and work-life balance are top-line

To help leaders understand what today’s workers want from their future work experiences, JLL asked 3,317 office workers in 10 countries how they feel about their homeworking experience and how it affects their professional priorities, productivity/performance and overall wellbeing.

We wanted to know, what do employees expect from their workplace now? How has homeworking affected their relationship with their employers? Were they happy to skip the commute…or did they miss it a little bit, too?

Overwhelming sentiment suggests that an outstanding office has become the best way to engage employees—when it serves as the center of a work ecosystem rather than a place one is obligated to go every morning. Meanwhile work-life balance is now the number one workforce priority, ahead of salary.

So amidst the new turns in the war for talent, office design and location can play a newly strategic role in attracting and retaining talent.

Here’s more on these and other key findings:

1.  An outstanding office is the best way to engage employees. People who missed their offices the most had great offices to begin with. A full 69% of respondents who are highly satisfied with their offices strongly missed it, contrasting with 5% of those with lackluster workplaces. Key to the outstanding designation? First and foremost, make it human and a place people want to go and congregate. Secondly, employees value resilience more than ever—55% want to be in places that can adapt to future crises. They also prize ‘authentic’ and ‘inclusive’ workplaces ahead of ‘green’ and ‘tech-enabled’ work environments.

2.  Working from home has lost its luster. When we took a similar poll last October, most people still relished the homework world. Now 63% want to mix it up, and hope to have the option of alternating among different places of work in the future. The average employee wants to come into the office three days a week (up from two days in our last poll), with two days of remote work to use between home and a third-party place (like a co-working space).

3.  Purpose-led offices are the future. In April 2020, 48% of our respondents said they feel more productive at home than in the office. But now that number has dropped to 37%. A year’s worth of homeworking has taken its toll, and many workers feel they’ve missed out on the appreciation and supportive management of in-person work. A well-designed office can be vital in offering talent structure and a sense of purpose.

4.  Work-life balance trumps salary. Flexibility is the number one must-have in the benefits package. And let’s be real: People didn’t exactly miss the daily commute, with 79% saying that winning back that time improved their quality of life. But human interaction and even a simple change of scenery are also vital to the human experience. A flexible work program that gives people the opportunity to mix in remote-work days and avoid peak travel times can even help some savor the commute as time to themselves. Additionally, flexible hours can go a long way to reducing the pressure being felt by caregivers and working parents, who were more likely to feel overwhelmed (57%) than the overall employee population (48%).

5.  Expectations are at a new high for wellness-centered workplaces. The pandemic cast fresh light on the importance of physical, mental and social health, with one in two employees today struggling to achieve boundaries and manage the mental load. An overwhelming 73% of the workforce aspire to new places that promote a healthy lifestyle, safety and well-being.

A ‘Human First’ imperative

A COVID-changed workforce is ready for changes to the workplace. By giving employees the human-first, flexible office experiences they want, organizations can help workers regain their professional spark—and sustain it. They can fuel engagement and satisfaction, while ramping up productivity and performance.

The way we work has been upended. The office is becoming the primary place of work again, but a new imperative has emerged. To achieve the thriving office of the future, now is the time to listen to—and act on—today’s employee preferences.

Sanjay Rishi is CEO of JLL Work Dynamics in the Americas