AFTER over a year of community quarantine and working from home, many employees feel less productive at home, and most of them seek flexibility in choosing when and where they work, according to a recent survey by real estate consultancy firm JLL Philippines. As such, offices have become more than just a place of work. It has become a social hub and will need to transform to enable hybrid work.

In its latest quarterly market overview webinar, JLL Philippines shared that office vacancy in Metro Manila rose to 14.7 percent in the first quarter of 2021 due to continuous move-outs, pre-terminations, downsizing, and softening of demand.

Despite this development, JLL remains optimistic that the office will remain relevant, and the net impact on space usage and real estate footprint will be relatively minor. Dr. Marie Puybaraud, JLL's global head of Research, said that while the current demand for office space has softened, the new purpose of the office has transformed to preserve employees' engagement, emotional well-being, and mental health.

"More than ever, offices will now have a starring role in the future of work as they attract talent and help define and exemplify company brand and purpose," Puybaraud explained during the webinar.

"The office will remain the center of the work ecosystem. A physical office reinforces culture, drives collaboration and innovation, enables professional growth and brings a company's best to its clients and employees," she added.

Employees eager for more work flexibility

JLL's survey revealed that many employees want to be given flexibility in choosing when and where they do their jobs, as working from home for long periods of time makes them feel disenchanted.

Data revealed that nearly 48 percent feel under pressure and exhausted by a massive workload, and 49 percent are overwhelmed by a huge mental load.

"Employees need a minimum of three days per week of working from the office to feel engaged, empowered and fulfilled," explained Puybaraud. The survey further showed that if employees are working from home for more than two days a week, engagement starts to taper off, and anxiety about the future can start to increase.

"There is a profound need to return to a social hub - the office will play a crucial role in driving social interaction. It is becoming a hub for collaboration, problem solving, and career development," she said.

The study also showed that only 10 percent want to work exclusively from home while 24 percent from an office; 40 percent from a third-party space (such as in a café, co-working facility), and 66 percent hybrid. 88 percent of the workforce would like more flexible working hours in the future.

The hybrid-enabled future of work

JLL says that the future of work enables hybrid models - a flexible way of working that allows work from office, home, and anywhere. According to Puybaraud, hybrid work has a durable presence. Most companies have already embraced mobility or flexibility ahead of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. Hybrid models have typically been the starting point for return-to-office, ahead of local guidelines allowing for full percent capacity. A hybrid workplace describes an organizational business model that offers flexibility for the workforce to be physically present in a physical office or to work remotely, wherever it may be but the office.

"More important than the physical place of work is the 'future of work continuum,'" explained Puybaraud. "Hybrid requires not only physical transformation of the workplace but also a change in management strategy that is continuously adapting to new ways of working. It requires deep-rooted changes and an always-on transformation."

With the aid of technology, the integrated future of work model allows organizations to shift and combine different solutions to ensure work productivity, a fulfilled and empowered workforce that can work from anywhere, and a real estate portfolio optimized to meet variable demand.

"Although hybrid is an appealing model, particularly for employees, it may not be suitable for all organizations and it might have to be adopted at different degrees of intensity. Notably, we must look at hybrid in the context of a future of work continuum," said Puybaraud.

According to Christophe Vicic, JLL Philippines' country head, the hybrid work model centers on the employee. "Enhancing the human experience can drive better performance. To truly dive transformation in the future of work - whether that is in the office, at home, or anywhere - we need technology and digital enablement with the people, the workforce at its center."

Vicic added that one key point to having a hybrid office arrangement is that while meeting deadlines are crucial, employers should put more emphasis on work output rather than the amount of time an employee spends to accomplish work.

Transforming the office to enable hybrid

Puybaraud said that while some organizations that want to shift to hybrid work setup may already have the space, majority do not.

Historically, the workplace allocates majority of its area to individual spaces, but JLL says the future of office will be about collaboration and socialization. New workplace investments will be required to enhance the human experience to support the working life of employees, and in turn, drive their performance.

Some of the top spaces to boost employee experience are for socialization (coffee/tea areas, lounges), focusing on work (concentration pods, focus rooms), connecting with nature, learning and development, creativity (innovation labs, fab labs), collaboration (project rooms), and shared community interests.

"Corporate occupiers must embrace the future of work through hybrid for greater resiliency. Universally, whatever the enterprise, there should be a new focus: always-on transformation leading to always-on resiliency," Puybaraud concluded.