Traditionally, the typical office building served as a place to sit at a desk and work from 9 to 5. We would show up, do our job and go home. Over the past several decades, this has shifted. Led by the tech boom of the early 2000s, many companies began introducing new office amenities that would entice workers to stay in the office for longer hours. What started as foosball tables and catered meals morphed into yoga studios, nap pods and smoothie bars.
By the 2010s, the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon were building and opening super campuses that featured an endless number of amenities. Designed to meet the needs of employees both professionally and personally, they redefined the office as more than just a place to work. Employees could feasibly eat three meals a day, get a workout or haircut in and even take a nap—all without setting foot off company property.
While these were seemingly great perks (free food!), they also came with a price: Workers were never more than a few hundred feet from their desks, spending more time in the office than ever before.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and everything changed.
Employees now come to the office to connect with others.
If the last few years have taught us anything about work, it’s that the status quo of pre-pandemic life no longer works for most people. Most employees have realized that they can be just as productive—if not more productive—working remotely, raising the bar for what would make returning to the office worth it to them. Companies can try to force their hand, but we’ve seen countless examples of this backfiring.
To make the case for why it’s worthwhile to commute to the office, it’s important to understand the current motivations of employees.
For starters, Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index Special Report found that 73% of employees say they need a better reason to go into the office than just company expectations. And for many, that reason is to get their daily dose of human connection. Eighty-four percent of employees in the Microsoft study say they would be motivated by the promise of socializing with co-workers, while 85% would be motivated by rebuilding team bonds.
Supporting the notion of our heightened desire for effective collaboration at work, in a recent study from my own company Jabra, 75% of the group of highest collaborators surveyed—those who spent more than 50% of their time in meetings—reported a preference for the home office. As our study notes, this is likely due to the convenience remote meetings offer high collaborators by enabling them to enter their next meeting at the click of a button—rather than rushing from room to room.
In addition, a Zoom-Momentive survey found that most employees are currently taking their cues on preference for working from home or from the office on cues from their colleagues—in other words, they see the most value in being in the “office” where their team is working.
Connecting with colleagues in person seems to be the best motivator for enticing workers back to the office. Appropriately, connection with others has become of greater value than any amenity a workplace might offer.
An effective hybrid office must be virtual-first.
So, if employees just want to be together in the office, what’s wrong with a mandate? Well, one major indicator of employee satisfaction and performance is autonomy. When employees have the freedom to choose where and when they work, they score better (subscription required) on factors such as motivation, belonging, trust, mental well-being and work-life balance.
So while one may think that office mandates will provide that sense of togetherness that employees are looking for, implementing them can actually create larger counter-problems. The most important thing that leaders can do is give their employees that autonomy, then create an in-office experience that maximizes that sense of togetherness.
In a working world in which 80% of meetings are now either fully virtual or hybrid, leaders must create a virtual-first working experience where their employees can truly connect with anyone from anywhere. As mentioned earlier, our own study indicated the degree to which a team’s highest collaborators prefer the home office. This is especially true for those workers often working with those outside of their own office: After all, if you’re going to spend your entire day alone on calls, this negates many of the benefits you might receive from connecting with co-workers in an office.
To make offices a real amenity for workers rather than a required nuisance, here are three strategies that can help leaders redesign their offices for the future.
1. The best thing you can offer employees is human connection.
Leaders must design an office that keeps our renewed desire for human connection in mind. This means prioritizing spaces where organic connections can happen and rethinking in-person communication beyond “water-cooler” chats.
2. Hybrid work means some people will almost always be joining a meeting remotely.
It’s crucial to create enough collaboration spaces and equip meeting rooms with the proper audio, video and other collaborative technologies needed to bring remote participants into the room and put all participants on an equal footing.
3. Don’t let investments in office redesigns overshadow the ongoing need for flexibility.
Employees still want to spend roughly half of their time working remotely, so provide them with the necessary support, training and technology to make the most of that time.
Connection and collaboration are key.
The role of the office has fundamentally changed—it’s time for leaders to embrace that people are the new office amenity and adjust their office designs and expectations accordingly.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com.