Businesses are using ‘sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists’ to work out how to get staff back to the office

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Businesses are using ‘sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists’ to work out how to get staff back to the office

Bosses have tried everything to convince staff they’ll be happier working in the office than at home, from free lunches to subsidized commutes. When that hasn’t worked, they’ve tried putting their foot down.

Now, exasperated employers want to know what makes their workers tick.

Neil Murray, CEO of Work Dynamics at real estate services group Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), indicated businesses were examining every angle of a worker’s brain to find the right formula to get them back to the office. 

Most bosses want workers back under their noses, at least in a hybrid model, but are struggling with resistance from employees who have grown used to flexibility. 

Murray’s unit consults significant corporations on their real estate footprint, covering everything from a space’s sustainability to workers’ interactions with that space. The latter is becoming increasingly crucial to businesses before they shell out a fortune on Grade A office space.

Changing space

He describes a new approach to designing these spaces as “a moment in time of reinvention of space” that emphasizes human behavior.

“Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists. You get an input, and everybody has slightly different opinions,” Murray told Fortune.

Murray says this way of thinking has shifted drastically since the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses now need to consider how their office spaces can benefit employees. 

“You completely shift that paradigm and think, ‘Why do I need space in the first place if I can conduct my business virtually? What’s its purpose?’ And then you need those inputs from various people to try and think about the psychology of what’s going to make people comfortable.”

The Future of Real Estate, a new report from JLL published Thursday, looks at the requirements of corporate office space following the AI revolution. Companies will likely focus more on the social impact of spaces, prioritizing “wellness, hospitality, and entertainment,” the authors say. 

But that doesn’t mean an array of attractive workspace additions, like gyms and cinemas, is the answer to increasing office attendance.

JLL’s Murray says his group has tested every possible amenity that might entice workers back to the office, including free lunches or coffee machines. However, there isn’t a silver bullet.

“The most attractive amenity to bring people back is other people,” he says.

Creating an office that brings them together, Murray says, is becoming a generational battle.

The psychological differences between Gen Z workers and their older colleagues are emerging as one of the factors behind a reevaluation of office space. Murray says attending university in a remote setting before graduating into hybrid work has altered young workers’ needs compared with their predecessors. 

“There’s bound to be some collective psychological differences in that generation in terms of expectations,” Murray said.

Office space

Beyond generational- and incentive-based considerations, Murray says businesses who are taking the stick approach to bringing staff into the office aren’t seeing much success.

“The ones that try to be prescriptive and try to mandate three days, we’re seeing pretty much exactly the same attendance for the ones that aren’t pushing a mandate, and it’s settling at that just under three days a week.”

Murray says that businesses are typically settling on a three-day hybrid model, adding that younger and later career workers spend more time in the office than mid-career workers. 

Speaking to Fortune in February, Murray’s colleague, EMEA CEO Sue Aspey Price, said companies asking staff to come back to the office four days a week were doing so with the expectation they would only return for three days.

Aspey Price says this because changes to office space requirements led to a downsizing through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If everybody followed the policies that are being put out there, a lot of companies don’t have anywhere near enough space,” she said.

“If every working team came in on those days, the chances of them having enough space are almost non-existent.”

Murray thinks offices will see a return of designated workspaces for employees, countering the widespread uptake of hot-desking, even if it means workers alternating days at their desks.

“You think about the notion of everybody moving toward total unassigned, well where’s the ‘me’ space in there, and where’s your own personality?”

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