Here are the latest results from AWA's worldwide Hybrid Working Index, tracking office attendance, desk usage and the hybrid working policies of 62 organisations across 220 offices and nearly a quarter of a million people within those offices.
Use of the office is falling, calling for a different approach to how we deliver and manage the workplace.
Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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00:00:00 Karen Plum
Hello there. Do you remember during the pandemic, people talked about getting back to normal? And then it dawned on them that they didn't want to go back to how things were before. The genie was definitely out of the bottle. Flexibility and personal choice are now firmly on the table, and if you look at the data from the AWA’s Hybrid Working Index, you can clearly see, there's no going back.
00:00:25 INTRO: Welcome to AWA’s Podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that every one is unique.
We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the T-shirt, and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work.
00:00:50 Karen Plum
In the summer this year, AWA launched its Hybrid Working Index, which attracted a lot of attention and has quickly become the go-to source for information about how offices are being used.
Here to share the latest results are AWA’s Josh Sumner, who's leading the work on the index. Hello, Josh.
00:01:09 Josh Sumner
Hi Karen, thanks having me.
00:01:10 Karen Plum
And I'm also joined by AWA’s Founder and Managing Director Andrew Mawson. Hello, Andrew.
00:01:16 Andrew Mawson
Good morning, Karen.
00:01:17 Karen Plum
Good to see you both. And here we are, we're a few months into the life of the Hybrid Working Index. Josh, can you just tell us a bit about the Index, what's it all about, why are we doing it?
00:01:30 Josh Sumner
Sure, so back in June this year we decided to launch an index to really track the development of hybrid working strategies and office attendance over time and across different organizations and jurisdictions.
We initially launched it to a slightly smaller subset of our contacts in order to get an understanding of how their offices are being used and how many people are coming into their offices. We're mainly tracking two key statistics, one of which is attendance, which is, very simply the number of people that are coming into the office on any day; and then the other statistic that we're using is desk use, which we calculate by understanding the number of desks that any office has, and then relating that to the number of people that are using the office.
00:02:16 Karen Plum
So we're trying to get a sense of, you know, after two years of the pandemic and the introduction in a lot of organizations of hybrid ways of working, how well the offices are actually being used, 'cause I guess this is an ongoing topic of conversation, isn't it?
00:02:30 Josh Sumner
That's exactly right. As well as the attendance and desk use statistics, the other piece of information that we're very interested in, is whether organizations are enforcing any kind of policy for when their people come in.
00:02:42 Karen Plum
Yes, 'cause I guess during the pandemic period, and as we started to ease into hybrid working, there was lots of different approaches weren't there, to whether they were going to have a very hard and fast policy or whether they were going to let things evolve and see how they went; whether people needed certainty around what they could do.
So, are you finding a real broad church in the policies that have been identified so far?
00:03:08 Josh Sumner
Absolutely - kind of anything from having no policy at all to mandating four to five days a week in the office. What we are seeing is that in our first submission, the most popular position was to have no policy at all, so around 60% of organizations having absolutely no policy.
Now that's slightly shifting and around 60% actually do have some form of policy, whatever that might be, and only around 40% don't have one.
00:03:34 Karen Plum
Right. So I mean in terms of our motivation, AWA’s motivation in establishing this survey Andrew, what was in your mind when you first came up with the idea?
00:03:46 Andrew Mawson
Well, there's a lot of comment and stuff in news about hybrid working and everybody’s got an opinion about it, whether it's a good idea or a bad idea, or good for the economy or bad for the economy. And there are some very powerful forces and in play, particularly around the property industry and we just felt that it was right and proper for an independent party like ourselves to be trying to track what's going on here, because I think in the minds of many senior executives - spoken this way by one or two - an aberration, in which you know, the world had gone mad and everybody was working at home and nobody was coming into the office.
So what we want to try and do is just track the reality and to see whether in fact people are returning to pre pandemic normal life and to get some objective data on the table.
00:04:40 Karen Plum
Absolutely, and it's very consistent with AWA’s evidence-based approach. So gathering this sort of information allows us to make more, or allows the organizations to make more informed decisions.
So Josh just quickly 'cause I know I'm itching to know what the latest results have revealed, but the initial results - what did we find out?
00:05:01 Josh Sumner
Sure, well I think the overarching story is that people are using the office far less than they were pre COVID and that won't surprise anyone. We were seeing around 26% average attendance across the data set and then the corollary to that was that that then meant that on average around two thirds of desks in offices weren't being used.
The other thing again that won't surprise many people that really sticks out from the data is that midweek is far busier than Mondays and Fridays are, and so people are tending to come into the office in that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday period.
00:05:33 Karen Plum
I also know that for the contributors to the survey, you and Andrew held a workshop for them to to discuss the results. How did that go? Were people surprised by the results?
00:05:47 Josh Sumner
By and large, people weren't surprised by the results. The session was really well attended so we had pretty much all of the people who had given data to us for that first submission attend, which was fantastic. What I think was really helpful is that people were able to see that what they were seeing in their offices wasn't a one off, and they weren't kind of alone in seeing what they were seeing.
Because I think it's very easy to think that you're seeing no one coming into the office, maybe this is an aberration, maybe it's just that every other office is really busy and there's just something about our space that isn't working. And what I think they were able to see is that kind of across the board this is a very similar story and that everyone is in the same boat and seeing the same picture, which I think is both reassuring and helpful for future planning.
00:06:34 Karen Plum
Yes, and they can also set that against the policies that the organizations have adopted to see whether the policy is really informing the results that they're getting. I also know that the press were really interested in the results of the initial survey, Andrew.
00:06:52 Andrew Mawson
The world is clamoring for solid data on this. I think the first time around we had a good data set and this time around I think it's way better. I think we've nearly got a quarter of a million people’s worth of data so you know you can't really argue with the results.
So I think the press are always very interested in data. What we were surprised about, I guess, was how far and wide the story went. It was picked up globally from the US to India and beyond. So it's not just a UK or a North American phenomenon, it's something that is happening around the world.
I mean, as you know, we're just opening up a new business in India, I was talking with our colleagues there yesterday and they said exactly the same story. I mean, each of these places got very different dynamics in terms of transportation, economics and so on, but it seems that this is a thing, it's just happening.
00:07:54 Karen Plum
Yes, as you say that the local conditions are important to understand as well, which is why obviously it's important to have local experts on the ground as we do, and it really seems like we're becoming the go-to people for this sort of data, which is really exciting.
So I'm really keen to know about the most recent results, which I think are hot off the press Josh. So can you give us the highlights?
00:08:19 Josh Sumner
Absolutely! So I think the first thing to say is that the data set now is seriously robust. We've more than doubled the number of organizations that have participated, so we've now got 62 organizations representing over 220 offices and nearly a quarter of a million people within those offices. So it's a huge data set and I think therefore very representative. Also very wide-ranging by geography. So we've got organizations in the UK, in Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia Pacific. So a really wide-ranging data set.
And what we're seeing is, I have to say more of the same. There are some changes which are interesting, but the overarching story, I think, is that this isn't going back to normal. And that this way of working seems to be embedded because we're seeing a very, very similar pattern of attendance and desk use that we were seeing a few months ago.
The data set that we have now, the average attendance has gone up very slightly, so it's gone up around 4% on average to around 29% average attendance weekly. Desk use has also gone up slightly - it's up to 37% on average, whereas previously it was around 33%. That's a very small change, so if you look at that as a number of days per week in the office, that's only gone up from 1.4 days on average to 1. 5 days, so a tiny increase.
But the other thing that's interesting is that if you just compare the organizations who took part in both of our submissions, so those twenty offices who submitted data for our first submission and for our second submission, if you track their changes, it's very, very similar, so actually in their first submission they were attending the office on average 26%, which is now down to 25%, but more or less exactly the same - it's less than 1% difference.
Where there has been a slightly bigger change, however, is in their desk use and so their desk use previously was around 31% average per week and it's now up to around 37% and the reason for that is that having seen the data in the previous submission and having seen another couple of months of low office use, they've started to become slightly leaner with their desking provision.
And therefore they're seeing higher desk use by virtue of having less desks in the offices and giving that space up to other types of space for collaboration and for private calls, etc.
00:10:44 Karen Plum
And I guess also they might be, not necessarily these organizations, but of course the opportunity is to use the space for completely other things, either to give up the space to sublet it, or, as you say, to use it for other activities. And I guess that's the big story, really, Andrew, that you can't have offices sitting at 30 odd percent desk occupancy - it just doesn't make economic sense.
00:11:09 Andrew Mawson
I think that's right and it doesn't make economic sense and it doesn't actually make for a particularly good experience when people actually do attend.
What is clear to me, I think, is that companies around the world are gonna have to start thinking about new models of occupancy in order to be able to consolidate their occupancy when people are in. And therefore being able possibly to mothball floors, but more importantly, to create a little bit of buzz and energy on the floors that people do come into 'cause if that's not the case, all you're going to do is you're just going to reinforce the idea that people find no value from coming into a physical location.
So, I think there are quite a lot of implications to all of this, and you know the property industry I think is still, although reluctantly accepting that the world in the secondary market, which is, I think where this phenomenon really starts to hit, the reduction is being quoted - a reduction in demand of 20% or something. I think the data we've got would be much stronger than that. I mean, my sense is that the demand actually is probably heading to a reduction of about 50%.
Now when you've got a lease, you've gotta hang onto it, gotta use it, you gotta do things with it for the duration and of course in North America, leases are much shorter, rents are much lower. In the UK, particularly they're a little bit longer and they're much higher.
So organizations are sitting on space but the point at which the lease has expired, that's when I think you'll see the reduction in demand crystallize, so it's not going to be a big bang, it's going to be a drift down to a lower level of demand, I think.
00:12:56 Karen Plum
Yes, and I guess for the contributors, what they're seeing is the result of whatever policy they're operating, how that's actually playing out in terms of usage, you know people either disregarding their policy and continuing to work away from the office. But maybe this data will give them some ammunition for modifying the policy. Have you seen any of that coming through yet Josh?
00:13:24 Josh Sumner
Yeah, so the data on policies is actually pretty interesting and it's quite different to the data that we saw in the previous index. The first thing to say is that the overall picture of what organizations are doing is different. So previously around 60% of organizations had no policy whatsoever when it came to hybrid working and people were doing kind of whatever they wanted. That's now shifted to around 40%, so more organizations than not now have some form of hybrid policy.
The other thing that's interesting is that now the most popular policy if you have one, is to allow your teams to decide when they're going to come into, to vary that at team level; and then after that it's coming in either two or three days a week are the other second and third most popular policies.
What's interesting about how people are using the office relating to those policies is that organizations that either have no policy or vary that by team seem to be regressing to the mean of around 1. 5 days a week in the office, which is the average that we see across the data set.
For those organizations who ask people to come in two days a week, we're actually seeing that people are coming in slightly more than that. They're coming in around 2.2 days a week. And what's then interesting is that if you ask people to come in three days a week in our data set, people are coming in only 2.3 days a week. So there's not really any difference between the number of people coming in for organizations that are asking for people to come in two days and asking people to come in three days a week.
So it seems that that's kind of your sticking point where people just aren't willing to come in more than they're not. And there doesn't seem to be any benefit in asking people to come in for three days a week 'cause they're going to regress lower to the 2. 2 days.
00:15:02 Karen Plum
But are you aware - either from the contributors or from clients that you're working with -how these two days a week, three days a week, whatever policies are actually enforced and policed, if indeed they are?
00:15:17 Josh Sumner
I think it can really vary. Sometimes you have a really strong three-line whip from the top of the organization and absolutely everyone is on the same page and there's really good communications throughout the organization. Everyone understands the number of days that they're supposed to come in and often actually the thing that you decide at team level is which days are we going to come in and try and make sure that as a team you're in on similar days of the week.
One of the things actually that we see quite often though, is that this can really vary by line manager or by department, and often what you'll see is those managers who are very pro-office working will enforce, say, a stricter hybrid policy, much more than those line managers who are slightly more laissez-faire about these things. And what you then see is a really a disparate working experience within the organization, depending on which team you're in and which line manager you're in.
And that can lead to a breakdown in trust, in positivity towards the organization because you're having such a different experience to people within the organization, just based on who you're being managed by, and that really doesn't seem to be fair.
00:16:24 Karen Plum
00:16:26 Andrew Mawson
The other thing that I've seen in a number of organizations is where there hasn’t been clarity around the policy at all and where it's just being left to everybody to work it out. And the problem then is that middle managers really are left powerless. There is no framework within which they can have a dialogue with their teams. If members of the team say well, we don’t fancy coming in then they'd have to kind of go along with it.
So I think there's a halfway house to be had here, which is to determine the policy and framework at the top of the organization; teach leaders how to have difficult conversations and how to manage in this world; let them have these conversations and come up with new agreements with their teams.
The point that Josh makes, I think, is very important. If we don't get consistency in apparent fairness, what you'll start to see happen is that you know people will feel negative, there'll be a withdrawal of discretionary energy and trust will begin to wane.
So there’s a nice balance I think that you can have, which is not dictating, but maybe dictating the framework, and I think that's quite a good proxy for the way organizations need to be managing in the future as well, because clearly the underpinning of the command and control model I think is still very prevalent in most organizations, it's kind of being whittled away.
You know we now have technology that allows anybody to talk to anybody and you can control organizations and drive organizations without necessarily having hierarchical structures and massive differences in status, so I think that's the direction of travel that we're going in.
00:18:11 Karen Plum
Yes, and I guess what we've been saying for the last couple of years is that one of the things you really have to get a grip on is the skills of the managers that are trying to navigate this new hybrid working world. And obviously that's one of the things that we do with a lot of clients to support managers to develop skills and to take different approaches and to develop these sorts of agreements that I think you've both referred to within the team to determine how they are going to work in this new hybrid world.
And I guess this data provides another piece of evidence as to why they should be doing that.
00:18:48 Andrew Mawson
Well, I mean my sense Karen, the thing that struck me and you know, probably should have seen this on the first time round, the first cycle, is if you think about now, we've got people on average attending the office 1 1/2 days a week and that means that they're not attending 3 1/2 days a week.
Well, in the old world, that statistic was turned around the other way. And so that is a very profound change, really, when we start thinking about the way we go about managing communities of people and maintaining things like visibility and trust and managing to build community and all those sorts of things. And those are not things really that many managers had to focus on quite so strongly.
So I think we're at a very profound moment here, where in order to be able to deliver success, there is no doubt in my mind that senior leaders in organizations are really going to need to shift their thinking. And if you look at what has been happening and it’s very much an over generalization, but I do think from the data what you see is that the vast majority of people want a different kind of life.
And yet, you see at the top of organizations, leaders trying to somehow get back to the old way of doing things and the data is clear, now, that this is not going to happen. So it does mean that people at the top end of organizations are going to have to take a look at themselves and they’re going to have to start thinking about, you know, learning new ways to run their organizations - because the old ways are not going to work.
You know to this point, I think a lot of people have been just sort closing the curtains and hoping that you know at some point things will return to how they were before, but it's not happening, so I think we're in the middle of some really quite profound changes here.
00:20:51 Karen Plum
Yes, and if we think about the man who's much in the news at the moment, Elon Musk mandating that everybody should be back in the office 40 hours a week, at least, promoting a long hours culture, but also one of his reasons, I believe, was that he wanted to get the most from his property assets - we can't have the buildings standing empty.
I mean, what's all that about?
00:21:13 Andrew Mawson
Well, I mean Elon Musk is one of one, isn’t he? And I'm not sure it's right that we should spend all of our time thinking about what Elon’s doing. I mean, he's in a very specific situation. He's just spent £44 billion of his own money and somebody else’s to buy Twitter, which I think is about 7 or 8,000 people, that has a disproportionate amount of influence in the world and he wants to change it very quickly.
He's clearly alienated quite a lot of the workforce which is decimated. So who knows what's going to go on there. But I do think there are some senior leaders who, to this point have been really thinking they can continue with these more draconian models. I mean even the idea that you should tell people they should come into an office two or three days a week seems to me crazy. If coming into an office brings value, then people should do it and they should do it on the basis that they've learned that that is the case and it should be something quite natural.
The notion that you want to sort of lock people in a space for two days or something, I mean, I realize that at a senior level it's quite difficult because these are very new nuanced directives, but really where you want to try and move to ultimately is a model where people begin to understand the value that they get, and they organize to go into an office together to get that value, not be told like children that they need to turn up on certain days.
So you know, I think that's an evolution that we're going to have to be nudging towards.
00:22:48 Josh Sumner
If I can just add to that, I think, although these leaders may want people to be in the office more than they're not, I think the fact of the matter is that it's just not going to be sustainable to have a policy like that because people will vote with their feet and there will be organizations who do offer that kind of flexibility, who will be far more attractive to certainly younger generations who are coming out of university now. And one of the first questions that we're hearing HR leaders say that they're being asked in interviews is what is your working from home policy? What can I expect from a flexible working policy at this organization?
So unless organizations offer this, they're going to find it really difficult to attract talent and therefore I think this will just regress to a point where everyone is doing something like this because otherwise you just can't attract the talent.
And then on the point of real estate, of wasting your real estate, your real estate not working for you, again I think future offices may be slightly smaller than they are now, but I think the main thing that will be different is that they will be doing different things. So they won't just be a place to sit down at your desk, they'll be offering far more interesting and value adding experiences than simply churning out work, so things like collaboration and social cohesion.
All of these things which are really important and that being together is a real benefit and accelerator for. The office will start to facilitate those kinds of activities rather than simply sitting at your desk and working on a spreadsheet or answering your emails.
00:24:13 Karen Plum
Absolutely. So final question just because I'm curious and because something that I heard in the media a few weeks ago as we in the Northern hemisphere head into the winter months, there was a suggestion that the winter and the cost of living crisis, the cost of fuel, might drive people back to their offices rather than heating their houses. Have you seen any signs of that yet?
00:24:36 Josh Sumner
I haven't, it’s a pretty depressing thought, isn't it?
00:24:40 Karen Plum
Isn’t it? I guess it's a tradeoff between the energy costs and travel costs, right? Because if you're going to go into the office and you don't just live down the road, then you’ve got to pay for your fare.
00:24:48 Josh Sumner
Well, this is the thing and I think there'll be a number of things offsetting each other, which may mean that we don't see any kind of big change on the one hand. And it's very sad to say there will be people, probably who are looking for free or cheap heating and electricity during the day, and that will go into the office for that.
On the other hand, as you said, commuting is becoming more expensive, rail strikes are becoming more often and so getting into the office is becoming a harder and more expensive thing. The other thing is that a commute is, I don't want to say daunting, but a much less attractive proposition at 7:00 AM, pitch black in the cold than it is in the summer when it's sunny and you can look forward to a nice walk to your office or to and from the station.
So I think as the cold and the dark mornings start to come in, I think actually you may see less people venturing out the house in general, not just to offices.
00:25:40 Karen Plum
So you're telling me I should just buy another sweater then?
00:25:45 Josh Sumner
Yeah, and some big socks!
00:25:47 Karen Plum
Sounds good! So look, we're nearly out of time but really great to hear what's coming out of the new survey and I believe that the summary report is already available, so I'll put a link in our show notes - people can just head to our website advanced-workplace.com and they can download the report there
And I guess we're looking for more contributors. So how do people get involved, Josh?
00:26:13 Josh Sumner
That's absolutely right, Karen, we're certainly looking for more organizations and actually the first thing to say is, thank you very much to anyone who has contributed so far and we're really grateful for your support on this.
We're looking for absolutely anyone to get involved, we’re looking to have as broad a data set as possible, and so if this report is interesting to you or the data is interesting you, please just either get in touch with myself my e-mail will be in the show notes, or through the contact-us page on our website and someone will be in touch to tell you how to get involved.
00:26:45 Karen Plum
And how much does it cost to get involved?
00:26:47 Josh Sumner
Absolutely free Karen. All that we ask is for a little bit of data from you and then you'll get a report back with some benchmark data of your organization versus the data set and also an invitation to a roundtable where we'll be talking about the data and what people are going to be doing in the future, based on the results.
00:27:04 Karen Plum
I think the other thing to say is that participation is confidential, so we're not publishing lists of contributors and we're not saying who's involved very deliberately to keep all of that confidential for people.
00:27:17 Josh Sumner
That's a very good point. Everything is absolutely confidential and you'll only see your data broken down by geography or sector.
00:27:25 Karen Plum
So please do get in touch if you're interested, we'd love to add you to our database of contributors. When's the next data gathering exercise?
00:27:34 Andrew Mawson
Well, probably the next phase of data gathering will be March time with the next report coming out probably towards the end of April, I would think.
We’re just very grateful to all the organizations that have participated in the AWA Hybrid Working Index, and we'd encourage more people to get involved - the more data we have, the more robust we have as a data set, and the more concentration we have.
We've got some good data across different geographies, but it would be nice to do more to look at specific cities and get a bit more concentration there. But yeah, it's going very well and hopefully this is information that people are using to plan their future workplace arrangements and that's our aim really.
00:28:25 Karen Plum
Fantastic, well it's been really great to hear all of the highlights of the new research and to talk to both of you about the Index. Thanks for your time.
00:28:33 Josh Sumner
00:28:34 Andrew Mawson
00:28:35 Karen Plum
That's all for this episode. Isn't it fascinating to see how much the world of work is changing? It took a deadly virus to show what was possible and its accelerated change in a way that would have been difficult to imagine before 2020.
The world has become one big hybrid working case study and I guess we'll continue to learn as we move towards a new, better normal.
00:29:01 CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website, advanced-workplace.com. Thank you so much for listening. See you next time. Goodbye.