After a year of large-scale remote work, the business world is re-imaging the office of the future. Most companies seem headed toward a hybrid workplace post-pandemic, one in which employees rotate in and out of offices while working remotely the rest of the time.

In November and December 2020, PwC surveyed both executives and employees on the topic of remote work. The study, US Remote Work Survey, included 133 US executives from three different sectors: financial services; technology, media and telecommunications; and retail and consumer products. Eighty-three percent of those executives were from companies with annual revenues of more than $1 billion. PwC also surveyed 1,200 US office workers from various industries during that same period.

They found almost all companies plan to support 50% of their workers on-site by the end of 2021. They also found that many knowledge workers have moved from New York and California to less-expensive areas, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas.

Here’s what else they learned:

1. Remote work has been a great success 

Eighty-three percent of employers and 71% of employees say remote work is successful. And compared to a June 2020 survey, employees said they are even more productive now. Their bosses agree. 

  • In June 2020, 44% of employers and 28% of employees said work productivity had improved over the prolonged work-from-home period. 
  • In January 2021, 52% of employers and 34% of employees said the same.

The survey found that companies took specific actions to help their workforces perform more effectively. The action ranked as most successful (by 79% of employee respondents) was allowing workers the flexibility to manage family matters.

Everything you need to know about remote work. Get the Remote Work Playbook

The largest gap between employers’ and employees’ perceptions of a company’s success in supporting remote work had to do with childcare. While just 45% of employees said their company was successful in extending benefits for childcare, 81% of employers thought their company was successful in that area. Women (41%) were less happy with childcare measures than men (49%).

In the future, with remote work in mind, US executives plan to invest the most in: 

  • Tools for virtual collaboration (72%)
  • IT infrastructure to secure virtual connectivity (70%)
  • Training for managers to manage a virtual workforce (64%)

2. Employers expect workers back in the office sooner than employees want to return

There’s an interesting dichotomy in when employers and employees expect to see offices fill up again. Seventy-five percent of employers expect at least half their workforce back on-site by July 2021, whereas only 61% of office workers want the same. 

It’s hard to plan a return to the office because there are still unpredictable variables:

  • How do you align your workforce scheduling with schools reopening? Many employees have children at home doing remote schooling.
  • When will it be safe to resume business travel?
  • When will vaccinations be available and given in sufficient numbers?

3. Employers and employees differ on the best balance of workdays in office vs remote

Sixty-eight percent of executives think that people should be back in the office at least three days per week once the pandemic has passed. However, 55% of employees would like to be remote three days or more each week. Twenty-nine percent would like to be remote five days per week.

One thing we’ve learned from the unusual circumstances this past year is that employees like flexibility.

  • 58% of women would like to work remotely three days a week or more, as compared to 51% of men.
  • 34% of employees aged 18 to 24 would prefer to be remote one day a week or less, compared to 20% of all respondents.

PwC says it’s critical to specify who needs to be in the office and why. What happens at the office, is it valuable enough to keep employees coming in, and does your current configuration meet expectations to use the office primarily as a meeting place?

A majority of employers (32%) said that as business performance is not suffering, the company will likely increase the number of employees working remotely.

Here’s how employers say performance is going under remote work:

  • Collaborating on new projects: 44% say it’s better than pre-COVID, and 39% say it’s about the same.
  • Securing relationships with new customers: 43% say it’s better, and 35% say it’s about the same as pre-COVID.
  • Coaching employees to succeed: 44% say it’s better, and 35% say it’s the same as pre-COVID.
  • More than 30% of employees say coaching and onboarding new hires is not going as well as pre-pandemic.

4. The least experienced employees need the office most

Those with the least amount of professional experience (0–5 years) are more interested in returning to the office. Thirty percent want only one day of remote working per week, whereas only 20% of respondents agree. This group also reports feeling less productive (34%) than more experienced colleagues (23%). 

5. What employers consider the most important reasons to have a physical office

  • Increasing employee productivity
  • Providing a place to meet with clients
  • Enabling employees to collaborate effectively
  • Enabling company culture

6. What employees consider the most important reasons to have a physical office

  • Collaborating
  • Accessing equipment or documents securely
  • Meeting with clients or colleagues
  • Training and career development
  • Most executives expect to change their real estate strategy

7. PwC also asked executives about changes to their real estate strategies in the next 12 months

  • 61% said they plan to consolidate office space in at least one premier business district location.
  • 58% said they would open more locations, such as satellite offices in suburbs.
  • 51% expect to consolidate office space but outside of major cities.
  • Only 13% say they will make no changes to their real estate strategy. 

Interestingly, it’s not only locations but also workplace design that’s in transition. Some execs say they’ll need more square feet per employee over the next three years both due to more employees and social distancing needs. Fifty-six percent say they plan to increase space by between 5% and more than 25%.

We are clearly in a transitionary business era. Executives should understand how the work gets done to complete company goals, where it will happen, and the best ways to support their employees throughout these changing times.