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Being Together Turns Out to Be a Big Office Amenity After All

New research and plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that workers are drawn back not for the coffee but for the collaboration

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For Mitch Goldenberg, it was a no-brainer. Any return-to-office mandate didn’t really matter.

“I live in a one-bedroom in New York City. That gets old,” the 35-year-old financial lines worker from the insurance broker Willis Group said while eating his lunch — a salad — in Lower Manhattan’s Winter Garden on a windy late March day. “If you spend half an hour a month with [a person you work with], rather than an hour a week on Zoom, you’re going to get to that level faster. I’d like to see companies do more to draw people in. I think these mandates create a bad vibe.”

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Could it be that after all that’s been spent on wellness centers, gourmet food and beverage, plants and flowers, beehives and golf simulators and outdoor terraces, the strongest and most effective strategy to bring people back to the office might just have been people rubbing shoulders with people once again? That plain old friendship might have been the most powerful attraction all along?

“First is the flip side of this, which is loneliness,” said Amanda Kross, head of Americas consulting for the brokerage JLL (JLL). “One of the things that we’ve seen in our latest research is that, for employees that are in a hybrid setting, they have increased levels of loneliness, compared to those who are either remote or in person. So the dynamic of different schedules, time together, whether physical or virtual, has increased the amount of loneliness. Some 45 percent of those who are hybrid say they are lonely. Whereas, for our office-only, it’s 15 percent.”

In a study of brain waves conducted on Singapore employees at a neuroscience firm, JLL in 2022 found that being together boosts engagement, especially while doing creative, focus and seminar-type activities.

“People are social animals,” said Caroline Gadaleta, JLL’s New York tri-state property manager. “They crave and desire interaction with other human beings.”

Rival Cushman & Wakefield (CWK) has a program called “experience per square foot,” which purports to take a deep dive into what makes employees tick: what drives them; what makes them happy; what makes them healthy, productive and engaged.

“We’ve captured close to 200,000 data points now,” said Bryan Berthold, C&W’s global lead for workplace experience. “Since the pandemic, we wanted to know, ‘Was working from home working? Is coming back to the office working?’ Looking at things like what is the impact of newness? Looking at these softer areas. Are people bonding? Are they socializing, collaborating, building relationships?”

In a February report by the artificial intelligence-driven research firm Placer.ai that tracked the locations of smartphones, it found that the “remote work war is far from over,” and that “companies are ramping up efforts to get workers back to the office.” Those companies want to justify what they are spending to rent offices. As for landlords, they want to protect the value of their investments, which have suffered 20 to 30 percent losses in many markets as laptop-packing employees find more and more reasons to stay away.

Data from Placer.ai shows a decided bell curve to employees returning to the office, with Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays showing the highest levels of office utilization, and Mondays and Fridays the lowest. But, even on those midweek days when the commute to the office seems most compelling, the data shows 34 percent, 33 percent and 35 percent non-utilization, respectively, compared to 2019, meaning that one out of three workers stays away even on the days when being in the office makes the most sense. (Non-utilization averaged 46 percent on Mondays and 49 percent on Fridays.)

In general, companies have hoped to lure workers back by emphasizing the benefits of in-person work for collaboration, mentorship and learning a company’s culture. But, according to a JLL study, the firm found that face-to-face collaboration alone was by far the biggest motivating factor for companies wanting their employees to come in, with well over 80 percent of respondents citing it. It easily beat such popular choices as cultivating company culture and potential productivity gains.

“The flexibility is super-rational,” said Ethan Chernofsky, Placer.ai’s senior vice president for marketing. “Is Friday a necessary day for me to commute in an hour, and back home an hour? That’s a good day for me to work from home. Visits are down less on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays than they were in the past. What this is telling us is the rationality of the decision-making speaks to the power of hybrid work. It speaks to a clear decision-making process.”

JLL found that “cognitive load” — what the brokerage described as “the emotional and physiological response to uncontrollable or unpredictable situations” peaks on Tuesdays and dips on Wednesdays, which employers are advised to consider when scheduling certain work activities.

At Vocon, an architectural firm with offices in New York and Cleveland that specializes in workspaces, Sarah McCann, the firm’s real estate strategy director, said the focus is on combating the “isolating” impacts of the pandemic. That includes having dispersed workers to remote locations.

“We’re hearing a lot about creating a lot of comfortable social spaces in the office, to encourage friendship,” she said. “It’s not just putting a foosball table in and providing free beer after work.” Instead, it’s about creating “good acoustic space, where people feel they can actually get to know people in a comfortable, casual way.”

The firm is also being called upon to design more spaces where people can collaborate, McCann said. Studies show that friendships at work are linked to retention of workers. Clients want to provide “true socialization, not forced socialization,” she said. “That’s what’s really been missing since the pandemic.”

McCann offered two examples, both crafted by Vocon. One is a club designed for tenants only at 1 Willoughby Square, a skyscraper going up in Brooklyn, and the other is a 15,000-square-foot former retail space in a tower in Manhattan’s Plaza District, which has been turned into a cafe for building workers and their guests.

For Tishman Speyer — whose global real estate portfolio includes Rockefeller Center, the MetLife Building and the Spiral, the Hudson Yards office tower with outdoor terraces spiraling up its sides — keeping up the value of its office portfolio is too important to leave to chance. So, it is pursuing both angles, both doing its best to make workers feel wanted and comfortable, and pursuing amenities to make the job easier.

“Tishman’s mantra has always been ‘Give people a reason to want to come back,’ ” a spokesman said.

Its best-known office tenants in New York, besides MetLife, include the global business consultancy Deloitte, the financial firm Lazard, the publisher Simon & Schuster, and the banking giant JPMorgan Chase. Well before the pandemic, Tishman introduced Zo, one of the first app-based amenities schedulers that allowed office occupants access to myriad programs, kind of like a concierge on your smartphone.

It may be advisable for landlords and employers to take an “all of the above” approach to engaging the workers who are expected to occupy their buildings. Going forward, a workplace will likely no longer be a static setting.

“We know that community and employee well-being are two of the plus factors that influence someone to stay at work,” JLL’s Kross said. “Having all the pieces and amenities that support that are required. We know that employers are seeking environments as well as amenities. Employees are using those environments, and it happens to align with the culture.”