Offices in South Africa are facing a new work from home headache

Even before the pandemic, people complained the open-plan office was noisy and distracting – and it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say they were going home to work because they could not find a place to concentrate in the office.

Fast forward to 2022, and the problem has only worsened, says Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, one of South Africa’s largest workplace design consultancies.

“The way people work has significantly changed as video meetings have become a norm and people working in the office have flooded to enclosed spaces so they can avoid disturbing others and have the acoustic and visual privacy to stay focused,” she said.

According to the most recent survey by Steelcase, who are represented In South Africa by Giant Leap, when asked what’s become more important in the office now – compared to pre-pandemic – four of the top five were related to privacy and places to do individual work:

  • 64% said spaces for hybrid collaboration;
  • 62% said single-person enclaves for hybrid meetings;
  • 61% said privacy;
  • 58% said workstations with full or partial enclosure;
  • 57% said reservable workspaces.

“What employees really want is an office that helps them easily do both collaborative and individual work, where they feel a greater sense of belonging and control over their work experience,” said Trim.

In fact, most people want their own, dedicated desk so much that they are willing to trade remote workdays to get it, she said.

“When asked which they would prefer, 55% would work from home two or fewer days per week if they had an assigned desk in the office, while only 45% prefer to work from home three or more days a week and not have an assigned desk.”

“The desire for a dedicated workspace reflects people’s need to feel like they have a home in the office, where they feel like they belong and have the privacy they need to do their work,” Trim said.

Unable to find the privacy they’re seeking at work, it should not be surprising that 45% of people prefer working from home, she said.

“Their work-from-home experience during the pandemic has shown them the value of having a place to call their own – 70% of people globally have either an office or a dedicated zone within their home where they have more control over their environment.”

Shift in office spaces

While spaces in the office for hybrid collaboration ranked first on the list of things people feel are more important than before the pandemic, it’s clear that spaces where people can effectively work alone, without distractions, are critically important for people to feel their office is a great place to work, said Trim.

“Yet, many organisations are considering designing their offices primarily for collaboration and social connection and not realising people’s increased need for privacy.

“In addition, organisations are shifting to more unassigned spaces as they adjust to hybrid work and new office occupancy patterns. At large organisations (10,000+ employees), 15% of employees have lost assigned desks, compared to pre-pandemic; overall, regardless of the size of the organisation, there has been a 10% decrease in employees with assigned desks.”

The unintended result is people feel a sense of ‘homelessness’ if they come to the office and can’t find a place to work alone, she said.

“But the data is clear: People want and need a place to call home where they can control and adapt their environment.”

Problems not unique to South Africa 

Data published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London this week shows similar findings – Londoners enjoy and value working from home and don’t see a future that includes a return to the old five-day office week, no matter what politicians, their bosses or the media say.

Almost 80% of London-based staff who now work remotely at least once a week say the experience has been good for them. Four out of five say working from home helps them feel more in control and that they’re happy to cut down on their daily commute. Two-thirds say it’s helped them better manage home and family responsibilities.

The King’s study comes as employees across the UK begin an official six-month experiment working a four-day work week. More than 3,000 workers at 70 companies will take part in the trial with no loss of pay, in what organizers say is the biggest pilot of its type to take place anywhere in the world.

“For all the political and media focus on whether working from home means working less hard, most people disagree with this view, regardless of their politics, age or seniority,” said Mark Kleinman, professor of public policy at King’s.

Three in five respondents said they would react negatively if they were forced to come into the office more often — despite the fact that they still feel positive about their offices and don’t find it difficult to get work done there. Among the biggest benefits to working from home are avoiding the commute, managing home responsibilities and feeling a greater sense of control.

With further reporting by Bloomberg.

Read: South Africa’s economy is back to where it was before Covid – but citizens are becoming poorer

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Offices in South Africa are facing a new work from home headache