"A colorful sofa alone cannot transform an office into an oasis of well-being"

After COVID-19: The office will have a future as a workplace if it is structured more humanely, says Alice Hollenstein.

May 13, 2022

A conversation with Alice Hollenstein

Founder of Urban Psychology Consulting & Research and Co-Managing Director of CUREM, University of Zurich

Alice Hollenstein, you're an urban and architectural psychologist. Where are you right now?

Alice Hollenstein: I'm in my kitchen. You can't see the oven behind me because I've blurred my background. I'm a fan of working from home, and I do it quite often. In contrast to many other people, I'm an integrator – that is, I don't draw much of a line between work and my private life. In the morning, I work until my daughter wakes up. That's how I'm able to combine work and family life.

Not everyone sees this as positively as you do.

That's true. Many people work at home more than at the office. They find it difficult to separate work and leisure time. And during the pandemic, we've seen an increase in psychological problems. Overall, however, there is no evidence of a causal link between these problems and working from home. Other pandemic-related restrictions have been in place while people have been working at home, and those may have also had an impact.

We have seen that it is possible to work from home. Can Zoom and Teams meetings really take the place of personal interaction?

No. They are a useful alternative for providing brief updates, but they're not so well suited to creative interactions. There is also evidence that inhibitions drop when people communicate online, leading to more misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

But you believe that the advantages of working from home outweigh the disadvantages?

I think a combination of working at the office and at home is ideal. Arranging meetings and exchanging views is quicker online. There's no need to travel, which saves time. Home-based work has arrived, and to some extent it's here to stay.

Are others as productive as you are at home?

(She laughs) I'm not sure how productive I really am. It depends, first of all, on self-discipline, and also on whether you have a suitable workspace at home. It's difficult if you can't get away from your children, for example.

What else is important if you want to work efficiently at home?

Self-control – for example, being able to resist the yogurt in the refrigerator. It's helpful to have a clearly defined routine, separating work and leisure. That's not always easy, of course. By the way, studies have shown that, compared to men, women believe that they are more productive when working from home.

A lot of people have welcomed the increased autonomy they have at home.

Many millennials in the United States have become self-employed, seeking flexibility and freedom. A significant number have started and operated their own businesses on the side, while continuing to be employed. According to the US Census Bureau, 5.4 million new companies were registered in the United States in 2021 – a million more than in 2020.

So would you say that it's good for a company to have trust, but better to monitor employees working from home?

I wouldn't put it that way. A different management style and different structures are needed. Monitoring the time people spend working at home is not very useful. It's more important for a company to require the completion of certain tasks.

In the future, what fraction of people will be working from home?

A number of surveys have addressed that question. Most show that the majority of work will be office-based, accounting for about 60% of working hours. I'm not entirely convinced by those numbers. If people were able to choose freely, it's likely that more than 40% would opt to work from home. If a substantial number of employees go to the office, however, that leads to peer pressure and a feeling of missing out if you don't do the same.

Will the office become obsolete? 

No. People don't want to receive clients at home. They need presentable rooms or offices for holding meetings. Those are very important, as is the company headquarters, which is visible in the analog world and creates a certain identity.

At the office, people interact with one another on a social and professional level. This can bring teams together and lead to better results than when people work at home. Offices are also especially important for young people, say under the age of 30. These are places where they can build relationships. That's crucial for progressing in their careers, making friends, and maybe even falling in love. 

And there are some jobs that can't be done from home.

That's right – sales, for example. Whether or not you want to make a deal with someone depends on the trust you have in that person. Online, on Zoom or Teams, we don't have the kind of information that allows us to form an opinion of another person in a fraction of a second like we do in real life. It therefore takes much longer to trust someone online.

Many workers are now looking forward to a partial return to the office, where it's feasible.

It's actually a majority that feels that way.

What will it take for all workers to want to return to their office workplaces?

Companies might offer their employees the fringe benefit of a well-integrated individual office, or cover the costs of commuting to work via public transportation. In general, at a time when companies are competing to hire skilled workers, it's becoming increasingly important to provide a workplace where people feel comfortable.

That sounds like a living room. Is that the future of the office?

Yes, but that's not all. The trend is toward a salutogenic approach to work, one that promotes good health. This means workplaces free of leaking hazardous building substances, where the air quality is good, the lighting does not cause headaches, outdoor spaces are available, and privacy is maintained. Architecture can accommodate these needs to some extent by designing modifiable office floorplans that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Are modifiable floorplans the solution?

A certain amount of flexibility is certainly desirable. However, I'm not convinced by most of the workplace concepts that are currently in style. They're like an upscale residential environment with colorful sofas – which, alone, cannot transform an office into an oasis of well-being. Sometimes less is more.

A noise barrier or privacy screen in a large office, for example?

Yes, but it might also be a nice shower – not off somewhere in the basement – so people can freshen up after exercising during their lunch break.

The percentage of people working from home has never been as large as it is today. Companies can now save money by reducing their office space. Would you agree with that? 

So far I haven't observed that offices have shrunk significantly. If people go to the office, there should be room for everyone. So companies will continue to use the space they have as long as they can afford to do so. That's my assumption.

It is clear that the pandemic has caused a decline in the market for office space in decentralized locations.

I suspect that the influence of the pandemic on the market is being overestimated. There has long been little demand for offices in unattractive locations. That will not change. And it's difficult to find tenants when there is too much office space on the market. Prices for offices in attractive urban locations are once again higher than they were before the pandemic.

What is your prediction: How will the market for office real estate change over the coming years?

It's difficult to say. In recent years, the biggest drivers of the real estate boom have been the economy, cheap money, and immigration. The greatest challenges for economic development today are inflation and indebtedness. I'm assuming that offices in well-developed urban locations will always be in demand.

Alice Hollenstein

Alice Hollenstein

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