The future of the modern workplace is in flux, Blueground survey says

Some residents in Dubai reported not being as productive yet putting in longer hours while working from home

epa08212466 As a precautionary measure, some 300 DBS Bank employees vacated their office at Marina Bay Financial Centre in Singapore, 12 February 2020, after an employee was confirmed to be infected with the novel coronavirus. The employees have been told to work from home for the time being, media reported. Singapore has so far reported 47 cases of the virus, one of the highest number of infections outside China.  EPA/CHOO YUN TING/THE STRAITS TIMES/SPH -- BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE -- SINGAPORE OUT  EDITORIAL USE ONLY
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The future of the modern workplace is in flux, according to a survey conducted by Blueground, a New York property technology company that operates in a dozen cities around the world, including Dubai and Istanbul.

While those in healthcare, ecommerce and media businesses are more likely to report greater output due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact, others may not feel as productive.

A survey of 500 people across the locations where Blueground  operates shows residents surveyed in Dubai feel they are getting less done while working more hours and feeling a higher level of anxiety while working from home.

"There's certainly preference for a hybrid model of working from home and going to the office," Amine Housni, regional manager of Blueground, the New York property technology company that conducted the survey, told The National.

Blueground provides leases and property management through its app for furnished apartments in desirable neighbourhoods in a dozen cities around the world. It has 3,500 units in its portfolio and surveyed its customers about their experience working from home in April and May.

Those sounding the death knell for offices amid a global work-from-home experiment may want to look at its findings: two-thirds of its Dubai guests report that they’re getting the same or less done as they did when working from an office, and half said they are working "much more". Half of those surveyed also reported feeling greater anxiety right now than they had pre-pandemic.

This echos a stark warning from Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom back in March, who studies remote work. He said that the global work-from-home movement, intended to maintain output during the pandemic, could actually generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years.

As restrictions around the world are lifted and office workers begin returning to their physical office spaces, many are wondering what the "new normal" will look like.

"There's this weird false binary when we talk about the future of work, that we should either be chained to our desk or do everything by Zoom," Tom Goodwin, head of futures and insight at Publicis Groupe, told The National. "We need to have a mature conversation about the nature of jobs and what they really require."

Offices convey confidence in the future of a company and will not be done away with at all, he said.

"While everyone right now is longing for green fields and loving baking bread, we must remember that we are a social species and trust comes from presence."

Offices allows for the "vital" basic necessity of allowing everyone to come together at once in the same place. During a recession, large investments in new fit-outs, technology infrastructure or office space are unlikely, he added. However, company leave and remote work policies may provide room for longer escapes to connect with nature or have some down time.

Mr Housni agrees. Blueground apartments come furnished. Its millennial target demographic is, by reputation, fairly nomadic and prefers flexible work, and flats are designed to reflect that. But prior to the pandemic, it was common for customers to request that desks be removed from units as most people preferred to head to an office, cafe or co-working space for the day.

"Now they are asking for the desks back," he said, but he doesn't think this will last.

At the start of 2020, the company was planning a rapid expansion, looking to go from 550 units in Dubai to 1,000 and from 3,500 globally to 55,000.

Today, those plans are on hold. But when business picks back up Mr Housni said he would be eyeing a different type of unit: more square footage and a preference for balconies or outdoor space in a low-rise building. Memories of being shut in a high-rise for a long stretch will linger, he said.

WeWork, which never shut its locations in Abu Dhabi or Dubai during the UAE work-from-home orders, has modified its shared spaces with staggered seating and signage to guide safe social distancing.

The increased sanitisation practices and cleaning supplies on offer, as well as the signage are "part of the new normal", the company said in a widely distributed manual of the changes it is implementing.

"Our aim is to ease the transition for those coming back to the workplace, while still maintaining the feeling of collaboration and connection," Riad Thoumas, general manager of WeWork UAE told The National.

So far that's proving difficult. Booths originally designed for close collaboration, are limited to one per person. 
"This 'new normal' won't be entirely logical," Mr Goodwin said. He predicts we will return to how things were much more quickly and easily than one may assume.

"This is an opportunity to go to a blank sheet of paper" to completely reevaluate what the future of work should look like, he said. Otherwise, the opportunity for lasting change will pass.