Remote vs. the Office: The Impact of Workspace on Performance

Since shelter-in-place orders came into effect due to COVID-19 in March, the United States’ workforce has shifted dramatically to remote work — from 7% pre-pandemic to nearly two-thirds of workers now. With modern technological tools and infrastructure, companies have largely been able to keep their teams working and to maintain operations. But the sudden transition from physically centralized to distributed teams hasn’t been without challenge, from shifts in communication styles to distractions in the home. 

What does a team’s workspace have to do with performance? And how can leaders incorporate these principles into their planning during and after COVID-19? 

As organizations navigate the current evolving landscape and strategize for the longer term, the question of where to locate teams is significant. Here we will explore how quality work gets accomplished in virtual versus in-person settings, highlighting some of the key performance areas for leaders to consider. 

Weighing the benefits of remote work vs. co-location

During COVID-19, leaders have been tasked with prioritizing safety and balancing individual and team needs and preferences, all while keeping operations running as effectively as possible. 

For companies that have replaced co-location (working in the same physical space) to telework (working remotely), this shift demonstrates agility and adaptability, two qualities that ultimately make your organization stronger. The past several months have proven successful enough for some employers that telework will become a more standard option moving forward. A handful of high-profile companies, including Twitter and Shopify, have announced they will allow employees to work from home indefinitely

Even more companies are looking at giving employees a hybrid option: a mix of some days in the office and some days at home each week. PwC reports 39% of companies, before shelter-in-place, allowing their employees to work from home at least one day a week, versus a projected 55% granting this same flexibility after the pandemic. The hybrid option reflects what many workers want: As many as 83% of workers expressed the desire to be able to work from home at least one day a week, according to Global Workplace Analytics

The current pandemic has pushed many organizations who had previously resisted telework to experiment with and adapt to it. However, as companies move from the emergency phase of reacting to COVID-19 to longer term planning, it’s worth understanding the connection between where employees work and how they perform. 

“The design of a workspace is fundamental in making it productive, innovative, and collaborative,” says Sidi Gomes, Principal Designer at CIC. “To achieve these goals at the highest levels, one needs to create spaces that make you want to spend a lot of time in them, where your mind isn’t worried about satisfying basic human needs, and where you can focus on being productive.” 

Factors like temperature, proper ventilation, and natural light all factor into how enjoyable and healthy a space is for its users. 

There’s a human factor, too. “We believe in creating spaces that allow you to build trust with your teammates, which then allows for good collaboration to take place,” Gomes says. 

Below, we’ll explore more deeply the effect of one’s workspace on these three realms of performance: 

  • Productivity

  • Innovation and creative thinking

  • Communication

How workspace impacts productivity

Simply put, your physical environment impacts your productivity. How focused your brain can be depends on what other demands are made of your brain at the same time — whether due to external stimuli, your physical comfort, or how many tasks you’re trying to tackle in a given time frame. 

What does this mean for working from home versus working in a shared office? 

It’s important to acknowledge that the ideal conditions for productivity aren’t identical for everyone, and recent data on telework during COVID-19 shows just that. According to PwC, 28% of employees reported feeling less productive while working during shelter from home, while 29% of employees said they were more productive under these conditions. 

(Interestingly, in this report, employers gave a different picture of their workers’ experiences: Employers reported that 44% of employees were more productive from home. There are a few potential takeaways from these disparate perspectives. First, what criteria are company leaders using to assess employees’ productivity? Are these criteria data-driven? Second, are leaders asking employees directly about their experiences, and, if so, are they listening and incorporating these voices into their decision-making?) 

There are several factors that can account for one’s change in productivity as their workspace changes. For starters, being at home might introduce a new set of distractions: kids in the home, other family members working in the same space, or the loss of psychological separation between work and not work. At the office, your physical space is full of visual and other sensory cues that you associate with work. It can be harder to get in the work mindset in the absence of those work-associated cues and, simultaneously, in the presence of rest-associated cues of the home. 

Infrastructural elements impact productivity, too — from lighting and design to ease of use and comfortability of furniture. One research paper published by the American Psychological Association in 2014 stated that empty, blank-walled offices are “the most toxic space for people to work in.” The study revealed that employees were 15% more productive and their memory retention improved when working in spaces with plants. Creative workspaces, often found at coworking centers or innovation-focused companies, are often designed with these principles in mind, incorporating people-friendly features such as bright or soothing colors, plants, natural materials, and a variety of seating options. 

How workspace impacts innovation & creative thinking

Have you ever been asked to sit down and think of a creative idea — an invention, a solution to a company problem — and drawn a blank, only to walk out of the room and suddenly experience a surge of thoughts? There are scientific reasons for this phenomenon. 

One reason traces back to the connection between the motor and cognitive functions of the human brain. As Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey explains in his book A User’s Guide to the Brain, you utilize the very same neural circuits in planning a mental act as in planning a physical act. Movement and thinking go hand in hand. 

Researchers have collectively produced a large body of work positively linking physical movement with creative thinking specifically. Among these is a 2014 paper by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University, which investigated how the simple act of walking stimulates creative thinking. While walking, study participants exhibited higher novel idea generation than when they were sitting, and some of their experiments showed that this heightened creativity extended past the walk to when individuals were sitting again. The investigators’ conclusion? “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.” 

Workspaces that prompt people to move throughout them during the day due to their inherent layout — from desk to conference room to kitchen to desk to phone booth to the coffee shop down the street — have the built-in benefit of encouraging those short walk breaks that tangibly impact employees’ thinking. Often, working from home decreases some of this inevitable movement simply due to smaller and less varied layouts. 

The diversity of kinds of spaces within a larger workspace has a measurable impact as well. Through the Well Living Lab, a collaboration between Delos and Mayo Clinic, researchers identified eight zones of an ideal office, each with a unique purpose for the people working there. These zones include spaces for confidential talk, conferencing, mind and body reactivation, and open spaces that promote collaborative idea generation, among others. Each type of space is designed accordingly. 

Workspaces that are designed for a variety of uses result in employees changing their physical environments throughout the day. Turns out that changes in scenery can, too, benefit innovative thinking. University of California professor Kimberly Elsbach, who studies workplace psychology, has researched the impacts of one’s physical environment on creativity. “We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment, and especially when they expose themselves to a nature-like environment,” she told NPR

In the video below, you can see an example of varied workspaces at CIC Miami.

Larger companies with larger office footprints seemingly have an advantage in this regard, where facilities with bigger floor plans and more types of spaces within them are more likely to encourage movement and change of scenery among workers — and specially tailored areas can incorporate design features that prompt the kinds of thinking and collaboration that spur innovation. 

In today’s office rental market, however, there are more opportunities than ever for smaller companies to have all these same features in their work environments. A five-person startup, for instance, can rent a small office within a broader shared workspace or innovation center, where they have access to meeting rooms, lounge areas, quiet focus zones, and more. 

Organizations of any size can look to workspace as an opportunity to nurture their employees’ creative thinking and foster innovation. 

How workspace impacts communication

Maintaining solid team and organization-wide communication is critically important at any time. It’s especially true amidst change or when employees are spread out between different work locations. 

Let’s delve into how workspace impacts communication, from everyday logistics to high-level innovation.

The method of communication can influence the speed of your work. A study reported in Harvard Business Review found that face-to-face requests were 34 times more successful than requests made by email. Additional studies conducted in response to the mass shift to remote work since March 2020 showed that 80% of remote workers said they would have better relationships with more frequent team communications, and 43% reported that more face time would help them develop deeper relationships with colleagues. 


While communication tends to suffer when teams move from in-person to remote work, there are ways to address these gaps. Solutions can be found among the right equipment and tools, setting new norms, and looking at how to incorporate in-person communication strategically, even if sporadically, during gradual reopening phases. 

Many companies opt to base their operations or maintain satellite offices at shared workspaces, due to their flexible terms. Rather than requiring traditional multi-year leases, companies can access space on a month-to-month basis and change their office footprints with short notice. This also gives them access to workspace features and IT amenities they might need, without the hassle of upkeep. Importantly, shared workspaces allows organizations to maintain space for employees to work independently or small teams to meet as needed, without footing the bill of an entire office that isn’t being used to capacity. 

In-person formats introduce the possibility of spontaneity such as collaborative brainstorming, casual conversations that lead to problem-solving, or creating new connections between team members or other community members in a shared workspace. The importance of physical spaces to foster these kinds of social encounters is reflected in the aforementioned Well Living Lab research, which articulated an eight-zoned ideal workplace including open workspace to support communication, break-out areas for informal work and chatting, and a touchdown zone for on-the-fly, flexible working. 

Workspace layouts that facilitate the flow of communication ultimately allow teams to work faster, happier, and smarter. 

Takeaways for employers

We’ve discussed the science of how workspace impacts performance, from productivity to innovation to communication. Now the question is: how can you apply these lessons within your organization? 

It’s clear that remote work is enticing to many workers, with studies consistently showing that employees prefer at least some flexibility in regards to coming into the office. And there are potential benefits to workers (the ability to work from anywhere; eliminating commute time) and to employers, who can significantly cut office costs. 

There are upsides to co-locating, as well. As we’ve discussed, in-person work allows for rapid communication, connection between colleagues, and spontaneous collaboration and innovation. While it’s not impossible to prompt these same results from home, it may take more intentional planning. 

Meanwhile, it’s no secret that many newly remote workers are facing challenges at home, either due to distractions or design restrictions. Aspects of the space like noise, lighting, temperature, furniture, and privacy can impact a person’s productivity, creativity, or happiness during the workday — and how much control a person has over these features inevitably varies. 

One solution for employers is to adopt flexible workspace. 

What is flexible workspace? 

Flexible workspace refers to the spectrum of office setups between a traditional lease and a fully remote workforce. For this, companies can turn to coworking providers and innovation centers that offer workspace through memberships rather than leases. These memberships run on short-term agreements, such as month-to-month, as opposed to office leases that typically lock a renter in for several years. 

Many companies, from startups to large corporates, have shifted to flexible workspace in the past decade because it allows them to grow or shrink their offices according to realtime needs. Now with COVID-19 forcing many employers to take their workforce remote, more and more companies are thinking about flexible workspace as an alternative to the financial trap of long-term leases. 

What does flexible workspace look like in practice? It may mean getting a small office that remote workers can access on an as-needed basis. Or it could look like a once-a-week pass to a coworking center, allowing team members to connect in person occasionally while working from home during the rest of the week. Other companies might employ a rotation system, bringing in half of their team one week and the other half of their team the next week; by rotating, they can keep a smaller office footprint and thus limit their office costs. 

Here at CIC, for example, all of our workspace memberships run on 30-day terms. Our most flexible offerings include Remote+ (for partial or fully-remote teams looking for office amenities or a reliable home away from home, whenever needed) and the Team Day Package (one to four days of office access per month). Whether a team utilizes our innovation spaces daily or just once a month, they get all the same office essentials in an environment specifically designed for productivity, creativity, and collaboration. We achieve this through features including: 

  • Quiet and/or private spaces for focused or sensitive work

  • Ergonomic furniture

  • Open spaces that promote communication

  • Natural and adjustable lighting

  • Abundant plant life

  • Easily accessible amenities like food and beverage, printing, internet, and video conferencing equipment

  • Select outdoor workspaces

  • Variety of seating options

  • In-house wellness services

Selecting a workspace solution 

An ever-growing body of research shows that where you work impacts how you work. Employers can factor this into important decision-making about where to locate employees in coming months and years. With the growth of flexible workspaces, the decision is no longer limited to full-time co-location versus full-time remote. Rather, employers can choose a tailored workspace solution that meets their needs and supports their team’s performance — without unnecessary cost or health risk. 

Interested in supporting your employees in doing their best work? Explore flexible workspace at our innovation campuses: 

Innovation Work Well