- After a year of being sheltered in place, a return to the office is on the horizon.
- Before workers arrive, business leaders should reassess their workplace culture and the role of the office.
- Executives also encourage taking a look at technology and its part in company collaboration.
- This article is part of an ongoing series on Insider’s research on The Human Impact of Business Transformation.
There’s no question that 2020 turned the workplace on its head. The start of the pandemic led companies to reconsider everything from their office layout to how they can foster a sense of community when a majority of team members are working from home.
Tom Vecchione, Principal at architecture and interior design firm Vocon, believes the pandemic has only made the concept of the office and what it represents to employees more powerful. Of the executives he works with, Vecchione says, “What they miss the most is the level of ambition the office created for their teams and their staff. It’s very much part of the emotional, inspirational aspect of what an office gives us and your teams.”
To get back that missing spark, and to address the larger question of the office and its role overall, companies are starting to reassess their relationship with urban real estate.
What’s influencing them? “Everyone’s waiting for three factors,” Vecchione says. “What’s my peer doing, which is a very big influencer; what does science tell us we can do; and what do government agencies say we should do. This waiting game is creating uncertainty and volatility in the real estate market.”
The way Vecchione sees it, three tiers of employee engagement will emerge within the workforce: mission-critical onsite employees who must be onsite to do their jobs; hybrid employees who can split their time between onsite and offsite; and offsite workers who can effectively do their jobs without ever using the office as a permanent home. In order to gauge the demand for workspaces moving forward, Vocon is analyzing companies’ post-pandemic needs. “Executives aren’t sure why people really need to go back — if it’s for mentorship, culture, learning.” Vecchione adds that the purpose of the workspace isn’t just to facilitate the work itself, but to create knowledge, inspire culture, build a career path, and bring clients and talent “into the fold.”
There’s more to the workspace of the future than socially-distanced desks, sound barriers, and outdoor meeting rooms, and many employees find their job performance suffers when they lack access to a communal office. According to a 2020 survey conducted by enterprise platform Smartsheet in conjunction with 451 Research, 82% of workers feel less productive at work since going remote.
As companies start to consider the slow or staggered transition back to the office environment, they’re also thinking about something else: technology, and the key role it plays in the culture of collaboration.
“What I find fascinating is that we’ve all owned this technology and never really operated in this way,” says Anna Griffin, Chief Marketing Officer of Smartsheet. “(Companies) know that we’re going into a hybrid world, and they’re going into the new year in build mode.”
Smartsheet is seeing “a lot of enthusiasm for working this way,” along with signs of recovery and greater investments in technology, Griffin says. All of this signals that leaders are on board with modifying their business strategies.
Traditionally, changes like these have come straight from the top. Insider’s Human Impact of Business Transformation study, a project designed to gauge perspectives on business transformation as they relate to brand purpose, mental resilience, and more, shows that among 68% of respondents, it’s the leadership teams that drive such efforts.
But this model may not last. Employees are taking a larger role in the technology they use, and the workplace experience overall. Instead of the old approach, where management implements processes and expects teams to follow suit by using the tools they provide, Griffin is seeing employees driving these decisions. “The way you work, and the way people are able to participate more, is truly becoming democratized. And so there’s this shift in power. You’re doing something collectively together,” she says.
Ricardo Vargas, former Executive Director of Brightline Initiative, a coalition designed to help companies bridge the gap between strategy and execution, is seeing a similar trend as businesses prioritize employee satisfaction. The companies that succeed at transforming their business, Vargas says, also ensure their leaders are just as immersed in the company culture as their teams.
“In the more traditional organizations, the leadership lives in a castle on the top floor that nobody gets access to. You don’t talk to them.” Rather, Vargas says, leadership should be approachable and accessible, wherever they are.
Organizations now face an opportunity. The pandemic has highlighted weak spots in corporate culture, and leaders are starting to address those proactively. “We need to learn how to lead in permanent disruption because we are living in a permanent state of transformation,” Vargas says.
When it comes to designing the new workplace, Vecchione believes the physical work environment will never go away. Its purpose, however, may well be reinvented. Employees will one day find themselves in shared spaces again — and when they do, they’re likely to discover that a change was long overdue.
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