Wanted: Workplaces that inspire people and ideas

“Clients do not come first,” Virgin Group founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson has said. “Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

That’s surely true. Today more than ever in a hyper-competitive economy, people are organizations’ most important assets and our primary source of competitive differentiation. Large sums are invested to win over top talent but recruitment is just the first stage. In the modern age where it’s rare that people stay with companies for long periods, retention is critical and that’s why smart companies pursue excellence in the employee experience and strive to become employers of choice. These companies realize that putting their people first improves the service and experience of customers, which ultimately has a positive impact on the performance of the business.

Some do this by throwing money at the problem, paying vast salaries and bonuses, but there has to be more to a bond between employer and employee than cash or shares. Companies need to foster environments where people can give their best and make sure that work is an enjoyable and important thing to do, rather than just a destination.

Helping employees to outperform competitors

One of the ways is to provide people with the freedom of where to work, the places they feel most comfortable and inspired, so that they are able to outperform, thus helping their organizations to outperform the competition. Today, especially in light of the coronavirus, you see many companies declaring that they won’t expect employees to come to offices as if this were a benefit, even though there are mixed reports about the level of acceptance of remote working. One recent study suggests that just 15 per cent of people want to work from home full-time while a Manpower Group report suggested the US and UK were much less comfortable about returning to the office, compared to countries like Germany, France and Italy.

It’s more complex than just saying it is remote working vs. working in the office. A recent survey by employee experience experts Leesman suggests that 84 per cent of respondents felt their homes let them work productively compared to 72 per cent in offices. But there are trade-offs in terms of facilities, equipment and softer factors. When people are at home, they can concentrate on tasks but something is missing — something social.

Redefining the purpose of offices

It’s hard to pin a precise value on the social aspect but we all know that moments of learning, inspiration, understanding and fun strike more often when we are physically closer to people. What the pandemic has done is force a reassessment of how we are bringing people together, as organizations become increasingly comfortable with the concept of the hybrid office.

In this sense, real estate is not just an office but a catalyst for casual communication. According to one study by Cushman & Wakefield it suggested the modern office could become part of an ecosystem, where staff working from home could also access local community hubs for face-to-face meetings or work part of the week from core office hub campuses – all backed up by robust technology for online collaboration. However, if this “flexible working” model is to maintain high levels of productivity it is crucial to encourage collaboration between employees to spark ideas and motivate team members.

That sort of interaction is hard to achieve on video calls and by now we all know how fatiguing staring into a tiny camera and seeing a mosaic of people can be, as well as how hard it is to ‘read’ people in the virtual 2D world. Indeed, many companies are now reporting they are having to tell staff to stop working and are limiting the number of online meetings. That’s because individual productivity may have actually increased during enforced lockdowns but this comes with a risk of burnout.

The rise of ’30-minute towns’

We need a mixture of home, remote and office working. We’re already seeing the rise of ‘30-minute towns’ where retail units are being redeveloped into office suites that remove the cost and misery of big city commuting but keep the facilities and social aspects. Offices themselves must become hybrids of desks, drop-in services, quiet areas, collaborative spaces and café seating with fewer solid walls so office shapes can be reconfigured for variety and as new needs emerge. We can win back space by relaxing our dependence on printing and physical storage and adopting online working.

Great designs change the nature of engagement and can help turn sales pitches into sales meetings. In more relaxed environments, people can discuss rather than just transact. These meetings become vehicles for long-term partnerships and deep, mutual understanding. Offices are often the first impression job applicants will have of a brand and today’s brightest school leavers expect a high standard of workplace with all the tools they need to excel. These are the new table stakes of business.

But this isn’t just about architecture and design: we also need to adapt the way we analyze people and their performance. That means at least considering moving away from tired formulas and formal appraisals such as annual reviews in favor of continuous dialogue.

The office as a social hub

As the pandemic hopefully fades, now is a great chance to look again at how you take care of your people and begin to optimize processes and environments to make them happy, fulfilled and productive with a positive work/life balance. We’re only beginning to figure this out and it will take time but we need to make better use of our facilities and recognize that offices are great for social elements, watercooler moments, negotiating, equipment and learning but private conversations, deep thinking and focused tasks may be a better fit for homes. As Leesman deputy CEO Allison English has suggested, the office will remain an “integral part of their culture” but that we need to consider the role of the office in the context of more flexible working. 

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Changing mindsets and working through objections and obstacles is tough, and we need to be sensitive to what employees say works for them. But challenge entrenched thinking too: in 2021 we can’t hear ‘this is my desk’ any longer. We must rethink the relationship between work, home and office in a spirit of trust, flexibility and engagement.

James O’Neill, Global Head of Workspace Experience, Unit4

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