- When the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions to start working from home, companies lost direct control over their workplace culture.
- Now employees have had a taste of life without a commute and with flexible hours, companies have to work extra hard to lure them back to the office. Real estate that promotes collaboration and meaningful experiences can help.
- Vague declarations about “working on culture” won’t cut it any more. Companies have to take direct actions to show employees they care about providing a satisfying work environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of companies to switch to remote work, drastically impacting opportunities to grow and manage their culture through the usual in-person interactions.
Brand culture specialist Ralph Ardill says that when everyone was under one roof, companies automatically had control over how their culture developed. With their employees scattered, they’re having to actively work on building and maintaining their culture.
As companies plan to return to in-person work, many are also reconsidering how their real estate can influence the atmosphere in the workplace.
Despina Katsikakis, Global Head of Total Workplace at Cushman & Wakefield, explains that corporates are now considering how the location, layout and experience provided in their offices can entice employees to trade the kitchen table for the commute.
Remote work loosened business’ control over culture
Ever since the Industrial Revolution moved work out of homes and into work-specific spaces, companies have been able to control their own culture. Employees were essentially captive audiences, Ralph says. Having everyone in one place made it easier to introduce rules and practices that affirmed a specific culture, whether that meant set work hours, HR guidelines, or workplace events.
However, when the pandemic forced millions of people to work remotely, companies lost their grip on workplace culture.
It turned out to be much harder to transmit a sense of collective belonging and understanding over Zoom than many had imagined. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing long term: at least it’s taught companies not to take a strong work culture for granted.
Real estate can influence culture
Now that many people have gotten used to working remotely, companies will need to optimize office spaces to draw employees back.
Pre-pandemic, many companies undervalued the importance of real estate in creating a certain culture. But the design of your office can influence the way people interact and behave. For example, is there room for socializing and collaboration? Are desks near enough for conversation? Are communal areas welcoming?
Details like this used to be seen as insignificant: but now that building and maintaining a culture is harder than ever, every little step towards improving the back-to-the-office experience for employees makes a difference.
Location is another piece of this puzzle. Many employees haven’t had to commute for over a year, and spending 40 minutes on a train or in a car each way seems even less appealing than it used to.
Many companies, especially in retail, are looking at moving from having one big workplace to a series of smaller offices closer to where their employees live. Removing a long commute from the home-versus-office equation may help entice employees back to their desks, where culture-managing is easier.
Take action to build a strong culture
Company-wide emails promising to “work on a strong office culture,” or outlining vague plans to create a breakroom will probably go marked as read — if they aren’t outright deleted.
Employees value action over vague statements. If you’re going to create a breakroom, create a breakroom. If you want to improve your workplace culture, don’t just talk about it: plan events or improvements towards that goal.
You’ll probably have to try new things that wouldn’t have occurred to you before the pandemic. And you’ll likely make some mistakes along the way. So a murder mystery night wasn’t quite the success you’d hoped: take note and move on to the next idea.
A good way to find out what your employees want is to ask them. Not only will this hopefully guide you towards innovations that will be better received, it will make them feel more invested in their workplace and its culture.
This active approach to cultivating a particular culture might clash with the newfound flexibility employees have discovered during the pandemic. People who have loved working remotely might not want to come back to the office at all, which can really impact your ability to create a coherent company culture.
It takes a stick and a carrot. If you’re going to insist that everyone comes into the office one day a week, you also need to make an effort to offer a workspace that gives people something they can’t get from remote work.
For corporate real estate, that means offices with areas for COVID-safe socializing, meetings and events are going to be more desirable than ever, as companies look to remind employees about the positives of physically coming to work.
Corporate real estate needs to adapt faster
Modern brands understand innately that they have to be fast and adaptable to survive in a competitive and constantly changing market. The retail, hospitality and services industry is particularly good at thinking on its feet.
Real estate needs to match that speed and adapt a more agile process. It is no longer viable to just look at space, but it is now essential to also consider the technology & people perspective to make an impact.
The pandemic shifted companies’ priorities and forced them to stop taking their culture for granted. It’s time real estate caught up to these new requirements.
Final thoughts: As companies put more energy into building appealing culture, business leaders will need to increasingly look to real estate options to facilitate those goals.
This article is based on What’s Next in Corporate Real Estate, a podcast offering insight into the changing world of work and corporate property. Presented by Michael Creamer, Chairman of Global Occupier Services, EMEA.