• We know that the future of work is more flexible, but what does this future look like? 
  • That was the key question in a webinar featuring real estate experts, hosted by Packy McCormick. 
  • There is a growing divergence between what employers and employees want, placing companies in a ‘test and learn’ mindset. 

Last week, Industrious, ROOM and CBRE hosted a webinar titled “The Covid Impact on the Future of Workplace”. 

The webinar was hosted by Packy McCormick and the panelists were Anna Squires Levine, Industrious Chief Commercial Officer; Brian Chen, ROOM Co-Founder & CEO; and Andrew Kupiec, CBRE President, Agile Real Estate & Experience Services. 

McCormick kicked off the webinar saying that “thanks to COVID, we all agree that the future of work is more flexible, but what does this [future] look like?” 

The first question he asked panelists was: what are the biggest hurdles that companies are facing as they aim to create more flexible workplaces? 

Anna Squires Levine argued that the hurdles companies are facing now and the ones they face in the future will be different. Right now, the biggest one is “a feeling on the part of companies that they have to move faster and experiment more with workplace experience.” 

The issue is that there is a growing divergence between what real estate leaders in companies feel comfortable doing and what employees want.  

Employees are ready to go back, but corporate decision makers are taking a long time figuring out what the plan is.  

Andrew Kupiec agreed with Squires Levine that there is a divergence between what companies are thinking and what employees want. He believes that the hurdles companies have to overcome will vary depending on the work model they pick.  

“There are different hurdles between a remote-first model and a hybrid strategy. Personally, I believe we will end up with hybrid work models and the challenge there is, how do you give enough flexibility but still allow for some formal nature of what goes on in the office vs remotely?” 

We Are All in an Experimentation Phase 

“Companies today are in a test and learn mindset,” Brian Chen argued. “This is not how companies have always thought about their office; however, we believe this should be a constant state of mind.” For Chen, therefore, the biggest hurdle now is for companies to embrace this new test and learn mindset.  

Companies are used to building the physical space in really long timelines—thinking about financing of buildings, lease terms, architecture. However, to embrace this more experimental mindset and flexibility, companies need to challenge every single element of how the built world is constructed.  

How Are Companies Adapting to This Experimentation Phase? 

Chen further argued that companies are going through a CAPEX crisis; most organizations are waiting to see how things play out in the next one to two years. This means that companies need to think about how they can justify capital expenditures with short-time horizons.  

Squires Levine, for her part, argues that companies that are ahead of the curve “are not thinking about their testing as it relates to CAPEX.” Rather, they are focusing on the workplace experience, employee happiness, engagement, and productivity.  

While there are physical elements to the above, “the smartest companies are recognizing that it’s also about relationships with your manager, the kind of trust you have with your team, the degree of choice you have. And so, the smartest companies are not saying I’m going to have to swap out my couch for a conference room every two weeks, instead, they are saying 9 out of the 10 ingredients in the workplace experience are not physical at all, and those are the ones we are going to focus on.” 

Kupiec added to Squires Levine’s point saying: 

“The future is about use-cases. Companies are thinking about their real estate portfolio in use cases. So, for example: when do I need to be in a physical headquarters environment? When does a distributed network make sense, and when does the home work perfectly fine?” 

At the end of the day, the challenge for companies, landlords, and developers is how can they provide these layers of services, flexibility, and experience in a low or no CAPEX model.  

The Return to the Office: Organizational Change and Attracting Employees Back  

Early on in the conversation, Squires Levine argued that employees (especially those that are already vaccinated) are eager to return to the office.  

While choice will be key in the future, Squires Levine believes that workers do not want unlimited choice.  

“Employee choice is real, but people will settle with two or three models that work for them.”  

More importantly, companies will have to figure out how to deal with organizational change.  

Chen argues that change management is incredibly difficult in a digital and remote world. Squires Levine added to that saying that it’s difficult at the moment because “we are all feeling differently.” 

So, to attract people back to the office, companies need to focus on the following, according to Kupiec: 

“The attractiveness of coming back to the office is choice—a curated choice. That choice will flip the script for workers from being forced to go to the office to choosing to go to the office.” 

And culture will need to be prioritized and reimagined as well.  

With remote and hybrid work models, “culture becomes a product of so much more than what happens in the office”, Squires Levine said. This means that companies will need to pay more attention to and better understand what exactly it is that motivates their employees if they want to encourage them to go back to the office.  

Speaking about the return to the office, going into the office will not look the same as it did pre-COVID.  

“Companies now want a network of spaces that augment their real estate strategy,” Kupiec said. 

“In this sense, companies are thinking about creating a network of offices on a regional scale,” Squires Levine added.  

But not any office will do.  

Chen argued that “companies that want the hub-and-spoke model will want consistency” across locations on a local, regional, or national level. 

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