Guest Post by Albert De Plazaola, Global Principal, Strategy, at Unispace

For most of my career, I was hired to pull middle and senior managers out of their private offices. Now I am hired to bring people back into the office.

Flashback: 2 Years Ago

Back in 2019, I would present at client “All Hands” and advocate for the efficacy and the elusive benefits of an open office environment. I happily conceded individual performance would take a hit; however, employees would more than make up for it in collaboration and team productivity. 

Many saw this as a veiled disguise to reduce real estate, and they were right to an extent. The idea of achieving more effective collaboration with less space was the elixir CFOs need to justify cuts in real estate expenditures. Utilization studies further confirmed, on average across market sectors, offices were occupied (pre-pandemic) an average of 50-60%. Workplace strategists were the darlings of CFO and facilities teams because we had real data that demonstrated most employees do not need a dedicated desk.

However, the reality was this: Pulling leadership out of private offices, and transitioning employees to undedicated seating represented a symbolic and cultural transgression. For many, the private office was a trophy, and the personalized desk was a reward and a last vestige of commitment and dedication.

One that was stripped by hired consultants, like me.

Now: The Bonfire

I used to eschew terms such as “burning platform,” i.e., “we must change or else!” Proclamations about the need for transformation typically sound disingenuous and desperate, especially when you’re suggesting a reflexive response to a change that was not anticipated. The reality is if your business platform is burning, a new workplace configuration isn’t going to save it.

But Covid-19 was a Thermonuclear Bonfire

In a matter of two weeks, the global work force underwent a transformation that was thought impossible. And surprisingly we succeeded, well, sort of.

To put this in perspective, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that prior to Covid-19, 5% of employees with advanced degrees worked remotely. By May 2020, that number shot up to nearly 70%.

The Covid-19 thermonuclear bonfire gave employees leverage to reimagine the rules of the work game. The collective war for talent enabled employees to, perhaps for the first time ever, craft meaningful change around intention of the post-Covid physical work environment. In other words, employees do not have to simply live with “open office” typology. They now have options, creating significant implications.

The call to action now is to work with leadership, middle management and employees to find a resolution that optimizes productivity and provides employee with choice. This isn’t binary— it’s a change management opportunity.

In the absence of a crystal ball, organizations are addressing this shifting in work in a few ways. There’s the wait-and-see tactic to observe how hybrid work trends play out organically. This is a conservative approach that ignores the first mover advantage.

Conversely, companies that listen to their employees’ insights and desires for the workplace prove their input is valued, which can both attract them back to the office as well as retain talent that may go elsewhere. But there is a risk in doing so: employees’ desires do not always align with the objectives of the business. 

By shaping an engaging change management experience that honors employee input and in parallel, considers the business needs, organizations can replace confrontation with resolution.

So, how do we reconcile employee demands vs. business needs? 

Change is inherently disruptive, but you can make it effective, empowering, and even exciting by taking time to understand the desires and needs of your unique workforce – and matching those to business objectives.

Following are key steps in an inclusive, experiential change management journey:

  1. Change minds, not just space, by defining an ecosystem that prioritizes people’s needs. How does the current work experience look and what future state will best serve your workforce, culture and business needs? How can you win support from employees and leaders?Actively consider both questions from the outset to identify and shape the change your work environments need.

    Bear in mind, while every organization will have its own unique path to the future of work, today’s talent prize flexibility, culture, purpose, and work/life balance. So, most businesses should consider all the parts that comprise a bustling hybrid experience, from a central office, extending to home offices, cafes, satellite offices, co-working spaces, and even augmented and virtual reality (VR) platforms.

  2. Communicate about the vision and process early, often – and always with empathy. Engage your teams with proactive, transparent communications, leveraging in-person tools, such as visioning sessions and focus groups as well as digital solutions like tailored online surveys.

    Just as important as the medium is the messages you use to enable the change journey. Your colleagues have all weathered the last year’s stop-and-start ‘great return’ to the office in different ways, depending on their work style, and their home life.

    For example, people who live alone may have wanted to race back to the office to socialize, while those with kids at home may be reluctant to give up their newly won flexibility. Broach all communications with an open mind and empathy for your employees’ unique circumstances.

  3. “Be the change.” Even the best-laid workplace change plans fall flat when people don’t appreciate them, let alone adopt them. To encourage employees to develop new behaviors, leaders must also evolve their own. Be sure any workplace change directly supports the areas of expertise of those who will be using it and discuss and model the expectation for how employees will use it.

  4. Give employees early access to spark equity, energy, and buzz. Technology creates an all-new opportunity to let people tour a space – well before it’s ready for large numbers of people to physically enter. Sharing the vision through technology helps foster employee buy-in by giving people a chance to voice their thoughts before the design is set in stone. It shores up equity and inclusion values by helping all personnel access and mentally prepare for a new space.

    Advanced technology solutions like VR, AI, 3D simulations, and/or asynchronous feedback mechanisms can help provide insider views and enable employees to provide feedback in safe spaces.

  5. Take responsible risks to continue to evolve. Moving in may feel like the end of the process, but really it’s the beginning of a fresh chance to understand how your teams interact and use space. The world of work may have changed irrevocably over the last two years, and the changes won’t stop there. Stay agile by running change pilots to measure how certain space types are used over time and adapt to new needs as they emerge.

An era of continual change demands inclusive change management

Ultimately the best way to future-proof the work experience for changing times is to master the art of change itself, together.

The bonfire is upon us, the question now is: What do you want to do?

Albert De Plazaola is Global Principal, Strategy, at Unispace