From our Thought Leader Partner, Cushman & Wakefield.

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Guest blog by Despina Katsikakis, Executive Partner, Global Lead Total Workplace

Opinions abound on the future of work, the rise of remote working and the potential demise of the office. The arguments tend to be binary — possibly influenced by our current lockdown experience — but the issue is not about where work takes place but rather the nature of organisations and society. The trends towards technology enabled flexibility have been around for years, but the two primary reasons we have not taken advantage of them have been lack of management trust and inadequate investment in change management.

The pandemic has forced a life/work integration which is challenging previous beliefs and we have seen management trust in remote working increase exponentially as a result. Various global surveys now agree that 70-80% of people want more flexibility to work from home than previously, but there is also universal agreement that coming to the office some of the time is necessary to ensure connections with colleagues & culture, learning & mentoring , innovation & creative collaboration.

These aspects are leading many organisations to explore the potential of real estate savings by taking advantage of increased remote and hybrid ways of working.  However, to gain real estate savings requires significant organisational change. To work in a hybrid way not only requires giving people flexibility of when and where they will work, but in order to make it viable for the business,  it also requires embracing unassigned & bookable seating when people come to the office alongside a shift from individual to collective resources. It is therefore first and foremost about behavioural change and this is a risk, as often organisations lose the necessary energy to drive such long and difficult processes.

Real estate decisions are often made 5+ years ahead which is no longer viable to navigate the current speed of change and uncertainty. We need to solve real estate problems at the pace of business change, which requires an agile process and approach to solution, update & iterate to continuously innovate.

The reality is that actual utilisation of office spaces (the time people were in the office during a typical workday) in January 2020 was 40-60%, so we were already unofficially working in hybrid ways pre pandemic. The percentage of people coming to the office on a regular basis, post pandemic, is unlikely to be different, but the reasons they come will be more intentional. Place matters and the value of bringing people together will be the purpose of the office.  That will require providing places to anchor teams, amenities and curated events and a hospitality mindset to create inspiring destinations. Connection to culture is manifest both consciously and sub-consciously in the office through face-to-face interactions which increase bonding, a sense of belonging and connection to the company, all  factors that are particularly important for younger people to grow and develop and if not addressed  pose engagement, retention and productivity risks in the long term.

Leaders need to be offensive to build their business differently and respond to these factors, but for the last seven months we have been defensive, and this approach looks set to continue into 2021.

We have had a ten-year growth cycle in which corporate headcount and real estate have continued to grow, and technology efficiency has been an add-on rather than transformational for most organisations. Digital integration has radically changed the way work happens – we can seamlessly collaborate on the same documents remotely and we can also trade effectively remotely but are we adequately assessing the risks of doing so? What is the right balance? What are the mental health implications?

As the daily commute has vanished, there are no obvious boundaries between work and life.  Many people struggle to switch off at the end of each day. This creates considerable future risk for mental burnout which could impact businesses for years to come.

The acceleration of AI and automation will also likely shift the makeup of organisations to reduce headcount and increase creative roles which will increase competition for talent. Empowering people to choose how and where they can do their best work will be a differentiator as will providing inspiring destinations to connect with others, learn, grow and innovate together. When we choose to come to the office to work we will choose to go to buildings that are designed for people; to support our wellbeing with abundant natural light, optimum quality of air and design that will support our connection to nature and to each other in meaningful ways. These aspects will put more pressure on organisations and on real estate providers to change the way they do business.

We will need to have more empathy and provide change management for both behavioural and emotional support, as this will be a significant change for most people and organisations. Ultimately, it could help re balance our work life experiences in ways that provide better productivity, wellbeing meaning and resiliency.

The risk is whether leaders will take the time to manage the necessary change in the context of so much business uncertainty and urgency which is unlikely to leave room to address employee wellbeing and cultural deterioration, but do they have a choice?