Workplace Re-Entry and Changing the Value of Real Estate

May 12, 2021


Nick Meter

Originally Posted on Contract Furnishings News

By: Nick Meter – Vice President, Sales and Customer Experience for Tangram Interiors

In-Office Benefits and “Tradition”

Many executives and managers place significant value in the tradition of the office. Among other things, an office can provide line-of-sight evidence of accountability and productivity. It gives the perception of progress and success. The pandemic has rearranged that thinking.

Pre-pandemic, 12% of white-collar workers reported working from home just once per month. According to Brookings Institute, in June of 2020, between 31-50% of white-collar workers worked from home. Beyond the adjustment period of being thrown into a new work lifestyle due to the pandemic, CNN has cited that 90% of employers have reported working remotely hasn’t hurt their productivity (though that number has trended downwards since the early days of the pandemic, as employees and employers alike have realized “productivity” goes beyond the execution of focus work).

If you are an executive questioning your post-pandemic office real estate strategy, you’re not alone. So, now what?

Dragging People Back to the Office

Many companies were forced to enact a work-from-home model, and company leaders struggled with the idea employees could continue to be productive away from the office. But, there was little time to prepare for the pandemic and many CEOs did not have a choice and were forced to close their office doors. Then came the boom of remote employees, with countless zoom calls and a different work model most companies had never tapped into. While news outlets have saturated the headlines with different returning to work theories, models, and safety precautions, few people are discussing what was really discovered during this forced COVID lifestyle. Why would people want to go back to the office? What is the value? How does it affect mood and general attitude towards work? With studies showing working from home can be just as productive, if not more productive, what is the argument to convince employees to return to a Monday to Friday in-office work schedule?

Some CEOs are interested in making a change, and most employees are expecting change. According to Brookings, “over a quarter of recently surveyed Fortune 500 CEOs were leaning toward making telework permanent for at least some of their employees.” Brookings’ research suggests that less in-person time at the office does not decrease its value. It might very well increase the value, because the time spent will be applied towards activities that couldn’t occur elsewhere. This is a difficult change some CEO’s will not support. If an office only held its value when employees were there to do focus work, companies are missing a trend that existed before Covid and has been accelerated since.

If the understanding of productivity extended only to what could be seen and accounted for in front of company leaders, it’s time to rethink. The daily occupancy number in the office does not equate to productivity and performance.  People need to return to the office, but companies need to understand the benefits of shifting the traditional work model and how it will exponentially change their business and success.

Tangibles vs. Intangibles and the Long Game

The initial concern from a CEO perspective might be: “How does this asset, now in use less than ever before, still provide the same or better value to my company?”

My (rather frank) reply might be: “When did the value of an office derive specifically from the number of hours being clocked within its walls?”

There are tangible benefits that do come from consistent presence in the office: collaboration on projects, trust-building with co-workers, and culture connection are typically cited.  Unfortunately, leaders and managers feel comfort with another type of tangible: the ability to see people working, and the feedback loop of “productivity and success” they derive from that visual.

It’s time for a perspective shift. If the company you managed or led survived, maintained, or even grew while doing remote work over the past year, you possess strong evidence that “seeing people in the office working” (in other words, observing focus work) was not the existential necessity you might have once thought. In fact, focus work is the easiest type of activity to manage remotely.  It typically carries tangible outputs and evidence of productivity that drive through the value stream.

Reconsider the Premise

In my line of work, the word “essential” was so frequently used during the pandemic - in the form of “essential business”- that the adjective lost some of its superlative connotation. So with that awareness, I’ll state the obvious: the office - for my company and probably yours - is essential.  For many companies, it’s the conduit for channeling culture, trust, and collaboration. I believe that the first order of business for returning to the office (once suitable safety protocols are established) is to encourage the type of interactions between people that are not possible working from home: routine team meetings, breakfasts and lunches, long-term planning and strategy...the list goes on. These can be accomplished in accordance with employee comfort levels and the prevailing wisdom regarding distance and masks.  Do not place a high emphasis on coming to the office to do the same thing you could accomplish from home, the coffee shop, or elsewhere.

An employee can still be successful with a 4 or 6 hour visit to the office. In-office days should never be about counting hours, let employees take control of their own work model. Offer flexible work hours, capitalize technological advances for remote work, create a performance-driven culture while managing outcomes, not just practices. When shifting your company culture, emphasize personal responsibility and accountability and consider your new hybrid environment when hiring. Train employees and provide new techniques to achieve the most success in exchange for more independence and flexibility. The office is an incredibly valuable tool and if it is correctly utilized, increased employee retention and satisfaction, improved productivity, reduced business expenses, and a smaller carbon footprint will be at the fingertips for companies daring to make the change.