Returning to the office: Start with the why

Mike Gedye, November 5, 2020 5 min read

This is a guest post from CBRE, a Tech Nation growth programme partner.

Concentration has been focused on ‘how’ tech firms will get their employees to return to their offices and ‘what’ the space will look like when they do return, particularly in terms of providing reassurance about hygiene and their wider wellbeing. But is anyone thinking about the ‘why?’

Do we need to return to the office at all? 

Why does the office provide a differentiated experience that you can’t get working remotely or from home? Why would employee productivity and creativity be optimised when collaborating face to face (face covering rules permitting) with their co-workers? Why would the combination of service and amenities, personalised to your specific preferences deliver a more enriching workplace experience than ever before, magnifying the mission and brand of the employer and driving employee loyalty and engagement?

You will all have read many an article about when and how to return, but there are few clear examples of how we can ‘reimagine’, and we don’t mean the reconfiguration of desk layouts to support spatial distancing of the corporate office. We are facing a far more disruptive challenge about the purpose of the workplace, both in terms of functionality and perhaps too the wider impact that a reimagined workplace could have on society, the environment and the optimisation of human performance (whether this is measured in terms of commercial productivity, happiness, health or a combination of entirely new metrics).


Maybe we need to reimagine both purpose and performance with fresh eyes? Tech companies need to reassess the ‘Business of Real Estate’ with a far greater focus on the business focused outcomes the assets are designed to support versus just the financial performance of the asset itself. Both consumers and employees will have raised expectations about how real and authentic an organisation’s purpose is, and the workplace will be one of the highest profile and clearly visible manifestations of a renewed sense of purpose. The accountability for delivering more purpose driven real estate assets should now be shared by both owner and occupier more than ever before. 

Steve Jobs once declared ‘You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it.’ Perhaps there is a lesson here for the Real Estate industry (on both sides of the supply and demand equation) to reimagine work processes and places along similar lines. We have to start with the targeted outcome and work backwards to the workplace of the future.

Looking at the ‘why?’ can help tech occupiers create optimum workplaces for their business and employees.

A different way of working

COVID has changed the questions used to define workplaces – we now all need to update the answers The challenge for the majority of larger scale companies is that they are owning or leasing a legacy product which was developed to answer a different set of questions and designed to support the requirements of a workforce that hadn’t dared to consider there might be a different way of working.

COVID-19 has accelerated a critical need to answer many longstanding questions far more quickly than most of us envisaged:

  • What is the new purpose of the office?
  • What are the emerging business needs, and what is the strategy for creating a business that works to an optimum level in terms of leadership, communication and process while managing an increasingly distributed workforce? 
  • What do employees really want?
  • How can technology help with the effective integration of both virtually distributed and physical work?
  • What is the role of smart buildings or should we be increasingly focused more on smart working – which stretches well beyond the confines of traditional buildings? 

Corporate demand for workplaces is in a unique state of flux as every organisation revisits the core purpose of the workplaces they provide and reassesses the balance in the fluid supply of workplace resources, blending traditional leasing and ownership models, alongside third-party flex operated spaces and a degree of home or remote working.

Providing choice offers great incentives to employees seeking flexibility and a better work- life balance, but also significantly increases complexity for the employers with the diagnosis and assessment of the appropriate levels of supply needed – in terms of capacity, functionality and support services. 

Workplace culture and attracting talent 

A secondary challenge to organisations is how to build and sustain brand loyalty and shared cultures across increasingly distributed workforces and how to onboard and share knowledge with new starters (without the influence of shared corporate workspaces and daily in-person networking and engagement). 

For technology companies, where talent (and a company’s capacity to attract and retain it) is seen as a critical competitive advantage, the adoption of more distributed recruitment strategies adds further complexity, as they target the recruitment of new sources of talent from increasingly diverse locations, away from traditional corporate locations. 

In order to establish an actionable strategy, companies must employ a data driven and methodological approach, considering both the business needs, and the strategy for creating a business environment that works to an optimum level. 

Consideration also needs to be given in assessing what employees want – how are they travelling to work? Do they want to work from home? Can they work from home? These two sets of data must be modelled together to create a plan which translates into the required configuration, purpose and capacity of physical spaces, with guidelines and policies then developed to maintain how and when this space is used. We have implemented this approach with our new ‘Spacesizing by CBRE’ service and it is clear that the next phase of workplace planning will not be represented by a one size fits all solution.  

Pinpointing value in the commute

From a capacity perspective, the challenge is to flatten the demand curve to avoid underutilised space outside peak periods of demand. The provision of the right balance of services, and a reimagination of the purpose and functionality of the corporate office is also required in order to provide an environment that goes well beyond the experience and convenience of working from home and provides a sufficient incentive for employees to invest the time in their commute. 

This might be to meet face to face with clients and colleagues, to learn or share knowledge (in products or culture), to access proprietary or specialist systems and equipment, or just to provide team environments which foster collaboration and engagement. Designing the office predominantly around the functionality of a single worker’s desk will become a thing of the past. CBRE’s Host solution combines creative experience services with digital innovation and is focused on supporting our Occupier clients as they build a better worklife for their employees across both physical and virtual environments. 

Alongside the need for flexibility and a choice of space types (to respond to the diverse needs of different employee profiles in terms of both function and persona), there will be a growing need for space itself to be more adaptable to change, responding to a far more rapid evolution of business requirements (with the potential for monthly shifts or occasionally even weekly reconfiguration). This will require both physical and technical agility in the design and operation of spaces – using black box thinking (Test, Innovate, Adapt) to learn from pilots and experimentation. Tomorrow’s office will become the stage, with employees becoming the actors in an evolving corporate drama production (!!).

The bedrock for this reimagined, fluid, personalised and agile vision of tomorrow’s workplace will be the development of a Digital & Data Backbone. It will offer the integration of data to support more predictive modelling of supply and demand, and capture insights into the personal preferences and behaviours of the end user to continuously adapt the product to meet the needs and optimise the experience and productivity of the targeted consumer. These Digital Backbones will also support the integration of systems and devices to drive improved asset performance and sustained efficiency, and will support greater resilience to change, to improve energy efficiency/sustainability to reduce risk and will ultimately drive improved return on investment, both in terms of opex and capex.

There is much to ponder as we evaluate the ‘Why’ for tomorrow’s workplace. One thing that is for certain is that it will need to change, and will require strong leadership and robust management of this change process to sustain long term commercial and organisational benefits. Bold leaders will be wise to consider the words of JF Kennedy who observed that ‘Change is the law of life and those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future’.

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