How Will Corporate Culture &
Office Space Change Post COVID?
Throughout a crisis, leadership is of vital importance. It has also become clear which leadership behaviors are most effective. In the toughest times, the leaders who excel are those who communicate clearly, stay calm and strong, demonstrate empathy, think long-term and take appropriate decisive action.
Corporate leaders will become more effective overall having gone through this. Those who weren’t the best will step up. Those who can’t improve their game will be weeded out. Those who are the most effective will receive plenty of reinforcement, thus setting new standards for all!
Like leadership, a company’s culture is paramount to its success. If culture is “the way things get done around here” or “what people do when no one is looking”, it has become especially critical in guiding actions and decisions of both leaders and employees. It is likely companies will increasingly acknowledge the importance of culture as critical context for performance and employee engagement—focusing on monitoring, managing and curating a culture by design (rather than a culture by default). The best companies will embrace this opportunity and ride it to quantum improvement.
Nothing is more significant in creating bonds between teammates than a common enemy or challenge, and the coronavirus struggle is a perfect example of what will strengthen relationships. These are tough times and when we come out on the other side, having gone through it together, we will have new and deeper levels of connection with our colleagues. You’ll be excited to see people you missed during your furlough or work-from-home period. And you’ll share a lasting bond with teammates with whom you’ve worked to solve problems and act proactively during these difficult times. Work is fundamentally social and today, and in the future, co-workers will occupy an even more important place in our work experience.
No matter what your level of comfort with technology in the past, you’ve likely had to become even more adept after the current COVID crisis. It’s stressful to use new systems, leverage technology to connect in new ways and work through challenges when your platform goes down because the network is overloaded. But you’ve probably expanded your comfort zone, capability and confidence with all-things tech. In addition, your company or neighborhood may have upgraded their infrastructures, creating a better pipeline and more streamlined and user-friendly interfaces, making technology easier to live with and ensuring it creates less friction in your day.
As companies grow and mature, it’s natural for them to establish processes and practices that ensure standardization and consistency. While these are necessary, the downside can be the unintended slowing of progress and increase in bureaucracy. The COVID crisis has led many companies, large & small, to reduce or eliminate unnecessary systems and to streamline processes to respond more quickly to critical needs. In addition, many companies have had to delegate decision making to enhance speed, resulting in increased empowerment for employees. Whether they are HR systems, real estate & facilities teams, development mechanisms, manufacturing systems or customer-response protocols, the ability to respond quickly will certainly have a positive effect in the future. If we can increase efficiencies and empowerment today, we will avoid more non-value-added work and decision bottlenecks in the future.
The most innovative solutions often arise in the face of the greatest constraints. Our current COVID-19 challenges create extraordinary barriers to business as usual. As a result, today’s struggles and pain are forcing new ways of thinking, better approaches and fresh perspectives on problems. Companies will learn from the requirement for greater innovation, speed of solutions which will enable us to create conditions for expanded levels of creativity, exploration and problem solving.
After having been home so much, especially without helpful outsourcing like childcare and cleaning services—managers and colleagues will have new respect for life’s demands, and appreciation for all-things family. They will more deeply understand what it takes to orchestrate your personal life from cooking to supporting kids in their schoolwork. In addition, they will have a refreshed level of appreciation for the ways family and friends are critical to life and happiness., which are proven to breed productivity.
As Shakespeare said in The Tempest, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. Companies who competed in the pre-COVID world, have been driven to collaborate under current circumstances with great results. Restaurants who were traditionally in competition, now working together to donate food to needy people and manufacturing organizations collaborating to provide jobs to displaced workers. There are even examples of previously competing companies sharing engineering information to manufacture critical medical supplies. While it is unrealistic to expect companies will share IP or development secrets in the future, companies will have a renewed sense of responsibility to their communities and a willingness to collaborate for the greater good across the fields in which they play.
Companies have put greater technology systems and support in place to facilitate this crash course in mobile working. Teams are figuring out how to collaborate at a distance and leaders are improving their ability to manage based on outcomes and objectives rather than presence. Companies will expand the acceptability of remote work, and they will provide more choice and flexibility to employees to work wherever they can get their best work done, including away from the office.
While this could be perceived as a threat to future office demand, it is unlikely to be so. A focus on higher utilization and densification of space has already driven efficiencies and resulted in limited excess space in optimized portfolios. Rising employment in relevant sectors, will continue as things normalize, and will more than outweigh any impact on demand from homeworking. In addition, from the supply side, there has been very little new construction since the last economic downturn of 2008/2009. That makes the existing stock of quality buildings more valuable and in demand. This is not to say that things won’t change, as they indeed will. Offices that were destined for/ heading toward remote working, will clearly accelerate in that direction. Smaller sales offices are a prime example, and great opportunity for near term cost reduction and enhanced mobility of those space inhabitants.
A recently completed, broad survey of corporate leaders that utilize office space widely (conducted by Corenet), showed a slight majority (51 percent) saying that their company’s real estate footprint will shrink as a result of increased work from home. Additionally, broad employee polling that took place early in the crisis showed in favor of “work from home/remote working”, the latest polling however shows significant backlash and a strong desire to get “back to the office”. On top of that, the deepest studies clearly indicate very significant declines in collaboration, innovation and talent retention for remote work groups vs. “officed” groups. Bottom line, generalization doesn’t work. Each company and “use group” need to be weighed individually and carefully to determine true impact.
As architect David Dewane of Chicago firm Barker/Nestor points out, open offices were already on the decline before Covid-19, and Dewane, who is perhaps most famous for advocating for and designing non-open-office “deep-work chambers,” hopes that corporate leaders will take the best of what they’ve learned from virtual working to help create office spaces that allow for a balance of isolated concentration and productive, meaningful collaboration. “When I graduated architecture school in ’94 we talked about how tech was going to change how we commuted and lived, and that has not been true,” says Lionel Ohayon, founder and CEO of New York design studio ICRAVE, which has overseen workplace projects around the world. “Cities are more popular, people use more paper, commercial real estate generally remains, and will continue to be very strong, despite the current, temporary “hold” on space take downs, which will ultimately lead to a fair amount of pent up demand, particularly for top quality office and warehouse space that is owned and managed by “tenant centric” landlords. Retail space conversely is devastated. This is a natural acceleration of the long-term trend for that sector. “Shared Workspaces” have also have their weaknesses exposed. This will accelerate with huge holes in security, safety & business continuity. Investment in these entities has also ground to a halt as evidenced by Softbank pulling out of the WeWork deal.
In the longer term, ‘building health’ (including ventilation systems, air filtration, and cleaning) and facilities/management preparedness will all become increasingly important in the eyes of discerning space users.
The “stress test” of a lightening quick transition to remote working has exposed weaknesses in infrastructure, systems, equipment and policies that corporate leaders are rushing to address in the need for future continuity. Difficulties communicating with colleagues and clients, IT system capacity issues and the risk of workforce shortages will also affect productivity. Mitigating policies and procedures will help reduce some of this impact.
The need for high-spec real estate with a view to better provide a safe and healthy workplace will be of keen interest to corporate leaders, as will the drive toward “green” buildings standards.
Workplace technology adoption will accelerate, sensors, air quality and occupancy indicators – as will use of PropTech and MedTech to enhance workplace safety. We can already see that COVID-19 may have long-lasting consequences (both positive and negative). Although the short-term attention of corporates will go on business continuity, there are significant longer-term implications for real estate decision-making with a renewed emphasis on the ability to react quickly to a similar event in the future with a focus on operational resilience. These will, of course, vary by sector.
When employees go back to the office, employers will be forced to re-think their approach to the workplace. Companies will need to consider enhanced cleaning techniques, more distancing and increased choices for employees across a campus (providing places for focus, collaboration, learning, socializing and respite). In addition, all the things employees loved about being home, comfortable places to relax between meetings or personalization for example, will create new demands on the office. Organizations will have a new appreciation for the importance of the office, the critical nature of face-to-face interactions and the ways their workplaces Also accelerated will be the upgrading or re-building of functionally obsolete buildings. Landlords of lesser quality, or with less focus on the overall tenant experience will suffer and lose ground to those “best in class”, tenant focused landlords. must support employees.
Buildings will get “smarter”.
Buildings will move fairly rapidly toward more automation to mitigate contagion, with COVID-19 speeding up development of all types of touch-less technology—automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled hotel room entry, hands-free light switches and temperature controls, automated luggage bag tags, and advanced airport check-in and security. “I don’t see why if I can tell Siri to call my wife, or my remote to cue up Netflix, I couldn’t tell an elevator to take me to the 10th floor,” says Miami architect Kobi Karp, principal at Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design.
Restrooms with doors in public spaces were already on the way out, points out Craig Scully, partner and chief engineer at Fort Wayne, Indiana, firm Design Collaborative, but are likely to be eliminated wherever possible. Designers will increasingly call on antibacterial fabrics and finishes, including those that already exist, like copper and those that will inevitably be developed.
At this writing, unemployment is temporarily at a near-all-time high, so this point may seem unrealistic, but situations that upend the status quo can be ideal, ultimately for career development. During these times, companies have had to reassess critical jobs, expand definitions of responsibilities and explore new boundaries for key tasks. With such fundamental shifting of jobs and the way they’re designed, career opportunities will abound. You may be furloughed today, but when the economy comes back, there will be significant need for people who can ramp up quickly, take action and bring motivation to efforts that make companies hum. These opportunities may be within organizations or may deliver on the promise of the “gig economy” in which people are their own brand and go wherever the need is within companies or as contractors.
When the coronavirus finally abates, businesses will be in a rush to re-establish their value, re-energize their staffs & amp up product flows, and do so quickly. In this way, even the most mature, well-established organizations will become like start-ups. There will also be a potential deluge of new businesses and perhaps “world-changing companies,” according to Mark Cuban: “All of these will need quick thinking, fast flow of ideas and ingenuity to figure things out and make things happen. This kind of culture will create huge opportunities for new jobs and career development”.
At the moment, it may be tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel or hold a sense of optimism for the future, but tomorrow will be improved by the struggles we’re facing today. Whether it’s what your company does for you, the way you work with others, improvements to your choices at work, how your company approaches its community commitments or your expanded career opportunities, the learning we do today will improve the years to come. The current crisis will eventually pass and a “new normal” will emerge and there is plenty of reason to believe that future will be bright.
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