Post-Covid workplace transformation – is this the death of the corporate office?

As companies are finalising their post-lockdown ’return to work’ strategies for the weeks and months ahead, I’ve been having a lot of discussion around Workplace Transformation and some of the broader operating model changes that we can expect to see emerging over the medium to longer term.

I was joined on a panel discussion by Ben Almond, Global Head of Property at Pearson plc; Giles Baxter, Group CIO at RM plc and Christina Cowling, Business Change Lead at NTT Data, to take a look at what the future might hold and more importantly, what company leaders need to be doing now to get ahead of the curve

As to whether this is the end of the corporate office, the answer according to Almond is “definitely not”, but we will undoubtedly use the office in different ways in the future. It’s clear that for the majority of people (94% of c4,500 surveyed in Pearson’s latest poll) a 100% remote working model is undesirable- people need social interaction. So how do we strike the right balance and what do firms need to be doing now to prepare for the future?

It’s all about the people

The answer – unsurprisingly – is in your people. As Almond notes, it’s critical that firms “put people, and the well-being of their people, at the centre of everything they do”. Understanding that “everyone’s lockdown has been very personal, depending on their own situation” helps you keep a balanced view of both the more immediate return to the work planning as well as what the longer term solution may look like. “The operational changes have actually been the easier part” agrees Baxter, but as lockdown has dragged on it’s the people aspect and “morale issues” that have proven to be more complex. As firms set about on building the ‘workplace of the future’, employee engagement and effective Change Management is going to be absolutely fundamental to getting this right.

The pandemic has presented huge opportunity for organisations to not only transform how they run, but also to build a more open and authentic culture. While the changes brought about by remote working have been hugely disruptive, it’s clear that these have brought about a number of positive outcomes . Firstly, the question around productivity has been thrown out of the window. As Baxter comments, “in some of our teams, productivity has actually gone up” and in the absence of face to face interactions, everyone commented on the fact that there are now a lot more (virtual) meetings than before, although these are shorter and more focussed. Quicker decision making and more “intentional interaction” as Almond puts it, have also had a positive impact on culture as well. There is a strong sense that recent months have broken down barriers and brought people closer together. Seeing into people’s homes and having calls interrupted by dogs and children have brought a healthy dose of humanity to work, which is so important in building tightly knit and effective teams.

“Profiling of employees is important” says Cowling, as firms start to look at the different groups of people and understand their needs. “Those working on customer facing projects often have less of a need to physically be in the office than those in the back office, for example. We are looking at bringing people back to the workplace slowly, not just because of Covid-19 but to actually introduce a new way of working”. Baxter echoes these sentiments and similarly points towards possible structural changes that would enable them to “share resource between different business units as demand flexes”.

Work is something you do, not somewhere you go

Technology is not only an enabler, but also a significant driver of the future operating model. “The further along the digital transformation journey you are (relating to the traditional pillars of Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud), the more location agnostic your workplace is” says Baxter and by embracing some of the great collaboration tools that are available, “engagement increases as well as productivity”. However, technology in itself is not a silver bullet. As Cowling says “if we don’t know how we are supposed to be using these new tools, with appropriate business rules and policies in place, we won’t make good use of the technology. This is where change management can help”.

The reality is that the end result will be somewhere between what the majority of us have now (100% work from home) and what we had before (predominantly work in the office), which creates huge opportunities to reduce the physical office footprint. The bigger question is around how companies will structure themselves to adapt to the new ways of working. Flexibility and agility will be key, moving forward. The prospect of a “work from anywhere” culture also radically changes the talent landscape. Most organisations have based their offices in locations where they want to attract talent. “That is less relevant now”, said Baxter as offices will become more “drop-in spaces to do more of the things that satisfies the well-being requirements of our people, rather than somewhere you turn up 9 to 5 to do your emails”.

What is clear is that “not one person, department or company has the answer to this” says Almond “but leaders must be making sure that the right conversations are happening. Transformation programmes have traditionally focused on technology, finance and HR, but not real estate who have typically been the poor relation. It’s time for corporate real estate leaders to step-up and connect the ecosystem, both internally and externally”.

These are fascinating times, undoubtedly.