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Tenant Insights – October 2022

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October 13, 2022

Negotiating the return to the office?

Here’s what every business leader needs to know

Looking back, it’s hard to believe it’s been over two and a half years since the COVID shutdown and the sudden, unprecedented shift to knowledge workers working from home. In the meantime, our whole culture and way of working has changed dramatically. With it has come a large wave of pushback from staff to the idea of “returning to the office.”

For leadership, these challenges can make figuring out the return to office a daunting prospect. How do you get workers back on board or navigate the switch to a hybrid strategy? Even more importantly, how do you manage the change in a way that addresses employee concerns about coming back?

Here at West, Lane, and Schlager Realty Advisors (“WLS”) it’s a topic we’ve given a lot of thought to as we help our clients develop their Workplace Strategies. And while every organization is different, we’ve come across some common themes that we think should be top of mind for leadership when making the switch back to office.

 The nature of work has changed

As leaders, our first step will be to acknowledge that the nature of work has changed. Work is no longer defined by where it takes place. It’s tempting to try and recapture the “before times,” which fostered vibrant and collaborative cultures. But it’s nearly impossible; the circumstances, and the world beyond, have changed too much.

Consider this time an opportunity to revisit your culture (the unspoken way you do things) and to rededicate your organization to its mission and values.  Staff are much more likely to be invested in the idea of returning to the office if you’re offering them something new and better than before.

Working out the “why?”

As leaders, it’s natural for us to focus on the questions of how and when we’ll return to the office, but for your staff, the more important question is likely: why? Workers may point out that they’ve been just as productive working remotely, and that the business rolled along just fine over the last two-plus years.

Your reasons for the return might center around team cohesion, ease of collaboration, or ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunities. Whatever they are, you need to communicate those reasons (and your decision-making process) clearly. A good way to approach this can be from a company values perspective. What is it your company values above all else? And how does the shift back to office support this?

Above all, it’s important to really listen to any concerns your staff bring to the table, and to be flexible in how your new strategy is implemented. That may mean embracing a hybrid workplace, or testing different approaches and then making data-driven decisions about the way forward.

The right incentives

Another method that employers are using is to provide incentives for being in the office. Again, this is an area where getting staff input is critical. Would a monthly catered team lunch draw folks in? Or perhaps reducing the burden of commuting, via a flexible arrival and departure policy on in-office days?

Regardless of strategy, the office itself must support your new way of work. Many of our clients are integrating a mix of collaboration spaces with quiet spaces for heads down work.

The point is, the factors that make an office a good fit for your staff are a little bit different for every organization, and it’s important to take stock of what value adds your company can offer.

The WLS approach

A successful return to office is contingent on the intentional use of the time that your staff spends in the office. The office must provide what remote work cannot – typically human connection. As Chris Capossela recently highlighted in Harvard Business Review, “to get people back in the office, make it social.” Our Workplace Strategies engagements, consisting of surveys, interviews, and focus groups with 20-plus organizations and over 800 staff, echo this sentiment, “the people are the office.” However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “What value proposition will make traveling to the office “worth” the commute? At WLS, we believe that a solid Workplace Strategy is the first step to unlocking that question,” noted Logan Gradison, WLS Director of Workplace Strategies.

As Matt Levin, WLS Principal, puts it:

“At WLS, we believe that a solid Workplace Strategy is the first step to unlocking that question. We pride ourselves on helping tenants find a solution that matches their needs, promotes positive change, and empowers their workforce.

The way we work, and what people want from work, has changed. By embracing that change, we can be at the forefront of building workplaces that staff are excited to be a part of.”