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Why Return To The Office? It’s Time To Unleash The Workforce

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  • Hybrid work is “without a doubt” the future of work, but there is a clear disconnect between what employers and employees want, according to CBRE’s Global Head of Occupier Research Julie Whelan. 
  • The real question is not how to bring employees back to a centralized office, but why? Many employees think they can successfully do their job from anywhere, and are looking for justification. 
  • The “Why?” question is pivotal, but CBRE’s research noted that very few companies are building consensus around why a return to office is critical to the success of the company. 

 Comments have been extracted from Julie Whelan’s podcast with Allwork.Space and have been edited for clarity. Listen in full here. 

Companies around the world are at a crossroads. 

Some are confidently pressing ahead with ‘return to office’ plans. Others are staying remote or switching to permanent hybrid work strategies. 

And plenty more are in limbo, testing different work policies with a “wait and see” mentality. 

The pandemic experience was a first for everyone, and now, many business leaders simply don’t know what to do next. 

The Occupier Survey by CBRE & CoreNet Global (August 2022), which surveyed 176 corporate office occupiers, found that a predicted surge in office usage hasn’t happened. 

Why aren’t employees using the office more? 

Should employers rethink their approach? 

Why return to the office at all? 

We had the opportunity to pose these questions to CBRE’s Julie Whelan, Global Head of Occupier Research, during a recent episode of Allwork.Space’s Future of Work Podcast. 

What is the “why”? 

“It is extremely interesting what is happening out there right now,” said Whelan. “It feels like life is back to normal everywhere but the office.” 

CBRE’s research shows that 84% of firms want employees in the office at least half of the time, but employees don’t necessarily feel the same way. Only 25% of firms believe that their employees would voluntarily come into the office more often. 

It’s creating a disconnect between managers and employees. 

“The reason [for the disconnect] is that a huge piece of the communication seems to be missing. That is the ‘why’ around the office. Many, many employees simply believe that they can do their job from anywhere successfully.” 

Those employees who prefer the flexibility of working from home don’t understand the justification for coming into the office, according to Whelan. 

“In their minds, they’re weighing the benefits of coming into the office.” 

Employees only see friction, Whelan noted, which is especially caused by the commute. 

CBRE’s research noted that “only a few” companies are building consensus around why a return to office is critical to the success of the company. 

The “Why?” question is pivotal, but companies aren’t doing enough to convince employees to give up the freedom and flexibility of home-based work. 

Lack of skills 

There’s another problem: managers aren’t equipped with the right skills to address these challenges. 

“Managers have the power to help change the norms and behaviors of their people… [but] many of them just are not aware of how to do that, because they are trained in the old ways of managing.” 

Now, managers must switch from traditional annual goal-setting, which was often associated with physical office attendance, to a style of management that accommodates remote work. 

And yes, proximity bias is a problem. 

“We need a new way of managing. But most organizations aren’t doing much to reskill their managers around new expectations.” 

CBRE’s research concluded that new manager skills must be built to support a new way of work. It identified that the support of manager training is “especially important” to help teams better set, communicate, execute, and measure goals that contribute to organizational effectiveness. 

As for presence awareness and overcoming proximity bias, this could be at least partly solved by technology. 

The right tools can help teams understand who is going to be in a specific location at any given time, which will enable better planning for in-person collaboration among hybrid teams. 

The physical office is only one factor 

This, combined with management training, may help steer the focus toward what’s right for the company, and what’s right for employees, rather than fixating on the office. Why bend an entire organization around an office if better options are available? 

“The physical office is one factor. It is a building block,” said Whelan. 

“I’m going to repeat the ‘why’: how does coming into the office make me a better employee, and how does that help us to be a better organization? This is actually not about the physical office alone.” 

The real focus should be on understanding the pain points that people feel when they have to come back to the office. And many times, that’s around the commute. 

This impacts heavily on an organization’s ability to attract and retain talent. 

Whelan referred to a survey CBRE carried out of thousands of consumers worldwide, asking about living and working habits. Among the questions, respondents were asked what top factors they consider when taking on a new job. “Behind salary and benefits, it’s always going to be the commute.”  

This also tied in very closely with the third, fourth and fifth factors, which all had to do with work life balance and flexibility. 

“It is extremely important to make sure that as an organization, you are being very clear with what your policy and your culture is around hybrid work and flexibility and autonomy, so that those who are looking to join your organization can feel that it fits with what is important to them.” 

Flexibility has monetary value 

These are not just perks. 

Research suggests that flexibility can hold some monetary value, according to Whelan, as it leads to employees that are happier, more loyal, and more engaged with the organization that they’re with. 

“Employers that want to hold on to their talent have to realize that this is a major factor, because in some cases, instilling more flexibility and autonomy and freedom, and really showing it through not only your policies, but your culture that you uphold, could hold monetary value for many of your employees.” 

While there is no right or wrong answer about whether companies should bring employees back to the office, they should think clearly about why they want employees to use the office, and have a solid justification that employees can align with. Those that can’t will lose their best people. 

For Whelan, based on trends CBRE is seeing, hybrid work is “without a doubt” a big part of the future of work. 

But, to make it happen, organizations need to let their people get on with their jobs in a way that works for them. 

“We need to just unleash the workforce,” she said. “Release any preconceived notions that we had about the way that work is done, then put the puzzle back together again.” 

An office is a building, but there are many other places that make up the platform of a workplace. 

“It’s a perspective shift,” she added. “If we can just unleash all of our preconceived notions of what the office was, I think it would help a lot. But it’s going to take a while to get there.” 

Listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript in full here. 

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