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Getting People Back in the Building is Job One

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend two days inside a corporate HQ facility. Like many corporate facilities these days, it seemed like an empty shell. Some floors were dark, few people were in the building, and a sense of urgency or intensity was nowhere to be found. The conversations I had with leaders and the low energy vibe made it plain that the business is not running on all cylinders. The common theme in these discussions was: “We want people back in the building.”

Informal and unplanned staff interactions in which the transfer of ideas between knowledge workers occurs has historically been a key driver of the company’s excellence. Someone heading to the cafe for lunch bumps into a colleague and shares their current thoughts on a project, and the conversation that ensues presents a different perspective which works its way into the thinking process, bringing insight and adjustment to the work. This is ideation at work, and it is often fueled by serendipitous and synergistic exchanges. They are hard to achieve when no one is in the building.

The Kastle Presence Barometer for the top ten U.S. metropolitan areas shows an average occupancy presence of between 33% and 56% during the reporting period ending January 11th. The company I visited is operating at the low end of that range, and a good portion of folks inside the building are support staff. No wonder the meetings I sat in were subdued affairs in which engagement was difficult.

I know that folks are working remotely, and yes, there is a lot that can be done that way. I used to save up heads down work for the occasional work from home day myself, and they were some of my most productive days. But those days were rare, not the norm. The norm was still about being personally engaged with and energized by colleagues. That isn’t happening now, and it is painfully obvious.

How does one develop trust-based relationships in this environment? Or accountability? How does one lead others to perform at their best when relationships are shallow? How can one seriously believe that productivity is not suffering, most likely significantly in many cases, in such an atmosphere? Do people know what they are missing? Yes, commuting and the chores of office life have a price. So does not being there.

CEO’s are acutely aware of the dilemma and the host of issues it brings. The bottom line is under attack from multiple perspectives, including inflation, employee engagement, productivity, and creativity, not to mention the financial burden of carrying large CAPex and CRE investments that are vastly underutilized and thus underperforming. It is a problem, a big problem, and a cause of the growing call from the C-Suite for workers to get back into the office.

That will be easier said than done. Employees are well established in their new routines. Many have moved away from the office; some have moved far away. The added perks of remote working may now be perceived as takeaways, and the once normal costs of commuting and being in the building will now be hits to personal budgets. There aren’t likely to be many easy answers.

There are limited options for organizations that have not already found their sweet spot: a hybrid model requiring a minimum number of days in the office, decentralizing work facilities to enable higher presence, or a more aggressive policy focused on maximizing full time presence. Each company’s solution must be tailored to its business realities and culture. Successfully navigating workplace changes of this scale and import is risky business and must be approached thoughtfully.

Regardless of the kind of corporate culture, be it top down or bottom up, personal engagement and policy socialization are two primary factors to consider. Engaging staff in a transparent discussion of business realities, seeking their input, socializing options, communicating direction, and supporting healthy dialogue are keys to successful transition. Leaders who are more autocratic in style will need to adjust their style to fit the times. Leaders who already focus on vision sharing and building consensus before making big moves will be able to function more naturally. In either case, the issue of revitalizing work and re-energizing both the workplace and its occupants is today’s job one.

Ken Burkhalter is a facilities and project management consultant, focused on strategic planning, capital projects, and organizational development. You can contact him at ken@kburkhalter.com.

2 thoughts on “Getting People Back in the Building is Job One”

  1. During the entirety of the pandemic, I was in a position that could not be done at home. I always felt (and I wasn’t alone in this) that the senior leadership always took us for granted and instead focused the lionshare of their attention on keeping their WFH staff happy and motivated. Perhaps that approach is backfiring a bit

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