The Conundrum That Is Today's Office

“Office” has long been understood as a place of work, community, status, and even power. My, how times have changed. If you think workers are confused, consider business leaders who must chart a course to a new normal, whatever that may be. Yes, there is enough ambiguity to go around.

Add to ambiguity the cold hard facts: office occupancy is down significantly, effectively stranding billions of dollars in capital and operating investment. A current office presence of 25%-35% is not unusual in the corporate environment, and even that looks good compared to the early months of the pandemic.

Nearly half of office visits this year are for once a week, 37% of these lasted less than six hours (Bloomberg, May 24, 2022).

Kastle Systems’ Back to Work Barometer for ten major U.S. cities has been hovering at an average of 43% for more than two months, suggesting a “new normal” (Globe St., June 6, 2022).

A majority of business leaders prefer to have employees on-site a majority of the time. Why? Because they are concerned about engagement, acculturation, career development/maturation, innovation, and productivity.

I could go on, but you get the picture. How do we navigate our way through this?

Points to Ponder
Pondering is a good thing. Pondering suggests the opposite of rushing. It is about taking time to take stock, consider, muse, and reflect. Pondering is a thoughtful process, and that is exactly what is needed now, unless of course you are one of the few who knows the exact right thing to do in this moment. And just what is it we are to ponder? How about this list for starters?

What are others in our market sector experiencing, planning, executing?

How have the last two and a half years influenced our corporate culture? Did leadership lead or follow?

After the initial shutdown bubble, did we guide the change, or did it just happen? If the former, how successful were we? If the latter, how did we let that happen?

Are we able to work effectively in this new environment without expectation of physical presence? Do we agree that this can and/or should be our new normal?

If we agree that it can, what else do we need to do to improve community, connectivity, and productivity?

If we do not agree with today’s state as a long-term norm, then how do we encourage workers to come back into the building at our preferred rate of presence?

Do we need to re-think, re-balance, re-envision, or re-tool our real estate portfolio?

What would be the effects of a long-term recession on our business and workforce? What planning do we need to engage in now to prepare and hedge?

The Basis of Decision
Deliberations and decisions on these matters will quickly become powerful levers on the business. They must be based in hard data and objective, deep, and transparent analysis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We must gain the wisdom that only comes from understanding ourselves at a deep level, crafting strategies, plans, and projects which deploy that wisdom in ways that secure the future and vitality of the business. Everything must be on the table. Real estate, talent, strategy, and leadership included. This is not a time to follow others, it is a time to let facts speak loudly. The business isn’t what you wish it to be or what you think it is – it is exactly what the facts say it is. Deal with it accordingly.

Decision Traps to Avoid
In today’s business climate wherein talent has taken flight from the office (and sometimes from physical proximity to it), leadership must decide how to deal with the talent question. What occupancy level is needed to fuel innovation, cohesiveness, efficiency, and productivity, and what strategies will you employ to achieve that occupancy?

I offer these warnings as food for thought: First, never lay down a mandate that you cannot defend empirically. Second, do not make decisions based in fear. The first will damage credibility and introduce questions of trust and agenda. The second will encourage uncertainty, confusion, and ad hoc accommodation.

The Talent Dynamic
A comment if I may on the talent issue. If we are in the early stages of a long-term recession or stagflation as many say we are, then one must consider its effects on the labor force. Over the last couple of years workers have held the upper hand because the work force has shrunk noticeably. Talent, even new talent, has commanded a premium. With a recession, we can expect the pendulum to reverse. Businesses under financial stress will do what they have always done – shed cost, including talent, to achieve a sustainable bottom line. Today’s workers, especially younger generations that have not yet experienced a recession cycle, may be caught off-guard and unprepared. If we as leaders really care about our people, then how do we conduct a dialogue that both prepares them and protects the business? That, ladies and gentlemen, is worth pondering as well.

Why Office Presence Matters to the Bigger Picture
Here is another reason I think getting folks back into the office at a meaningful level of presence is important today:  We are a polarized society, sometimes even more divided than we think we are. One benefit of the office as a workplace is that it brings us together in an environment where we must figure out how to collaborate. It gives us perspective we do not get from our own “tribes,” and forces us to work together to be successful.  We can learn experientially that those we do not always agree with are good people. We can learn to trust them, to respect them, and even to honor them not because we must, but because we value them … because we know them.
The more we work apart, the more we do not realize that we must live together to be truly successful. I would hate to wake up one day and find our national motto changed from “E Pluribus Unum” to “E Pluribus Pluribus.”


Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top