A memo from the future:

“I come bearing gifts. And news. We got you that extra budget. But (and it’s non-negotiable if you want the budget), I’m pulling forward the restructure.

So, you’re going to have even more on your plate. Covid is teaching us too many bitter lessons about the employee experience, and so you get your wish: FM / workplace and everything in that domain now sits below you as Global Head of Employee Workplace Experience. Congratulations. The CEO was even up for scrapping the workplace bit of the title, but step by step, hey? Apparently that data you presented showing employee experience being the stepping stones to employee engagement struck a chord. So, I’m also rubber stamping the new Group Head of Workplace Technology role today. You two have your work cut out.

So, any reason why I can’t have your proposals / thoughts / responses on the items below by the end of next week?

  1. An update on the proposed staggered re-population of all workplaces based on local gov guidelines in each country. Some seem way less stringent than others, so what’s our position? I am most interested to know how we decide who comes back first. A central rule set looks impossible to then implement locally, but we need global policy / guidelines for site leads to work to. We also need to discuss how to offer any sort of an employee ‘experience’ when we’re only populating at 30%. Offices will feel like deserted ships.
  2. Report back, please, on the response from the co-working space providers in London and Barcelona. Do we really trust that they will offer the same housekeeping / janitorial cleanliness service assurances we offer employees in spaces within our control? I also need to know how they are proposing to limit building loads.
  3. Please update the cost projections for installing occupancy sensing throughout the estate. I concede we really need to be able to pull real-time stats for numbers on premises. I do not concede to the suggestion from FM for removing 50% of meeting chairs and marking alternate seats in the breakout space with hazard tape X’s. Last time I checked we’re running a corporate real estate portfolio not a kindergarten. So, let’s treat employees with a modicum of respect.
  1. Please review the workplace experience app again. I seriously don’t understand why we can’t use this for access authorisation, like a boarding pass on a plane. You apply to go to an office and it allocates you a ‘pass’ if projected capacities and team make up for who else is on site that day are beneficial, and it then tells you what time you are allowed to access (board). Just like booking your grocery delivery slot based on availability. Or look at the train ticket apps. The Arlanda Express train from Stockholm airport has an app that allows you to buy a ticket and then validate it. It produces a random image that the guards on the train recognise as applicable that day. There are heaps of examples that could surely be cut’n’paste into our experience app to help, because I sure as hell don’t want to see all 30% who are allowed back on a given day arriving at reception within a 20 min window.
  2. Please also lean on the app vendor re: app-based contact tracing. Is it a possibility or not? How is it the Dutch government can build an app in three weeks, but we can’t add a page? A simple yes or no from their developers is all I’m looking for. We can then decide how we take on the privacy issues, but if employees understand that it provides them with an added layer of Covid protection because we can trace if they’ve been proximate to someone who later confirms they’re infected, I reckon they’ll opt in pretty quickly.
  1. How many of the offices can realistically have their air handling plant filtration upgraded, let’s say by the time we’re nearing full occupation? I’d like to simply know what MERV rating the existing filtration is for each building and understand the practicality of changing all out to whatever FM decide is now our new minimum spec. Clearly where landlords provide central plant it will be less easy, but I can’t see they have an excuse for not wanting to provide better protection. I’d never heard of MERV until last week, but its beautifully easy to understand the bandings and I think we owe it to staff to upgrade given the ease.
  2. Last one: the CHRO is in a real flap about us formalising “home working” as a corporate “thing,” and Legal seem to be backing them because of the potential litigation risk over here. I don’t get it because I think the risk of doing nothing is much worse. I maintain we have a duty of care to employees and lets face it, this is going to run for months. Personally, I think a kitchen table is just fine for checking mail before the commute in or at the end of a fractious day, but it’s not something we should support as an appropriate 8hr day setting. So, we absolutely need to know what setting and tech set-up someone has before we deem it ok for them to be home workers for more than 2-days a week, whether “officially” or not. How can we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well it’s not really home working; it’s just COVID home working.” Lame. I know that’s 5,000 homes around the world your employee experience remit might suddenly cover, but those employee’s experiences are just as important as those who’ve come back to offices, right? And their willingness to stay home facilitates the lower densities for those who don’t.

If that research you presented really does show how each component and feature of workplace contributes to employee sentiment (and therefore employee experience), does that mean we know exactly what each of our employee engagement stepping stones actually are? Seems that way. Which is awesome, since we can easily find out which ones employees don’t have easy access to at home. As far as I’m concerned, your role covers anything that impacts an employee’s experience of the place from which they find themselves having to work, and COVID really focuses many minds and eyes on the detailed componentry of that. Time to really prove the value of workplace.”


In mid-February, I was messaging a friend in Switzerland. Leesman had a new client project brewing in the city where she lives, so I’d have a good reason to be there in the next few weeks. That meant she and I had an excuse for dinner and wine. I even said in the message that COVID wouldn’t get in the way. Hmm.

I watch, listen and read the news, but COVID-19 caught me out. In some defence I think it caught us all out. And, what scares anyone who cares to think about it is that we still don’t understand enough about it to feel like any plan that we might make is a certain one. So, as much as anxieties might be lessened by the idea that we’ll be out the other side in another few months, we truly don’t know what that post-peak pandemic landscape will look like, let alone the landscape beyond it. How long until there’s a vaccine? Will it mutate and return? How long will social distancing have to last? The world guessed the speed and spread of COVID-19 wrong, and I’m guessing most who try and speculate a single post-COVID future of workplace will similarly be wrong. Why? Just a few examples:

  • Governments will not switch off social distancing; they will have to progressively relax social distancing. So, some of us may be working from home for much of our working week through Spring, Summer, Autumn and well into Winter. Some may be in some days and home-based on others, but ‘normality’ is months away.
  • Governments also cannot afford to indefinitely fund worker retention schemes, so business leaders will equally be pressured to get business back to normal, employees commuting and supply chains moving. And for huge numbers, that means workers returning to their offices.
  • However, some of those business leaders are coming around to the idea of a larger proportion of their employees than they previously thought being able to work from home.

But they are making those judgements sat in their nice spare bedrooms, studies, libraries or garden offices with little or no real knowledge of what many of their employees are coping with in their version of a home work setting. We need data and evidence of what is actually happening.

  • And what is safe for those workers returning to offices? How will large workplaces regulate densities / proximity guidelines? How will a six-foot by six-foot 12-person lift car work under social distancing rules? What will workers feel about commuter transport densities or lunch time sandwich bar density way beyond the control of their employer? Will employees feel comfortable travelling to cities until we know Coronavirus is under control, or will those co-worker / office-as-a-service providers who’ve invested in regional centres suddenly see a huge uplift?
  • For every client who says they will need to capitulate to financial pressure and reduce their real estate footprint, just as many have told me they may have to add space in order to return to 1:1 desk allocation as employer and employee awareness of surface cleanliness / social distancing maxes out.
  • I used to retreat home once or twice a week for concentrative work, but now we’re all using Zoom or Teams to buzz each other all the ****ing time (and I feel bound to engage in order to keep social and organisational connectivity up). So, COVID home working is killing the focus and concentration home-working once supported. You’re damned right COVID home working isn’t pre-COVID home working.

This last point is critical in any workplace industry response to COVID. Any observer with half a brain can see that home working in lockdown is not what home working used to be about, or for that matter, what home working will look like in the future. But that doesn’t negate the need and the value of knowing what is happening to employees today and for the foreseeable future, because every organisation entered this crisis with different remote worker capabilities and susceptibilities both organisationally and operationally. Many gaps have been quickly plugged, but our early data already shows which fracture lines are going to open first.

It’s also worth noting that many organisations have quite literally cut up what were tightly policed rule books. Teams managing sensitive data who beforehand were not even allowed to take a mobile phone with a camera into their office have suddenly been handed laptops and told to go work from home. Trust that was not historically present is suddenly offered. It could of course be withdrawn the minute some sort of normality returns, but it will equally have given those employees a sense of what trust looks like. Take it away and I wonder what those employees will think about their employer post-COVID.

So, before we second guess the future of workplace let’s also acknowledge both home and corporate workplace will play a key role in organisational and societal recovery. But before consultants eagerly receive kneejerk client briefs for 50% portfolio reductions or for cutting six-foot contrast colour carpet circles around desks, let’s cast our minds back to the immense importance attached to workplace by those consultants a matter of weeks ago. Is every value proposition of workplace 2019 now just to be ignored?

Even a cursory glance across our Leesman+ research shows the organisational value great workplaces have to productivity, pride and knowledge transfer. So, use that data in the recovery phase. It’s time for workplace strategists to actually demonstrate some strategic business skills, work through those numbers and use workplace as a weapon in our fight back. We must all do so properly cognisant of the likely economic uncertainty, the probable long tail of social distancing and the certain heightened public awareness of cleanliness, but these are merely factors to be weighed, not reasons to decimate years of work.

This also requires a deep understanding of how home working is actually working for all levels of employees across all functions. Then, at least when the longstanding advocates of dispersed working increase the volume of ‘the office is facing certain extinction’ rhetoric, we can test their claims with battlefront reconnaissance of our home working fight back against COVID.

One of those advocates regurgitated the overused “work is a thing you do not a place you go” on social media last week. I’d caution anyone using that these days, because the early independent evidence from the tools we have developed to measure home working employee experience suggests that for very many, whilst work is of course a thing you do, you do it best in a purposefully and considerately designed place you go to. And most would appear to be yearning to be back there already. The issue we face, is that the things employees want most from their offices are the very things social distancing would have you barrier with that hazard tape.

I for one yearn for the office—almost as much as I yearn for a time when plans can be made for dinner and wine in Switzerland.

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