A memo from the future:

“There’s no doubt it’ll be a tough meeting, but I’m seriously looking forward to us all getting together next month. I’m actually looking forward to the long-haul!

First off though, please pass on my thanks to your frontline team for the awesome job they did getting people back in the offices so quickly. Seems to me as though the two-week rotation at 50% occupancy is working, and hopefully your government will further relax the social distancing rules like over here, so we can have everyone back in as soon as possible. I’m sure as hell over the home working novelty.

“Do we dare concede to the return of the cubicle, back on agendas because it offers a modicum of protection”.

The challenge for me, as you know, is that the board is really on my back. The glare from the shining halos from tech is doubly irritating, but we have to accept that finance will be expecting us to take a hatchet to the portfolio. Most of them saw it happen post-Lehman so see it as the first easy strike. Even if we thin back all discretionary OPEX spend, they’ll want more. I’m still waiting for figures from HR on the next wave of headcount reductions and contractor lay-offs (we all know the contractors will be back on the books in months), but can you please make sure you come to the retreat with some hard facts on how things actually went. The sort of stuff the other group heads will want to see I think are:

  1. Do we know which tasks and which teams were negatively impacted the most during home working?
  2. Could we do anything if it happens again to mitigate those issues?
  3. HR are reporting the digital native younger folk coped better, but in my team the view was the opposite. They felt the least trusted and rarely had anywhere at home that resembled a work setting. Do you have anything on this?
  4. Should we have put more thought into who most needed to come back to the office first when social distancing was relaxed but not removed, i.e. are there task groups or personas or particular demographics rather than simply defining by business lines?
  5. Did you see anything about knowledge transfer or creativity dropping off? The digi-sec teams in Central Europe have been screaming about scrums being near useless.
  6. I know you said staff dining spaces will stay closed for another month, but can you lay out your plans for finding a new catering contractor? Shame about the other guys.
  7. If I’m sent another article telling me how long coronavirus can live on a laminate surface or a keyboard I’ll explode, but I’m already hearing talk amongst the Exec of your 8:10 desk sharing ratio having to be abolished and go straight back to 1:1. I saw a LinkedIn post suggesting your government would do the same in their own buildings. Easy for us where a division has taken a hit on headcount, but what about HQ and the full ABW offices in London and Boston? What’s the thinking there?
  8. How do we start building a bullet-proof business case that lays out what the office does that home working can’t? What’s the compelling argument for workplace, given we’ve inadvertently just conducted the largest ever experiment of home working?
  9. Lastly, we surely can’t let the US team retrofit panels on those new bench desks? How long did it take us to get rid of the cubicles?

“The post Lehman Brothers collapse left shell-shocked CRE managers in the financial sector, acutely aware that staff were considerably easier to lay off than the square footage you’d had to accommodate them”.

It also makes calling the Group Heads meeting a ‘retreat’, a little perverse when it feels like we’re retreating with white flags above all the cool work we’ve done on workplace in the last ten years. So anything you have by way of evidence you can bring to the table will go a long way to us knowing exactly what role the workplace really played and what shape it’s going to play in the recovery plans they laid out yesterday. Given the hell we’ve all been through, none of the staff can be relied on as reliable witnesses of what actually happened out there, so that data is critical!”


Suddenly, wherever you are, whoever you are, the problems we all face are the same: a common threat, governments trying to respond to an enemy it cannot see, friends and family we cannot physically reach, loved ones we’ve never told how much we love, basic survival instincts leading to the hoarding of supermarket basics, and pretty much every semblance of normality derailed in some way.

But business leaders sights are looking beyond these issues. The most pressing concern for them is the prospect of emerging into a business landscape more savage and uncertain than any of us has ever experienced. It might well be short term, but there will be victims.

If there is any certainty, it is the acute expectation that you as a real estate or facilities manager will build contingencies into every aspect of your strategic response plans and slash every 2021 budget line as deeply as you can. It will test you and the best you gather around you to their fullest.

Formulating that strategic response will not be easy. COVID-19 will impact every business differently, simply because every business entered the arena with different strengths and different susceptibilities. That also means there’s no cut’n’paste response plan that worked last time because there hasn’t been a last time like this time.

Your responses and ability to move quickly will be aided or impeded by the views of those above you on three key dimensions: your organisation’s financial position—can you afford to out invest competitors; organisational creativity—is problem-solving baked into the core because it’s going to be needed in every corner of the business; and corporate elasticity—an organisational ability to flex and adjust in the moment as the sands beneath continue to shift for months to come.

You know you will have to reduce costs and slash investments, and you will also be expected to pound your supply chain, because both are blunt but simple first round easy wins. But also expect the heads of the lines of business around you to seek support as organisations shift resources to core business activities. Whole divisions may disappear while others double in size.

Watch out, though, as decision paralysis grinds some business to a halt. The unnecessary counselling of internal peripheral stakeholders or sub-contracting decision making to external advisors simply risks that the positive impact you are trying to make is outdated by the time you get to implement it. And then prepare for the bold movers, where action-oriented leaders will offer a nod to forgiveness rather than wait for permission, hailed heroes if they call it right but cast into the cold if they call it wrong.

For those in property, workplace, facilities management and the myriad disciplines around those, your action plans will be needed quickly. Thrashing your supply chain is only an option if your supply chain is still intact, and many won’t be. Quickly getting your grand project back on programme is only helpful if your organisation still wants to make grand statements, and many won’t. So, as and when social distancing is relaxed, what next? Do we throw away the last 10 years of workplace philosophy and reset plans to post-Lehman reactionist strategies?

Let’s be brutally honest—some of you will have no choice, because the case for workplace as a tool in corporate competitive advantage is not universally understood, proven or accepted. Some have written books trying to make the case, but they are only read by those who already believe. Covid has caught us out.

At Leesman we have spent 10 years gathering data to understand how employees experience workplace, and we have the largest evidence base to know which of the levers real estate, workplace and facility managers can pull for maximum impact. But we don’t fully understand the impact that density, desk sharing ratios, vertical distribution and departmental adjacency have, nor do we fully grasp the interrelationship of concentrative and collaborative space. None of us truly understand how all the moving parts interplay.

I give you a pledge here to try and correct that once we’re through all this.

What we do know however, is that the best workplaces outperform the average ones on employee values like ‘pride’ and ‘enjoyment.’ My genuine fear is that these values will be downgraded in importance as widespread redundancies turn the pre-Covid-19 war for talent into a new capacity-based Cold War: retain just enough of the best to keep us ahead of the rest.

As this Cold War shifts attention from cultural values like pride and enjoyment to more fiscally focused objectives like productivity and knowledge transfer, our evidence across 726,000+ globally distributed employees tells us that the gap between the world’s average workplaces and the world’s best is more narrow. The gap is still significant but is nevertheless undeniably smaller.

But our data and our research outputs here are strong and compelling. We know exactly what creates a heightened sense of productivity, and we also know what kills it. Corporate real estate, facility and workplace managers need to grab and maximise these factors.

So, in this data is a plan that can be built and mobilised.

This research, led by Dr Peggie Rothe and I, was first published in 2018 from data across 400,000+ employees in 3,100+ workplaces and unearthed the statistical drivers of employee sentiment, and perhaps most importantly, the statistical influence of each workplace component in governing that sentiment expression.

We now know what makes an employee feel productive.

“The Employee Workplace Experience research identified the levers around the employee sentiment of Doing, Seeing and Feeling. The closer the feature is to the Impact Hub, the greater the baring it has on an employee’s sentiment expression. Factors that cross all three Doing, Seeing, Feeling tracks are termed “sentiment super drivers”. For full details of the research read Workplace Experience Revolution Part 2.

The result was a list of key employee activities and workplace features that form the foundation of an effective and productive workplace for most employees in most office-based tasks. Central to it all is individual and focused desk-based work. Covid-19 will not change this.

To give workplace a fighting chance of taking its rightful place in recovery plans, we have to fend off plans that unwittingly undermine those desk-based concentrative tasks. Can your post-COVID-19 workplace landscape superbly support individual focused desk-based work if you have conceded to desperate densification measures? Or, do executives who decamped to their second homes in the country or to their serene suburban garden office pods believe that focused work is now best permanently performed at one’s home? These are real risks.

Statistically, the next most important productivity driver is learning from others, and we know employees need an awesome variety of different types of workspaces and good accessibility of colleagues for that to be supported. We believe this productivity driver will be suffering the most now, and so when employees are allowed to return to their workplaces, they will value the infrastructures that support it even more.

But we all need more than guesswork. Forming assumptions of what’s happening to employees now, based on what happened to them in their offices is risky. Forming recovery plans for the future without knowing what’s happening now is riskier.

So, The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the International Facility Management Association are throwing their weight behind our global initiative to understand what’s happening to employees now. We want to arm employers with data to respond quickly to present circumstances and be better equipped to navigate what awaits them.

The world of workplace will soon be taking body blows from all directions, but data captured on a global scale now, with no advisory, consultancy or product pitch bias, can be compared to the largest body of pre-COVID-19 employee experience data. Collectively, together, unified in our voice, we will start the ground up reconstruction of the business value proposition for workplace.

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