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Let’s talk about change

It’s time to talk about the tough subject of change. Few like it, but it’s inevitable. It surrounds us. It’s everywhere you look. And right now, work is changing fast.

So, let’s have a tough talk about change. It surrounds us. It’s everywhere you look. It’s inevitable. It’s advancement and growth, but equally is ageing and decay. It’s meeting new people and losing touch with others. It’s the difference between missing someone and forgetting someone. It’s nature. It’s the seasons. We can accept it and embrace it or fight it and ignore it. But it won’t go away.

So, it’s life. It’s omnipresent. It can present an existential threat, like climate change. Or offer a promise of something better, as with efforts to eradicate malaria. Covid-19 changed our world immeasurably. Within days it changed how we moved between countries, then cities, then towns, then workplaces, schools, shops, then eventually even our homes. Restrictions were imposed where there were freedoms. It robbed us of physical contact, and sadly, of so many loved ones. It was frightening. But we learnt. And we adapted.

It categorically changed the perception of where work could get done. And it changed how work got done, as millions of employees adapted to a hybrid workstyle previously the preserve of a privileged few. And now executive leadership teams have some tough decisions to make. They are trapped in a new people and place limbo, torn between the opportunity to ditch perhaps half of their expensive real estate, while gut instinct tells them there are unquestionably some things that are better done together.

Like unstructured learning or bonding around a common purpose. Or laughing in the pub after work. I’m with them on this – especially the pub bit. So, where’s the balance? Do they follow that instinct and encourage people back? Or demand a structured return to office and risk being cast as Luddites, condemned to the hybrid workplace activists blog post-purgatory?

It’s a lose-lose option. But in truth, they do not give a sh*t about the self-proclaimed workstyle activists, because few if any of those agitators have ever had responsibility for a global workforce in the tens of thousands and bottom-line revenues measured in billions.

What those leaders care about, is the future for their people and future of their businesses. What I argue they should care about, is understanding why employees aren’t rushing back.

Remember also though that change touches everyone differently. A change of office location will make one person’s commute longer, and another’s shorter. A days-in-office mandate will benefit some and will hamper or disadvantage others. It’s what happens with change. It’s hard.

The pandemic hit Leesman hard. Pre-pandemic, almost all our revenues were generated from measuring the experience employees had in their workplaces. For a few dark hours, somewhere in the latter weeks of February 2020, I wondered how long we could weather it. But Leesman is more of an ongoing infinite curiosity project than a business.

Our job is to probe and understand. And I like change.

Covid-19 was a threat but was equally an opportunity. So, we pivoted. For the decade prior, our focus was on understanding how the experience employees had of their offices impacted their ability to work effectively. We typically captured one or two datapoints that told us what role their homes played in this equation. So, we simply flipped our prime focus point from the office to those homes. From Leesman Office came Leesman Home. Covid-19 didn’t materially change what employees were doing, it changed where they were doing it.

Our brilliant researchers, academics and technologists smashed six months’ work into six weeks. It was the scariest and most exciting period in Leesman’s history. Then clients started using the new solution to appraise their crisis response. And the results were startling. It was soon clear – the average home supports the average knowledge worker better than the average office.

If you have been around us for the last three years, you would have heard me referencing this finding often – that the spaces designed for working were less effective at supporting work than spaces designed for living. So, if ever there were an opportunity…correction…if ever there were an absolute imperative need to change, it is surely now.

We must change our approach to the design of space designed for work. It must focus on the needs of the user. Because the user has a new comparative benchmark – their own home. And many of those homes have now been hyper-personalised around their individual needs and their specific roles and for many, they work brilliantly.

So, I believe that the trade bodies who paraded award winners across stages to receive trophies from bored TV personalities need to ask themselves whether they were really qualified to judge whether those buildings benefitted anyone, when no one bothered to ask the individual employees using them what they thought. To effectively move forward we must change our view of the ‘why’ of offices. What are they really for? Employees are telling you this loud and clear, through their belligerent reticence to rush back to them.

You could blame the commute for this resistance to return. Or the entitled Gen Z work ethic, the cost-of-living crisis, mental wellbeing balances, the menopause, the purchase of lockdown puppies or the conception of lockdown babies, or a myriad of other random factors. But they are not the prime reason for employees not returning to your offices.

Offices need to change because homes work better, especially for almost any task in a work day that benefits from acoustic privacy. You can’t blame the employee for that.

But then, perhaps design isn’t the problem. Perhaps the macroeconomics sets the designer up for failure, chasing occupant density or costs management targets that are at odds with the needs of the employee. Then the aesthetics are merely there to distract the user from the basic failure of most spaces to support the one thing most employees do, and is a critical part of their knowledge work – individual focused work.

What employees want is space configured around what they do. And for almost all of them, individual focused work is critical. Somehow, somewhere in the pre-pandemic workplace ‘operating system’, this got missed or lost.

The corporate real estate leader buying design does care what their post-pandemic workplace looks and feels like, but cares more about why more employees aren’t using it and cares a whole heap more about whether the executive board above them can achieve consensus on the who, the when and why of the ‘return to office’ debate.

But don’t blame the reticence of employees to naturally migrate back on leadership indecision. That’s not why employees are staying away. Here, somewhere between the altitude of the exec board and the design firm desperate to sell their skills, is an incredible opportunity to embrace change. To ask whether there is a different way to solve the problem of the home being a better workplace than most offices. And in doing so, create a new type of space solution that really works for the employee. And no, it’s not all about collaboration.

The Review went digital at the start of the pandemic. And now we’re changing back, because that’s what a whole heap of you said you wanted and because change doesn’t have to be one-directional. So, this issue is focused wholly on change.

We’re celebrating change as a good thing, rather than a thing to be feared, getting to experts and renowned leaders who approach change differently to most of you.

From the twists, turns, glamour and risks of Formula 1, to the future of driverless cars, and on to a Brompton bike. We’re looking at what happens when you question the hotelier’s standard business model and why workplaces should have been prepared for video-first communication way before the pandemic. We worked hard to produce something that will stimulate you to think differently. Maybe even change the way you think. Read it. Tell us what you think.