Let’s Get Real Episode 5: Return-To-Office Challenges
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Return-to-office challenges
- Post-COVID transformation of the workplace
- Physical and psychological safety
- The remote work index – how much work can be done from home?
- Employee participation in the decision-making process
- Who owns the return-to-office strategy?
- Why flexible work hasn’t been more readily adopted
Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.
Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at [email protected].
Today I’m going to be talking about the return-to-office challenges that companies are facing. Are they real or are they perceived?
With me today I have a special guest Vik Bangia. Vik, welcome! Before we dive in, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Vik Bangia and I’m the CEO of Verum Consulting. We’re a corporate real estate, strategy and operations consulting company. I spend most of my time helping corporate clients outsource their real estate services to some of the larger service providers like CBRE and JLL, Cushman and Wakefield—especially with those clients who have integrated facilities management needs along with their other real estate services needs.
In the strategy and operations world, I’m also a workplace consultant and a business strategist. I help companies of all kinds do various things, from training and development to workplace strategy to public speaking. It’s a pretty wide-ranging set of services that I do as part of my consulting practice.
That’s amazing! I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what some of the return-to-office challenges are that you’re seeing from organizations you’re interacting with.
I think part of the challenge is that everything around the post-COVID transformation of going back to the workplace is a moving target. There are a lot of folks that have put together return-to-work strategies and plans, only to pull back on those plans when we went further into some challenges late last year. There was original conversation about returning to the office even before the end of the year last year. But here we are, 7 months into the new year, and another potential effort to re-open workspaces may be pushed back again because of the COVID variants. I think it’s a lot of start and stops.
The other challenge, the other gap, is that a lot of people have put together return-to-work strategies that have ignored the psychological safety that’s required to make these plans viable. People are interested in going back to the office, but are concerned that the employers haven’t done enough to ensure their physical and psychological safety. So, they start to evaluate the cost/benefit, or the return on investment for the commute and for the potential of putting themselves in some jeopardy with respect to people who aren’t vaccinated and public transportation. These factors play into this “start, stop” mentality that everybody seems to have around going back to the office.
From a psychological perspective, for employees coming back, safety is obviously going to be top of mind—making sure that the spaces are not like they were when they left, and that some adjustment has been made in terms of spacing, etc. But what about in terms of the idea of adopting hybrid work in the environment? There seems to be a lot out there in terms of how different organizations are approaching what the future of work might potentially look like, and the debate between bringing everybody back or adopting hybrid. I often wonder, if some of the challenges include being able to collaborate and being able to be innovative—is this whole concept of the challenges of bringing people back real? Or is it perceived, in that there’s something else?
I think one of the challenges that exists right now is that we don’t have a scientific way of determining the different types of job functions that are required to run an operation or an enterprise. I coined a term called Remote Work Index—what percentage of that work can actually be done from a remote location versus something that has to be done from a physical location in the office. For example, there’s certainly a greater demand on folks that are in the manufacturing or distribution types of businesses where the work has to be on-site or the operation doesn’t run. Because of that, the challenge that a lot of folks are stuck with is, how do you measure performance and productivity based on a job position, profile, Remote Work Index, or the ability to do that job remotely?
I think that unknown factor gives a lot of leaders pause as to what they can expect and what direction they will go with embracing this whole concept of remote work. Certain folks are doing a fantastic job. In fact, some of my clients are probably more productive and have greater collaboration from a remote work standpoint than they did when they were in the office together. I think that’s a positive sign. But then others, not those I’m working with today but based on some social media posts on LinkedIn, are really struggling with that—trying to get their teams to be a cohesive unit when everybody is scattered.
In terms of measuring productivity or readiness to return, I know that a lot of companies have been surveying their employees to ask about how they feel with respect to their productivity level. How much does the actual employee voice count in that decision-making process?
It’s a little bit subjective—I’ve also answered some poll questions about how much more productive I feel. My productivity has actually increased, only because all of the other things I was doing pre-COVID have fallen by the wayside, like air travel time, hotel time, time between meetings, transitioning from one to the other. I’m not doing crazy travel anymore, so my productivity has soared, but so has my free time, because I’ve been able to balance all of that out and re-prioritize everything in life.
I think one of the challenges is going to be this subjective versus objective measurement. If you can create outcomes-based performance measurement criteria for your employees, then you can manage them by outcomes. If the outcomes are achieved, then the employee is productive. If the outcomes are not achieved, then the employee is not productive. It’s fairly simple, depending on the job. That’s why I went back to that Remote Work Index label because I think every job has to have some type of remote work capability in order to put the right measurements in place.
I think it’s fairly simple to do, but the question always becomes: who’s going to do it? Often you’ve got a bit of a battle going on about who’s in the lead on this entire remote work concept: is it real estate? Is it real estate facilities, or is it HR? When it comes to that type of job classification, I think HR should be the group leading that charge. But when it comes to how that work gets enabled, then it’s real estate. So, all these groups actually have to work together and they have to work together well. Some are, but others have yet to bring those two groups together in a very high performing way in order to come up with their strategy. I see a lot of gaps in these in these plans because they just don’t involve the right constituents.
That was my experience in the years that I was doing mostly consulting. Workplace strategy has been something that we’ve been working on for a number of years, including this concept of flexible working. I officially started consulting in 2007, but my first experience in flexible work dates back to 1996—that was the early days of the idea of hot desking and flexible working, so it’s been around for quite some time. But obviously, the terminology that’s been used to describe it has changed.
Just yesterday I read a post about when you’re doing a workplace strategy survey, and you’re asking employees to rate their satisfaction and the importance of the current workspace—you always ask them what they want. And one of the questions was always a list of a dozen or so things, like to have the same desk to go to every day, or to have the flexibility to work wherever you wanted to in the office. I’d say probably 99.9% of the time, those were always #1 and #2: I want to have my own desk, but I want the flexibility to move around in the office. People don’t want to be tethered to their desk 8 hours a day, 5 days a week—they want the security of knowing they have a place to go, but also the ability to move around and work in other spaces.
Fast forward now to 2020-2021, and there’s this concept of untethering yourself from the physical building. Some companies started toying with the idea of flexibility years ago, enabling people to work outside the office. I’ve always wondered why this idea has dragged its feet, and why it never really picked up the momentum that it could have, when the benefits of working this way are clear, from a positioning and competitive advantage perspective. What are your thoughts on why that’s the case?
So, I come from an old guard, stodgy environment in the in the energy world—I used to work for an oil company. I think it really boils down to culture and leadership styles and the way leaders look at items like flexibility. I remember when I first started in my career, casual Friday meant you could wear a coloured shirt with your suit rather than a pure white shirt with your suit. The company was that formal—if you were at your desk and you had a meeting in the conference room at the end of the hall, you had to put on your suit coat to walk through the halls. You couldn’t walk the halls in short shirt sleeves.
The change was enormous. First, we were trying to get people out of 2- and 300 square-foot private offices to smaller offices. At that point it wasn’t really about flexibility or co-working or collaboration, it was really a culture shift away from command and control to a little bit more flexibility.
And if you look as well at what everybody else was doing, even in the tech world at the time in the early 90s, it was more about managers and leaders wanting to have their people within sight. If you were out of sight, you were not working. I talked about Hewlett-Packard and some of the things they were doing with their mobile workforce, who were mostly sales folks and people out in the field, like giving them hot desking capabilities or touchdown space in an office where they can go and check in. But for the most part, they’re on the road, working remotely and meeting with clients. They didn’t need to have that day-to-day presence in the office. But the other people that did, they were still in that same fishbowl of “I have to be visible to my boss, otherwise I’m out goofing around”.
I think that mentality still exists. I think there are a lot of leaders who are still concerned today that unless they bring everybody back in the office, people aren’t really working. And that’s a really interesting challenge.
Well, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate your time and your insights and thank you again for your time today. Any final thoughts?
I think we’re on a journey together, so anybody listening to this podcast, I would love it if they would link in with me, find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter or visit my website. On LinkedIn I published a lot of content and I do bring that whole community of workplace professionals together, and we have a lot of lively debate about what’s going to happen in the future, and what we’d like to see happen in the future. I’d love for others to join in to that conversation.
Sandra, I really appreciate this opportunity to talk with you, I had a great time!
You’re very welcome. Thanks again and take care.