We’ve recently had some interesting conversations with various organisations and companies, all of them very different, about the so-called “back to the office” concept. Regardless of your sector or location (our conversations took place in America and Europe), here are three key learnings that are particularly relevant to large businesses. We hope they inspire you!
1. It’s not about going back to the office. It’s about forward thinking.
The definition of the “back to the office” problem is proving to be the main challenge for these organisations when it comes to finding suitable solutions. But by asking the right questions, we can find the answers we need. We’re sorry to say that it’s not a question of “returning” (wrong verb, wrong diagnosis, wrong focus). It’s about redefining the context of work and its needs, which go far beyond the imperatives of corporate culture. In this sense, “human resources” make a mistake by focusing on the problem as talent retention, recruitment, leadership, etc. “Financial resources” are also getting it wrong when they look at the problem from the angle of real estate cost/return and the use of space, among other factors. Both these approaches have their merits, but they are also limited. We have to start “forward” thinking and broaden the perspective of our analysis. There are so many more possibilities in the future compared to past definitions, and defining this future should be the task and challenge for CEOs.
2. It’s not about percentages. It’s about people.
If there is one thing in particular we’ve learned from the phenomenon of the pandemic, it’s that extremes are not good. The concept of “100%” has died, whether it’s 100% remote working from home or 100% obligatory in-person working in offices. Let’s say that in the face of the concept of “obligation”, flexibility is key. Airbnb is wrong when it says “no more offices”, and obviously the same goes for Apple at the other end of the spectrum. The solution schematic will vary depending on the sector, country, city, kind of work and level of seniority, but a lot, really a lot, will depend on variables that are subjective to each person (feelings, emotions, needs) that, by definition, will be impermanent and changeable according to the context.
Certain questions that previously had nothing to do with the company could today be key to the solution. This demands a new relationship framework because it signifies that behind the position of vice-president exists a person called Mary. Where does she live? What’s her family situation? Is she happy with her house and her partner? How long does she take to get to the office? How much does it cost her, in money terms, to get to work? What does she really come for? Why did she choose this job? Why should Mary want to come to work at the office? What could be the benefits for her?
3. It’s not a real estate problem, it’s a behaviour problem.
Going beyond corporate needs (that nobody would deny are multiple and very important), maybe it’s necessary to understand what creates relevance for and is attractive to different people, in different target groups. At the end of the day, it’s about behaviour, about persuasion. Maybe it’s about applying marketing strategies to a new, unexpected business problem. The first thing to do is stop corporate navel-gazing, and understand that there is a collection of diverse needs, and that they have changed, regarding why people were going to an office before, why it’s so strange to go to an office now and/or why they would like to go to an office. It’s also a matter of understanding what it is that those people have discovered, both the positive and the negative, about working in a place that isn’t their office. Only by defining it well and understanding these needs, will we be capable of adopting a new philosophy and a new model for the “workplace”. And it’s possible that in doing so, we will discover that many people go, or wish to go, to the office to do things that are not part of their actual job or responsibility. A few such examples of why people go to the office include: “having fun”, “socialising, meeting people”, “being in a nice place”, “enjoying the air-conditioning”, “messing around”.
Surely we can learn a lot from all this, and conclude that even maximum efficiency and the best Excel spreadsheet need their own carnival to be effective: behind the efficiency formula lie emotions and they’re not necessarily connected directly to work.
So activate your forward mode! It’s clear that the search for solutions has to focus on multiple factors, because mixing approaches is the way to create new solutions for changing problems. We have great opportunities ahead of us, because, as we always say: not everything is done.