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Every quality workplace strategy must be poised to navigate fast-paced business, especially today. Workplace teams find themselves at the intersection of these contrasting worlds, tasked with creating a foundation upon which the company can deliver results and staying fluid to meet the changing needs of employees contributing to the business.

In a recent conversation with Corinne Murray, Founder of Agate, Corinne delves into these challenges, shedding light on the triangulation between executives, employees, and workplace strategy.

Flexibility: The stalemate between executives and workers

The fundamental truth about flexibility is that everyone wants more of it. The challenge is that there’s no universal approach to flexibility, making executives wary of proceeding without creating business risk. But, as work increasingly focuses on outcomes–i.e., the quality of someone’s work–over the location of where the work happens, they will need to confront this challenge sooner than they’d like.

The divide between working and personal hours has eroded significantly in the 2020s, and employees yearn for the autonomy to establish an integrated life that balances their personal and professional commitments with less rigidity than before. Studies continue to demonstrate that flexible and remote work benefits productivity. We get more done when we don’t need to spend as much time and energy commuting. Plus, less frequent commuting is good for the environment.

Despite this, executives are eager to have employees back in the office more than 2 to 3 times a week, citing collaboration, connection, and relationships as the core reason to reinvigorate office culture. They have a point, but only to a degree. Productivity is far from the only essential aspect of a successful company. But, where executives–and the directives handed down to workplace teams–need to catch up is in recognizing that supporting collaboration, connection, and relationships requires much more than a Return to Office (RTO) mandate. RTO mandates often are counterproductive to those desired outcomes.

Most employees want to be in an office, if not each week, each month. It’s not news that work relationships are essential for business and our well-being. RTO mandates solve the intent of wanting people together but fail to inform and articulate how to maximize the experience. No one wants to commute to an office just to sit on virtual calls the entire time. That’s not what being in proximity to others is meant for.

Executives still need to provide a comprehensive return on investment for employees being in the office. Their focus needs to be much broader than the office’s amenities or features; it’s about its accessibility and contribution to employees’ ability to work effectively, creating positive outcomes for their teams and the business, and overall well-being.

Empowering employee agency is not a threat to business performance. Workplace strategies that factor in a workplace’s physical, digital, and experiential environments will be more successful than traditional approaches. But workplace teams must think outside the usual box to make this happen.

Ditching old assumptions

Workplace teams must recognize that this transformation journey transcends convenience; it delves deep into what makes work meaningful. For many executives, the workplace represents a nostalgic vision of an office characterized by social connections and collaborative work reminiscent of a bygone era. Modern work can return to a form of this, but only with significant changes to our expectations around:

  • What work needs to be synchronous and asynchronous
  • What work can be done in the office and virtually

This homecoming of sorts could mean that the workplaces we design could serve very different purposes than what we’re used to. Employees will rely on digital communication and collaboration tools to work together and share information to ensure productivity. Realistically, we’re already doing that. Work happens digitally, but we’ve yet to define it as such.

Therefore, the workplace should be for the relationships that drive the work forward, powered by a seamless experience that helps connect employees with the teammates, information, and programming they need to succeed.

This paradigm shift signifies that the workplace is no longer just a physical space but a dynamic concept that should support the diverse preferences of the employees across the digital, physical, and experiential terrain of a workplace.

Balancing quantitative and qualitative workplace performance metrics

While quantitative metrics like occupancy and utilization have been integral to workplace management, we are currently in a benchmark-less moment. Too many variables are changing quicker than any benchmarks can keep up with. Accurate utilization data points like daily active users were critical before 2020 when most teams were operating highly densified workplaces.

Workplace density is not the safety risk it was even four years ago, so utilization data does not carry the same value it used to. We need data sets that can capture the nuances of contemporary work challenges.

The real estate and workplace industries need to transition to a data strategy model that centers on qualitative data, validated by quantitative. Without benchmarks, qualitative data leads us to solving meaningful problems for our employees. Companies must acknowledge the importance of focusing on employees’ experiences, considering each team’s unique demands and expectations. Quantitative data doesn’t capture this information, yet it’s the backbone of what we must collectively act on.

Short surveys, polls, and other pulse-style questioning methods are low-effort, high-reward ways for companies to collect actionable data from employees to create a unified voice that guides decision-making processes without perpetuating the much-feared survey burnout. However, if workplace teams had the autonomy to act on employee feedback and make changes that people would benefit from, survey burnout might not be the issue it’s made out to be.

The success of an office is in how it’s used, not how it’s designed

The crux of the matter lies in maintaining a continuously open channel of communication with the people who matter most–the employees–to support them and the work they do on behalf of their company. A thriving workplace aligns with the needs of employees and the business objectives they’re working toward. To make the office a viable asset, we must adopt a consumer-centric approach akin to how retailers conduct consumer research.

It’s not just about enhancing the physical space; it’s about mitigating whatever challenges impede employees’ interaction with all aspects of the workplace.

Reducing these experiential frictions entails critically evaluating how individuals and teams use tools and technologies. For instance, research out of Yale Medical School shows that the human brain responds more positively to face-to-face interactions than virtual ones. With this data, companies could prioritize formal meetings, workshops, and brainstorming sessions as an in-office experience.

By putting guardrails around the number of days per week and month that the office supports these activities, employees can create a more predictable life-work balance that does not put their personal priorities at odds with the organization’s priorities.

Pursuing positive-sum dynamics is critical for workplace teams and executives in establishing the new working order at their companies. Employees benefit from clearly outlined reasons, paired with frequencies, to be together in an office. Businesses can rest assured that, based on data and their trust in employee feedback, high-quality work is getting done.

It’s still early days, but research that establishes benchmarks around:

  • What work is best for the workplace (and which is successful anywhere)
  • What work needs to be done synchronously (and what work is successful asynchronously)
  • What work requires proximity (and what work is successful without it)

Will help businesses and employees understand what new work behavior best practices might look like and then make clear decisions around what types of spaces, tools, and experiences will make them happen most effectively.

The office is not a container, it’s a conduit

Companies that shift from building an office to contain the work within an organization to building an office that serves as a conduit for all the work that happens elsewhere have endless potential.

Repositioning the office’s role is fundamental to how companies and employees move forward on the future of work trajectory. It’s no longer solely a place of work but a multifaceted hub important for relationship building and brand affiliation that supports the fast pace of modern business happening in the digital realm.

Companies that understand this transformation have the potential to create a workplace that resonates with their employees on a profound level. It’s about nurturing the social fabric within an organization, fostering meaningful experiences, and implementing social programming that brings people together and creates a stable, fertile environment for effectiveness, creativity, and innovation.

Only by considering the intricate needs of employees while fulfilling the expectations of the C-suite can workplace teams navigate these alignment challenges effectively and create a thriving, forward-looking work environment.

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Corinne Murray

Chief Strategist, Purposeful Intent & Founder, Agate Studio