Culture   //   December 17, 2021

‘The corporate office will have to work increasingly hard to draw employees back’: Q&A with Tim Oldman, CEO of workplace experience specialist Leesman

Anyone who thought the bulk of people would be back at their desks, with life resembling something akin to pre-pandemic normality, by early 2022 — well, best think again. The swift arrival of the Omicron variant seems to have slammed that door firmly shut.

It may mean that enticing people to return to the office, after nearly two years of working from home, is harder next year than previously imagined. Against the backdrop of the “Great Resignation,” employers can’t simply mandate strict returns without risking mass quitting. But ensuring the employee experience while in the office will become paramount to both encouraging people to return to the office and guaranteeing talent retention.

U.K. workplace specialist Leesman provides an employee workplace experience and effectiveness benchmark Index for organizations, which is contributed to by more than 500,000 respondents. It has worked with around 300 leading, international businesses and analyzed approx 185,000 million square feet in private and not-for-profit sectors, to help business leaders better understand how the workplace supports their employees.

WorkLife spoke with founder and CEO Tim Oldman, to ask what tips he had for business leaders around improving employee workplace experience.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and context.

What are the most important lessons business leaders have learned from the pandemic in terms of employee experience, and how might these learnings shape the workplaces of the near future?

The events of spring 2020 taught organizations two fundamentally important lessons. First, they could mobilize and deliver immense people and place projects in a matter of weeks without the need for vast teams of external consultants. And, second, that employees they previously thought could only be office-based could, in fact, be trusted to work highly effectively from their own homes. And so, we predict that many employers will benefit from dramatic reductions in the amount of real estate they need to support a distributed workforce and allow a more natural tidal flow of employees returning to their central corporate facilities as and when they need.

Explain these tidal flows.

These tides have high and low markers, and employers will not want to support packed offices on a Wednesday and Thursday at the expense of near-empty offices Monday and Friday. So we also predict employers being torn between trusting employees to make informed decisions about which days and for what purpose they return to the office, with needing to impose on them load-balancing systems that will control access and level out the usage across a whole working week. Also, we predict that leading employers will apply increased pressure on governments to help “load balance” the use of city-center offices for distributed teams through social interventions.

What might that look like?

For example, by extending off-peak travel fares [in the U.K] to include Mondays and Fridays, rather than just the weekends. On another related point, we already see organizations worldwide doing more to promote diversity, equality, and inclusivity. Yet, it is much easier for those with cognitive or physical impairments to stay home than to commute to a city center office. So regrettably, we see that the office of the future will increasingly be at the risk of being one where we don’t come into contact with those with impairments and that these groups inadvertently marginalize themselves as a result.

How will the Omicron variant impact hybrid working plans for 2022 and beyond?

With the latest scientific evidence suggesting that the sudden and unforeseen emergence of Covid-variant strains is likely to persist through to at least 2025, “work from home” lockdown orders are likely to be a common occurrence for the foreseeable future. As employers and employees become accustomed to this way of living and working, employees will become increasingly used to remote working. As a result, the corporate office will have to work increasingly hard to draw employees back.

Do you think employers understand what they must do to ensure people return to the office?

No, the result will be a two-tier or two-class workplace world, made up of those workplaces that actively invest in being places employees are desperate to be in and return to each time restrictions lift, and the others, where employers continue with pre-pandemic legacy approaches that progressively constrain space and spending and to which, consequently, employees dread returning to. These spaces will breed disengagement and lower attendance. So employers will invest even less, until they serve no organizational purpose and ultimately are closed down, offering employees no alternative to their own homes.

What advice would you give to organizations trying to support their staff better in the office while being cannier about how they use the space?

Our data across 290,000+ people shows us that the average home supports the average employee better than the average office. This is a shocking indictment of the quality of the workplaces employees endured pre-pandemic. So, we predict more organizations approaching what appears to be a binary office versus home head-to-head and deciding whether to increase their spending or ax them completely. Our guidance is to avoid this pitched battle and instead look at a model that achieves both: increased numbers of employees working remotely for some of their working weeks does enable a reduction in real estate footprint – perhaps by up to 50%.

That would provide some useful cost savings, how should those be reinvested?

Reinvest in the operating costs of those workplaces to provide an outstanding experience for those who visit. Initial explorations suggest that anything beyond a 22% reduction in lettable space would enable an organization to double its service costs and still show an operating saving. As organizations realize this is a realistic option — to save on overall property costs and offer employees a significantly better experience of the space they use — we expect to see an off-loading of room and a dramatic lift in dollars-per-square facilities management budgets.