Boring offices are costing you business and talent

Leaders must create flexible and inspiring office spaces to meet the diverse needs of the workforce - or risk losing talent 

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Every business leader knows that people and property are your biggest costs, and equally your biggest assets. Leaders also know that the relationship between the workforce and the workplace is still finding its rhythm in a hybrid-hungry world; somehow, they must work together in symbiosis.

The question is, how? 

In the late 1950s, German brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle pioneered an office design movement known as Burolandschaft. The concept was open-plan workspaces that encouraged collaboration between workers and sought to end eras of sterile office booths and organisational silos. Fast forward seventy years and times have changed accordingly. The open-plan office is commonplace and opportunities for socialisation between teams are plentiful. Now, we acknowledge that our professional lives require synergy between work, rest and play. 

But, take caution. We have entered a new era of office languor, characterised by an absence of choice when it comes to our workplace surroundings. In years gone by, the physical office has dictated our working habits. Today, human behaviour has evolved. With working practices now more diverse than ever, it’s time for the office environment to catch up.

“We still see too many workplaces with seas of desks and a lack of variety that fails to cater for the individual,” says Leeson Medhurst, head of strategy at Peldon Rose, London’s leading design and build experts. “Neglecting to implement choice in workplace design is a fatal form of self-sabotage,” he adds. “If ignored, this is your business’s kryptonite and a sure way for people and property to fall out of sync.” 

Choice in today’s world is everywhere. In fact, it’s demanded, and Medhurst attests that office design, as it currently stands, is failing to accommodate our hunger for it.

With working practices now more diverse than ever, it’s time for the office environment to catch up

The Workplace Strategy team at Peldon Rose is a specialist team operating as professional advisors, consulting with businesses on their office real estate strategies. With forensic rigour, the team works to gain an understanding of what businesses need from their future workplace. This takes place through qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis, underpinned by a prolonged immersion into a company’s culture. 

“The pandemic did a lot of things in the world, but in our world of workplace strategy and office design, it provided proof of concept,” Medhurst states. “Offices still prevail. People are driven by community and a sense of belonging - the workplace provides opportunities for connection that you simply can’t replicate elsewhere.” This, Medhurst says, is the reason why we’re not still sitting alone at home, office blocks deserted and city streets barren of activity. An innate desire for human connection shapes our behaviour, and this need to interact with one another touches all aspects of our lives. 

“Humans value the social sphere of life and worklife is no exception,” he says. “The problem is, we’re still in the infancy of hybrid working and business leaders are frustrated. They’re struggling to get people back in to experience the unique benefits of the workplace.”

In 2023, the Virgin Media Business Movers Index revealed that 92% of companies have now enforced some form of in-office policy to bring staff back to face-to-face working. “Leaders want to know if and when to navigate return-to-office mandates,” Medhurst says. Currently, there is a pattern where office attendance peaks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday resulting in a lack of  occupancy equilibrium. Leaders want to tackle this and to do so successfully, they need to know how to attract, win and retain top talent. 

“In the media, there’s talk of dictates and workplace incentives like free food, but the mere mention of those perks frustrates me. It’s too simplistic, and I’d encourage business leaders to feel the same,” Medhurst says. “If you’re serious about implementing successful people and real estate strategies, you need to take several steps back and forensically scrutinise how human behaviour has evolved at work, and how the workplace can unlock people’s potential. The answer lies in creating autonomy and novelty.”

Medhurst points to the ‘novelty paradox’ to explain the reasoning behind this approach. The novelty paradox is a human bias towards things and concepts that are new or undiscovered. If employers want to attract and retain the top talent, a one-size-fits-all approach to office design must retire. 

Neglecting to implement choice in workplace design is a fatal form of self-sabotage

Instead, workplaces must strive to inspire. Not only does this mean creating an office space to engage employees, but a commitment to make office design shapeshift throughout the duration of a lease. Why? It allows our working environment to remain one step ahead of our ever-waning boredom thresholds and meet the societal thirst for novelty. If leaders don’t actively create, and recreate, workspaces to engage and inspire employees, they will lose talent. 

“The pendulum of power has shifted towards the labour workforce,” says Medhurst. “No matter what form your in-office policy takes and how vigorously you enforce it, if workers’ needs aren’t met, then businesses will lose the war for talent. If you’re not having conversations about how to support the workplace needs of your entire workforce at C-Suite level, then you’re already behind.” 

The expectations of workers were laid out in an in-depth study by real estate insights firm JLL last year. The Regenerative Workplace Report revealed a desire for wellbeing oriented offices. Some 45% of workers cited relaxation spaces as key to restoring their wellbeing and achieving sustainable performance at the office. Forty-one percent (41%) of workers also put outdoor spaces in their top three expectations for a modern workplace.

But there are limits. Not every business has the capacity for outdoor space. An office can only go so far in serving every aspect of an individual’s needs, which can change hour-to-hour, day-to-day. The answer to designing and building office spaces that serve the varying expectations of employees, Medhurst reiterates, is choice. 

“Provide workplaces that are flexible and fluid, adaptable in a way that enables autonomous control over one’s environment. This will empower employees to mould their surroundings in real-time as they do at home, choosing how to thrive in order to deliver their best work. Choice is inspiring and its impact on performance shouldn’t be underestimated.”

So, are your people and property high up enough on your boardroom agenda? You might not be reconsidering your office real estate strategy right now, but it’s time to get to know the non-negotiables for when you do.

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