Workplace strategy – why people and purpose must come first

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By Clare Bridger, Head of Workplace and People Strategy at Incendium

As restrictions begin to ease, we wait to see if, how and when organisations will use their workplaces. Every company will approach it differently and we know that when it comes to returning to the workplace, things won’t be the same as they were before. What many thought were the ‘rules of work’ have been rewritten.

The world-wide working from home experiment for knowledge workers has fundamentally changed the way we work. And in its place the well-publicised, but undefined, hybrid working approach is firmly taking hold. As we start to move forward, the organisations that put their people and purpose front and centre of their workplace strategy will be the biggest winners; this is how to do it.

Focus on people and purpose over policy:

According to a recent report by McKinsey, 70% of people say they define their purpose through work and, in addition, that as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19, two-thirds of employees are now reflecting on their purpose. Those who say they live their purpose at work are six and a half times more likely to report higher resilience.

Our own recent survey of CRE and HR leaders also shows that organisations want to look at new ways of measuring workplace success. This includes doing more to measure the connectivity of the office and how it brings people together.

Enhancing the employee experience is key. But this isn’t about dress down Friday’s, free food and beanbags. Employee experience is the holistic offering, the small things that make someone’s day much easier, better and more productive. The tools that enable us to balance doing our best work and living our best lives.

Start by optimising every touchpoint in the employee day, taking time to understand your employees, their characteristics and the various workplace journeys that different people take. Improving the employee experience starts at the top – with leadership and decision makers – aligning the purpose and goals of your people and your organisation.

Make no assumptions:

In our recent survey of global companies, 69% of interviewees agreed that company culture was the most critical factor in future decision-making about the workplace.

Productivity may not have been significantly impacted by being away from the office, but many are feeling the absence of face to face interaction and looking forward to coming together with colleagues and customers in some way. Many organisations have been planning their return to the workplace strategy for over a year, but have they really thought about what their employees want? Do employees know what they want? And how does this align with what the business needs to achieve?

There are several pieces of research about the future of work with statistics outlining that knowledge workers, on average, want to work two or three days per week in the office. Research also suggests that people want flexibility and choice and the workplace is there for collaboration and camaraderie. But the reality is we are only just about to start re-discovering what the right solution is. The exact formula is still unfinished.

There is no one size fits all approach and every employee’s needs and expectations will be different depending on their role, experience, age, personality type, customers and home set-up.  Feeling comfortable with the ongoing uncertainty will be necessary for resilience. Balancing management desire for how they want people to work and what employees really want will be essential.

Taking the time to understand what employees want from the workplace can be done through hosting focus groups, interviews, brainstorming sessions and observing market trends to inspire choice. Taking time to understand what the purpose and goals are, as well as a clear understanding of each employees’ expectations when devising both your physical and digital employee experience will be key.

Get employees onboard

Firms that successfully engage and empower their employees to make the right choices for them, their customers and their working day are going to be the biggest winners. Having trust is absolutely key.

If we strip it back to what the workplace experience really amounts to: in the midst of a global pandemic, this expanded to include home offices, kitchen tables, bedside tables and increased screen time. These new workplaces are very much now key “competitors” of the office space. The workplace experience is a holistic approach to creating the optimal environment for employees to do their best work and, ultimately, deliver better outcomes for employer and customers.

By bringing employees into the decision-making process, an organisation stands a better chance of getting their people on board with any changes from the offset, and, even better, taking personal ownership for the strategy. Making them part of the process shows you trust their opinion and its importance to the business while helping to build employee engagement during a time of change and transition.

Test, don’t guess

An effective way to determine whether the newly devised workplace strategy will be successful is to test it out, seeing if it works for the organisation, as well as its employees, adopting a ‘fail forwards’ approach.  This is about testing your new ways of working alongside a whole ecosystem of changes impacting the world of work.

This agile ‘test and learn’ approach to workplace strategy doesn’t need to be expensive, in fact it could save huge amounts of unnecessary spend further down the line. It does, however, require dedicated time to drive the process and build in agility. To do this we need to gather data, looking at how the workspace is being used, productivity levels, and perhaps most importantly, whether employees are satisfied with how the arrangement is working.

Learn and adapt

Being able to test, respond and move forward is fundamental to ensuring a successful long-term relationship between people, places and technology. Whilst this can be tricky operationally, there are many ways to inject agility into an organisation’s portfolio. The pandemic has accelerated the way we think about workspace – change was always on the cards but it’s now happening at pace. People, real estate and technology are often the top expense category in an organisation so focusing on these elements can really help to maximise value for any organisation.

It’s important to bear in mind that what works today, may not be suitable for tomorrow’s workforce. Workplace strategies need to be reassessed regularly to ensure they are suitable with management and facilities teams remaining open to changes along the way.

Those that don’t keep an open mind and evolve will miss the opportunity to attract and retain top talent. Staying ahead of the curve and taking a forward-thinking mentality is also vital for keeping ahead of competitors and winning new clients. Those that don’t will be left behind.

From culture and goals to employee attraction, retention and wellbeing, it’s never been more important to inject people, purpose and positive workplace experiences back into traditionally asset centric workplace decision-making.

And there couldn’t be a more apt time to make the change.