Let’s Get Real Episode 6: Effective Workplace Strategy Planning

Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast

Written by Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Some of the highlights of the show include:

  • Post-COVID workplace strategy development
  • Aligning workplace strategy decisions to corporate strategy
  • Employee-driven workplace strategy
  • Will the future office be empty?
  • Balance of power shifting to the employee
  • Offering choice and flexibility
  • Slow down the decision-making process

If you liked today’s show, check out more episodes of the Let’s Get Real Podcast! This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

Transcript: 

Sandra

Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.

Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at podcast@Relogix.com.

With me today I have a special guest, Vik Bangia. Vik, welcome! Before we dive in, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Vik

My name is Vik Bangia and I’m the CEO of Verum Consulting. We’re a corporate real estate, strategy and operations consulting company. I spend most of my time helping corporate clients outsource their real estate services to some of the larger service providers like CBRE and JLL, Cushman and Wakefield⁠—especially with those clients who have integrated facilities management needs along with their other real estate services needs.

In the strategy and operations world, I’m also a workplace consultant and a business strategist. I help companies of all kinds do various things, from training and development to workplace strategy to public speaking. It’s a pretty wide-ranging set of services that I do as part of my consulting practice.

Sandra

That’s amazing! So, thinking about how you would approach the development of workplace strategy prior to COVID, do you think that the approach to developing workplace strategy will be different going forward?

Vik
I haven’t really changed my approach to developing workplace strategies pre- or post-COVID. My mantra has always been that any kind of change or any kind of workplace strategy needs to be a democratic process and needs to be bottom-up. You need to get all the people involved in the decision and really take stock of what their opinions and perspectives are. Bring them along in the process, and even if you don’t end up doing exactly what they say, giving them a voice in the decision is great.

The top-down, push-down approach to workplace strategy—I don’t think it works. We’ve done this in a few different places before. I used to call it the “build it and they will come”, “Field of Dreams” type of approach, where you say: we want people to collaborate, be more open, more productive, so we’re going to do this and then they will be. If we give them open space, they’ll collaborate. If we get rid of their cubicles, they’ll collaborate. If we get rid of private offices, well, it’s privacy that’s driving the problem. Privacy is the enemy of collaboration, let’s force people to get together and they will naturally collaborate.

I’ve never subscribed to that. I’ve always said it’s got to be very organic and a bottom-up approach. So, my approach hasn’t really changed. It’s just been more on the listening end these days to the folks that are telling me more about what they need, not just in the workplace but how they need to balance their lives with their workplace.

Sandra

One of the things that I’m very passionate about and the way I’ve always approached workplace strategy was, when you look at corporate organizations and you look at what they indicate they value—you turn to their annual reports or their CSR reports or sustainability reports, where they identify some of their goals and their mission—you usually see things like diversity, inclusion, wellness, sustainability. They have very specific goals. The question is, how does the workplace strategy, or the approach that you’re going to take to the future of work, align to the goals that you actually have as an organization? So, corporate real estate aside, the decisions that you’re making about how you’re going to integrate workplace as part of who you are as a company, sends a very strong message to the outside world. There’s an optics element to the decisions.

We’ve seen some backlash to some of the decisions that have been publicly stated by Apple and Google and some other things going on in that world. But when you think about what they say or have said traditionally that they care about, and then you see things like that at the forefront, it kind of makes you wonder—what do they really care about? Because we’ve heard time and time again that some of these mission statements and value statements are more marketing-driven. Now companies have a real opportunity to demonstrate what they truly care about, and yet there seems to be this craziness and misalignment around the two. In your experience in talking to organizations, how often does that come up, the desire to align the decision-making around the future of work to actual corporate strategy?

Vik

I’ve seen some of the same press from some organizations, where there is a very top-down command-and-control-driven statement—“you’ll be in the office or else”—and I don’t think that’s a very healthy way of approaching the discussion. The clients that I work with have all taken the pulse of their employees. It still ties to the value-driven piece of this because they’ll say, we want to make this a new initiative that you’re a part of—but we want it to fulfill our company’s goals. It’s a matter of marrying the two.

But you also have to take into account the company’s cultural capacity for change. An enormous amount of change is difficult for any company to withstand, so this has to be done in a way that allows for “successive approximation” —you try something, see how it goes, take surveys, learn from it, and then you do it again. Over time you get closer and closer to the actual place that you want to be. But you don’t leave your people behind.

I think those statements that I’ve seen from some leaders, especially in the financial services and investment world, seem to be ripe for backlash. There’s a lot of sentiment that people are incredulous about what they’re seeing—how can somebody actually say some of that stuff? I think that’s really important, listening to people and having really active engagement to inform what kind of direction you want to take.

That’s what I always do with my clients, too—I don’t come in and, as a consultant, say, here’s what I think you should do. Instead, I take a good snapshot of the company’s corporate culture, and then, within their culture and set of values, ask a lot of probing questions of the employees as to what they want the future to look like. They know the answer, and they really want to tell somebody. And as long as I can create that open channel so they can speak those requirements or requests to their leadership, there’s a better chance that some of that will actually take place.

Personally, if I was approached by a new client who wanted to do a forced-down kind of approach, I would probably not take the assignment, just because it’s not my style to think that way.

Sandra

When that whole thing was playing itself out, and we were just kind of watching the responses of the employees, I’d go on Reddit and read from the employees’ mouths what they were feeling. There was a huge disconnect between what some of these companies are saying and then what the employees are actually saying.

Somebody made a comment to me, what if companies were to all band together and basically push this agenda that people will come back to work, without being given a choice? There was this whole conversation of the “Great Resignation”, that was the coined term for this year—if companies weren’t giving people the flexibility to choose, then people will just quit and go work for companies that did provide that flexibility. This individual made a comment that said, what if all these big enterprise companies just came together and said, this is how we’re going to approach the future of work, and this is it!

Vik

So be it!

Sandra

Yes! I don’t really see that happening, but it would certainly be interesting. It makes you wonder, has there been a shift in control? Yes, people have to work—some people have the ability to work because it’s a passion that they have, and they have the ability to really enjoy what they do. Other people work because they need to pay their bills. They don’t necessarily have that flexibility to just quit their job tomorrow and go somewhere else.

It begs the question, where does that balance of power actually reside? Is it still with the employer? Or is it with the employees that are pushing back? Because we’ve all been in the same boat, so to speak, and some people have had a better experience than others. No one’s saying that they don’t want to go back to the office, obviously, but everybody’s asking for the ability to have the flexibility to make those choices. Yet you’ve got companies that are still on the fence about whether they want to pull the trigger, and what’s that going to mean for them longer term.

Maybe even more importantly, what does it mean for the real estate industry as a whole, including the landlords, and the owners of the buildings? That’s also at the foundation of a lot of this as well—yes, right now, people are hanging on to their spaces because they’ve got lease commitments they can’t necessarily get out of. It will be really interesting in 3 to 5 years from now when the leases come due—is there going to be this big uprooting of offices of companies realizing they don’t need as much space as they once did, and the offices will just eventually empty out?

Vik

You touched on a number of subjects there, all of which are very intriguing and interesting—first, the balance of power shifting to the employee actually started a few years ago. We started to see Millennials enter the workforce and we started to see generational shifts taking place. I used to talk about how at my age, (I’m 56 years old), if I go in to talk to an employer, I’ll bring my resume with me and set it down in front of the HR person. I’ll say, here’s my background, my skillset, here’s what I’ve done in my career, and this is why you should hire me. The younger workers are coming in and saying here’s my background, here’s my skillset, here are all the things I’ve done in my career so far—why should I work here? There was a shift in the way younger workers were approaching the job market. They were already coming to the job market and asking the employer why the employee should work for them. That shift had already been taking place.

But the balance of power has shifted even more so to the employee now, because there’s choice. A lot of companies are actually looking at what some of the other companies with a heavy “command and control” situation are doing—the competitor to that company ought to put themselves in a favorable position by saying, you don’t like your employer? Come work for us! We’ll give you that flexibility you want. I think there’ll be a competition like that that favours the employee, not the employer.

You mentioned companies banding together—I think it’s going to be the other way around. I think the companies that are going to offer choice and flexibility and have a good beat on what’s important to the employee are going to win out. I think the companies that are trying to force the old structure and the old approach to the employer-employee relationship are going to lose out.

I’ve always told people in my consulting practice that there’s time. You don’t have to make any knee-jerk reactions today as to what you’re going to do with your portfolio. Workplace decisions are something you ought to think about. They’re in the mix, but they need to roll out slowly. To my earlier comment about successive approximation, you’re going to continue to fit your future into what your office space needs to look like. If you start to slough off space, you may overdo it, and it may not be the right decision for you. It might be too much change, it might disrupt your cultural balance, there might be other issues.

I always like to put everything in terms of the game of Jenga. I like to do systems thinking, where every one move ought to be planned out with an eye towards what that move might do to another move. As long as you can think that way, you’ll hold back on making any decisions that will come back to haunt you. I tell people: you have time. As you mentioned, there’s a lease that’s 3 to 5 years out? Great—talk about reassessing that particular location in a few years after you’ve gone through your reverberations.

I think there are a few companies that have already announced they’re going to scale down, and I think that’s a little premature. We don’t know enough today. They’re making those decisions trying to stop financial outlay, maybe stop the bleeding, or their shareholders are putting pressure on them. Or they’ve just said, we’re good remote workers, let’s get rid of ¾ of our office, we don’t need it. That’s fine for now, but I think they’ll come back and say, we overdid it. I think they’ll regret the decision.

So, I think we have to say to everybody, there’s time, workplace decisions shouldn’t be made in a hurry, and they should certainly understand that the balance of power is shifting to the employee.

Sandra
Well, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate your time and your insights and thank you again for your time today. Any final thoughts?

Vik

I think we’re on a journey together, so anybody listening to this podcast, I would love it if they would link in with me, find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter or visit my website. On LinkedIn I publish a lot of content and I do bring that whole community of workplace professionals together, and we have a lot of lively debate about what’s going to happen in the future, and what we’d like to see happen in the future. I’d love for others to join in to that conversation.

Sandra, I really appreciate this opportunity to talk with you, I had a great time!

Sandra

You’re very welcome. Thanks again and take care.

Vik

Take care.

About the Author

Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Sandra has a proven deep and wide understanding of Global Corporate Real Estate and Technology that enables her to quickly connect the dots and apply non-traditional approaches to research and analytics to extract deep learning from the most unsuspecting places to drive strategy. She has 25 years of hands-on experience managing all things Corporate Real Estate including devising holistic Global Workplace Strategies for administrative offices that include workforce planning, location strategy, and design strategy. She has developed an appreciation for always challenging the status quo to provoke and encourage new ways of thinking that drive continuous improvement and innovation. Sandra believes square pegs can fit into round holes and that the real workplace ‘misfits’ are those environments that fail to adapt.