Some much-needed time off over the holidays has allowed me to reflect on the tumultuous events of the past year, and more specifically on the impact of the pandemic on real estate and the office. In a paradoxical way, the Omicron surge has been the last straw. Even some people who have happily abandoned the office are going stir crazy and are starting to long for a return to some kind of normalcy. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of the office are greatly exaggerated.
Take my husband and business partner Eric as an example – please. As a refugee from big law, he has happily embraced a work at home lifestyle and has politely declined all business and social invitations for two years, only emerging from self-imposed isolation (some might say confinement) to see friends at the occasional Knick game which he deems as the sole essential indoor activity. But even Eric is starting to long for an escape from our apartment and go somewhere – even an office.
I have been saying since Day One of the pandemic that the return to safety is the fundamental pillar of the return to the office, but we are still not there. Due to the arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants, every predicted inflection point for that long-awaited return has come and gone. Incredibly, despite the twin medical miracles of the vaccines and new treatments which are in the pipeline, people cannot feel completely safe yet on public transit and in the office absent full vaccine mandates including boosters. Until that day comes, we will not be able to fully assess what companies will do with their hybrid work policies and their impact on the office market.
But don’t let the Omicron surge lead you to miss the forest from the trees. We are actually entering a new Golden Age of work with greater flexibility and more agency for workers. Companies that get that delicate alchemy right – which is different for each organization – will be richly rewarded with employee loyalty and access to the largest pool of talent.
The maxim that two things can be true at the same time applies here. First, it is beyond question that remote work has been an unqualified success which saved the economy from disaster when the lockdowns hit. It is also beyond question that although there have been dozens of surveys with varied findings, as a general proposition at least 50 percent of workers prefer to work from home part or all of the time. As we are in a period where talented employees are at a premium, their voices must be heeded by business or they will lose top performers. Further, the flexibility for employees to tailor their work to their specific family situations was long past time.
However, most of those employees who want to stay at home do not have to concern themselves with the big picture of what sustains a knowledge business in the long run, no matter how difficult, sophisticated or important their individual jobs. Culture, collaboration, and training are at the top of the list of what makes any successful business tick.
Below are 4 key questions that CEOs and managers must wrestle with regarding their company’s work arrangements:
1) What makes a business distinct from its competitors from the inside, and how can that be preserved?
2) How will new employees integrate with the old ones to form an effective team? Remote work is fine if you know and have worked with your team for years, but how do you keep the momentum going with the inevitable comings and goings of any organization?
3) How will the employees at the beginning of their careers (and even in the middle and beyond) obtain the vital lessons of learning by watching how successful senior professionals deal with complex issues and negotiations? As a corollary, are there sufficient opportunities to ask questions and even watch how those senior people deal with all types of situations?
4) How will those employees learn the lessons of how to get the clients which are the lifeblood of the knowledge businesses?
As you can see from these questions, in person work is critical for training and socialization of younger and new workers. In addition, these are the dilemmas that top management faces when they plan for 2023 and beyond. I predict that without the central grounding of an office, long-term problems that have been bubbling up during the period of remote work will become more noticeable this year as companies change and evolve. Please note that this is not to minimize the importance of the savings that can be achieved from a reduced office footprint. However, it remains to be seen how most businesses will retain their particular strengths as all or mostly remote entities. Studies have generally shown a very modest increase in productivity since the pandemic began, but these can be picked apart to allow for the individual characteristics of each company.
Here’s another way to look at the situation. In person work is critical for the training and socialization of employees, and in particular younger and newer workers in the knowledge industries and the professions. Medical students do multiple-year residencies in the hospital after they complete their schooling. Lawyers, architects, executives and other knowledge professionals also need similar hands-on training, albeit to a lesser degree. The more time passes from March 2020, the worse off those employees and their companies will be if the status quo remains in place.
As I have said many times, we are in the middle of the great work experiment. The consequences of that experiment will take a decade to play out if not more. Accordingly, I believe that we are headed for a bumpy and unpredictable year. However, once the Omicron tidal wave has passed, I also predict that efforts to return to the office will pick up new momentum as safety permits. With so many holiday vacations canceled, the office may even seem like a getaway to some of us cooped up at home this year. And here is the good news: forward-looking businesses that develop the right mix of office and remote work that works best for all stakeholders will continue to thrive.
Many of our friends and clients are currently dealing with the difficult issues and questions raised above. Accordingly, please feel free to tap our expertise on all matters related to office space. We will do our best to apply our experience to your company’s unique needs.All the best for a happy, healthy and safe New Year!