February 5, 2021
Real Estate

Who Really Is In Charge Of The New Look Office?

If you’re trying to get ahead of the pandemic—planning for a post-pandemic world—you should be having conversations now about what your office space is going to look like in the not-so-distant future.

The pandemic will end, that’s for certain. The way you used office space is also sure to change once people are allowed back into a building. The question to answer in this moment of reflection is to ascertain who should be responsible for the new look office.

How will the office change? 

Think less square footage. As I pointed out in an earlier column, the great real estate footprint collapse is upon us. When there is less actual real estate at your disposal, obvious changes will be required to an organization’s operating practices. 

Maybe there are fewer individual offices for people to use. Cafeteria space may go away. Large meeting rooms or merely the number of actual meeting rooms may be diminished. The gym is now gone. If the pandemic is forcing CFO’s and directors of finance to pull back on short and long-term lease space, rest assured there will be differences in how an organization functions post-pandemic. 

It’s quite simple: there won’t be room for everyone to assemble at the office simultaneously.

Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope, signalled as much at the recent Reuters Next conference. Jope suggested that Unilever employees would be employing a hybrid mode of working where team members would spend time both in the office and at home. “We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office,” remarked Jope. “That seems very old-fashioned now.”

That’s over 150,000 Unilever workers worldwide that will never be going back to the office full-time. The company is bound to pull back on its real estate footprint. In parallel, with workers at home and at an office, how Unilever conducts meetings, business, planning, and so on will also change.

That doesn’t’ mean Unilever isn’t going back to the office; it means the office will look different. Not everyone will be there at the same time. When that happens—and there is less real estate—new organizational and team norms will need to be established.

This brings me to the crux of my point. It’s the question you and your organization must answer.

What to do?

Most large-sized enterprises and public sector organizations have teams devoted to facilities and real estate. Some mid-sized companies do as well. It’s hard to find an organization that doesn’t have a finance team and an HR or people and culture team. Given these three units—facilities, finance and HR—who should be in charge of the new way of working that is forthcoming?

Some may say it’s the job of the facilities team to redesign what the office looks like. After all, they are the experts in real estate, space planning, ergonomics, flow, and the like. The facilities team knows best, so they should be in charge.

Others suggest that because it’s a financial decision—and there are plenty more financial decisions to be made about a post-pandemic way of working—the finance team should run point.

Then there are arguments to be made that it’s the responsibility of Human Resources. After all, aren’t they in charge of culture, people, and how things are supposed to ‘be’ at the organization?

In fact, I believe that none of these groups should be in charge.

The real answer ahead

Instead, organizations, private or public, need to immediately put together a cross-functional team of leaders from facilities, finance and HR that makes any music supergroup from the 1980’s look like a third-rate band. Don’t forsake me Traveling Wilbury’s. 

Also added to the party, is IT. There is no way a post-pandemic office strategy can forget those imaginative and creative people from IT.

Suppose this supergroup comprises four to eight people from the four units. In that case, I’d also suggest sprinkling in three to five leaders from various business units, not facilities, finance, HR or IT. Our new supergroup is now in the neighborhood of 10-ish people, and it’s their task to sort out several essential items:

  • What does our firm’s space look like now and into the post-pandemic future?
  • How will we conduct our business (or government) when some employees are onsite, while others are remote or at home?
  • What are our organizational norms, the practices, processes, and pathologies of moving our objectives forward?
  • In essence, how does our culture improve—and remain productive—in this new model?

There are other questions and tactics to address, but the key point is no one unit ought to be in charge of the office space set-up in a post-pandemic world. It needs to be cross-functional, collaborative, and inclusive of differing opinions. And it needs to be happening right now.

Failure to do so will result in an unwanted disaster for employees and customers alike. 

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My 4th book, “Lead. Care. Win. How to Become a Leader Who Matters” recently published. Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls it “an invaluable roadmap.” 16+ hour, self-paced online leadership development program is also available.

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