Recently, I was in a conversation with a client who proclaimed that the workplace “amenities game is over” thanks to the upheaval of office environments during the pandemic. It’s a completely understandable point of view: the escalated creature comforts and conveniences that employers and building owners scrambled to create in the last five or so years aren’t doing much for those with the luxury of working from home. And as office-based work is being re-examined by many, the value of the investment is being questioned.
But we don’t think it’s game over by any means. The playing field is simply shifting. People’s expectations have changed dramatically due to COVID and its myriad health, employment, and other fallouts, but also due to the social justice movement, ongoing impacts of climate change, and nearly everything else that’s happened in 2020.
We see it this way: Employees want to keep the coffee lounge and they want to know whether the farmers were paid fairly and whether the lounge uses sustainable materials. They expect a safe, clean building, and are attuned to how an owner supports the equal treatment of their hourly-wage employees. They want the energy from being around colleagues socially and the ability to work when and where they’re most productive.
Whether you’re an employer or developer-slash-owner providing workplace amenities, you have an opportunity in front of you to completely rethink your employee or tenant value proposition around change, choices, and control.
Employees are looking for a sense of purpose around change — whether it be equity and inclusion, community impact, the environment, or some other topic important to them. With so many external dynamics turning our lives upside down, we’re all looking for personally-relevant choices and a sense of control — especially around issues like work-life balance, safety and hygiene, and remote work.
For us, this comes down to being purpose-driven, a concept that speaks to people’s need to connect to something larger than themselves and also to an individual’s need to meet daily challenges.
The idea of a purpose-driven workplace isn’t new. Gensler and others have written about the need for a purpose-aligned employer brand. We’ve even done research that surfaced aspiration and purpose as part of a great experience. What’s changed is the zeitgeist. People are actively calling for the kinds of progressive, purpose-driven approaches that seemed optional before.
From a physical amenities perspective, that translates into things like accessible and inclusive design, environments with net-zero carbon emissions, and spaces that open up to the larger community. Policy-based amenities like anti-bias initiatives, the freedom to work where and when you’re most productive, and family leave (that you’re not punished for using) round out the must-do list.
It’s easy to talk about being purpose-driven. But it takes real commitment to implement. If we’re really being honest, purpose simply can’t be a business strategy overlay. It has to go deeper. It requires changes to organizational culture, business operations, hiring practices, and so much more. Purpose needs to be infused into every aspect of an organization.
Employees do not want to go back to the way things were. These elements that respect people’s lives and autonomy will become a decision factor for people thinking about who they want to work for. Yes, enabling repercussion-free autonomy requires trust from both employer and employee. But a well of trust will benefit an organizational culture in the long run.
And all of this isn’t just nice ideas, it’s proven to benefit the bottom line. Accenture has released interesting research around this. They’ve found that businesses that enable their employees to be better off, holistically speaking, can see revenue growth of five percent, even in a weak GDP growth environment. That alone provides a really powerful incentive.
People have roundly expressed their desires to simultaneously feel selfless, secure, and empowered. But there are the needs that people express, and then there are those that go unstated. Exploring and understanding the deeper needs that motivate people will make the biggest impact. It certainly will have major implications for employers and real estate owners. It will require empathy, intuition, and imagination to surface insights and change long-held beliefs about “the way to work.” That’s no easy feat. But that kind of human-centered approach is more critical for success than ever.
Soon, 2020 will be behind us. And, hopefully, we’ll have made progress on the pandemic, social justice, climate change, and the many other issues that have defined this year. But the silver lining of 2020 may be the way that it accelerated a move toward genuinely human-centered policies and actions. If the net effect of this mind-boggling year is just more hand sanitizer stations, we’ve made a terrific waste of a crisis.
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