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The idea that the Workplace can be a lever for strategic advantage is by no means new, but it’s one that many senior leadership teams have failed to act upon. The Coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for change and we need to reset the dial and view COVID-19 as an opportunity to re-define our Workplace strategy for what will be the ‘new normal’ for your business and the Workplace needed to support it.

Post the pandemic and the rescinding of lockdown measures. Businesses that can open their doors again, will encounter new challenges, that had not even been considered plausible previously, even in the most extreme VUCA world.

When we do eventually return to work even if that is for one or two days a week for many it will be a welcome relief from the rigours of isolation but as organisations we need to understand that at a personal level this will likely be overshadowed by fears of a reoccurrence of the outbreak and impending economic hardship.

A Permanently Flexible Future

Workplace and Facilities Management fail unless the delivery of our service matches organisational requirements. Whilst we live in a massively uncertain time, what we can take as certain is that the world will not be the same when this virus has waned. As the organisational view of the world will change, so will their requirements. We need to be prepared for that change.

Forward-thinking organisations need to articulate a revised Workplace strategy now, even if are approach to the 'next normal' is not yet fully formed. Alignment with what will unquestionably be a new set of challenges will not be achieved by 'carrying on regardless'.

The remote working experiment that was being conducted in some organisations will now become a pre-requisite for those workers that we're able to operate successfully from outside the Workplace during lockdown.

This has undoubtedly accelerated the take up of remote working but there will be a significant and permanent transition to more of the same where this is feasible. Organisations will need to invest in technology to meet the needs of their home-working employees to maximise the likely benefits.

There will need to be a shift in attitudes and Workplace culture to support this, but the rigidity of an office only based environment simply won't be viable or excusable.

Organisations will also need to deal with the economic shock from the prolonged period of lockdown and this will likely mean a complex and challenging cocktail of less staff, more space, more services, higher costs and less flexibility.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

This will be a bitter pill to swallow but organisations will have to listen to the needs and concerns of their people like never before. There is going to be an accelerated pace and focus on defining the future of work as the future of the Workplace experience and worker well-being.

Organisations will need to confront the conundrum of the previous shift towards the open-plan office and agile working. Both these disciplines are characterised by the close proximity of people within the Workplace. This against a backdrop of a continuation of physical distancing which will remain in the psyche for some time to come all of which will likely negatively impact much-needed team collaboration and service innovation.

The shift to greater numbers of employees working from home brings with it a whole new set of dynamics. Benefits of removing the lengthy commute will be counterbalanced by the mental aspects of the lack of social cohesion and collegiality afforded by the Workplace. Security, communication and collaboration will also be challenging.

These different perspectives are all wrapped up in our notions of 'work' itself. Work as 'something you do, not somewhere you go' has become a cliché, but the notion of 'I'm going to work' is now having to be critically re-assessed.

Whilst there are multiple notions of work, all work comprises activity and a location. Whilst the location part of the equation is no longer a fixed location work is about culture and a physical space of some kind augmented with technology.

The death of the office desk and chair have been predicted many times before. However, the Workplace strategy is and will continue to be a key enabler of core business and competitive advantage. So, unless the Workplace is working hard to support the output of its inhabitants, it is counter-productive. This would be a travesty as the Workplace is a crucial asset and one of the organisation's most expensive, so we need to focus on it now and get it working for us, not against us.

These warnings expose the reality that the majority of companies are likely to squander opportunities to use their Workplace strategy to drive improved employee engagement that leads to improved organisational performance.

COVID-19 Accelerated Change

We have known for some time now that emerging technologies will create job and task redundancies for employees, and that we need to change and adapt to this reality.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need to change, so the problems we need to face and the opportunities we need to exploit, don't lie somewhere on the horizon, they are here, and we need to act now.

In a time of economic turmoil, there will be an understandable tendency to further slash already anorexic budgets. In many organisations, where the management of Workplace is seen as 'non-core' these activities are typically perceived to be less valuable than core activities. This makes them a more likely target for economy-focused challenges and cost-cutting.

There will be recriminations and much weeping and gnashing of teeth but, the reality is that we need to shift the focus and rhetoric from the economic downturn, junk status and job losses, to proactively managing the transition to new ways of working.

These disruptive forces require organisations to change rapidly. Infrastructure and Workplace services need to be agile and adaptable to that change. Only if we are focussed on achieving this, will we find the opportunity to emerge economically stronger, as individuals, as organisations, and as nations.

Enabling Amazing People to do Amazing Work

The most influential and successful companies in the world utilise the Workplace strategy as a tool for competitive advantage. They acknowledge that Workplace is high on their business agenda. It is a way of enabling their people to deliver their best contribution to their organisations every day, inspired by their experience, supported in their work endeavours and unencumbered by failures in services or systems.

Progressive organisations recognise that creating and managing amazing Workplaces means their people can do amazing work to start growing the business again. This is not about aesthetics alone it's about improving their business performance, employee experience and brand value. So, smart organisations invest in their people, technology and workspace. For these organisations' Workplace is core to what they are about.

Maximising the contribution of people in this endeavour is an increasingly important challenge for senior leaders in public and private organisations.

The centrality of Workplace to individual and organisational activity means that the Workplace strategy is important at an organisational level because it can, amongst other things, be used to project an organisation's purpose and brand, boost productivity, attract and retain talent as well as initiate and support change.

Smart dynamic businesses have long recognised the importance of delivering a differentiated and engaging experience for their customers particularly in the service sector. Why then have we not applied the same philosophy to creating memorable employee experiences in our own backyard?

But, Organisations need to Listen

Organisations will have to listen to the needs and concerns of their people like never before.

People's sensitivity to hygiene and health security will be heightened for an unspecified period of time, and so organisations will need to respond appropriately.

The wellbeing agenda will become one of fundamental health and safety for the individual. This will need to extend beyond the Workplace and be characterised by a genuine individualised care package for staff member concerned.

Luckily the evidence speaks loud and clear, that there is a strong and proven connection between Workplace well-being, happiness, productivity, performance and customer satisfaction and retention.

A powerful reminder of the business impact of a positive Workplace experience was identified in a report published by Gartner n October 2019

  • Only 13% of employees are satisfied with their work experiences

Those that are satisfied with their work environments are

  • 16% more productive
  • 18% more likely to stay, and
  • 30% more attracted to their company over their competitors.
  • 75% of Gartner's survey respondents said that "a Workplace focused on their health and wellbeing would make them more likely to accept a new job or keep the job they have."

The Leesman Index tells us that

  • only 53% of employees agree that "their Workplace allows them to work Productively" and
  • 30% actively disagree

Deloitte's 2108 Millennial survey reported that

  • "63% of Millennials see the Workplace as more important than leadership"

Gallup's State of the Global Workplace pre COVID said

  • "Workplace Productivity is at an all-time low", where
  • "South Africa's GDP growth has virtually ground to a halt:"
  • "Globally only 15% of employees are engaged at work"
  • Previously Gallup has reported that "South Africa's levels of Employee Engagement were depressing" with only 9% of their respondents noted as engaged in the workplace

Put simply "If your Workplace isn't working your business can't perform"

The evidence speaks loud and clear, that there is a strong and proven connection between organisational performance and Workplace well-being, happiness, productivity, customer satisfaction and retention.

The value that can be delivered by the Workplace strategy will increase as the more innovative companies focus more on the employee experience in its transformation of the work environment. It will require new business skills, innovation and new ways of thinking.

The Workplace is a strategic asset and so it is worthy of our renewed attention and the application of new business skills, innovation and new ways of thinking.

The attainment of a Winning Workplace will be the No. 1 super-catalyst in influencing business performance

A Winning Workplace is a place where…

  • property costs are optimised;
  • business risk is reduced.
  • productivity is boosted
  • better business outcomes are guaranteed;
  • the environment engages and energises employees
  • innovation is enhanced and entrenched;
  • talented employees are less likely to leave;
  • co-operation and collaboration is cultivated;
  • the spaces and services, emphasise wellbeing;
  • organisational values are exhibited and enhanced;
  • the organisation's brand is promoted to clients and
  • operational resilience is increased

Prepare for the Upturn

Organisations need to prepare and be ready for the upturn when it comes. As bad and as uncertain as things look today, history has shown us that it's harder to get a company ready to take advantage of an upturn than it is to prepare for a downturn.

Economic downturns provide us with the opportunity to take stock and reflect to get our house in order. Often, when the economy is booming we can't afford to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves because we cant invest time or divert resources that would affect shareholder expectations and stock prices.

However, we should not be complacent and make the mistake of looking back on this time in future and seeing that this down market was our opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world who are also going to be in a slump. This is when we need to make investments in our people and our facilities and to prepare ourselves to capitalise on the economic uptake that is likely to hit in late 2020 early 2021.

With a good strategy and excellent planning, our workforce and their Workplace will be more stable and productive and ready to take advantage of the available opportunities.

As the Harvard Business Review stated recently

"We know how painful things are today. But there's no reason you can't also dare to be successful. And learning how to build a culture based on transparency, financial discipline, trust and respect for people, and a forward-focused outlook, is a great place to start removing the fear that's pervading your workplace".

People  I  Place  I  Performance

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