Office Matters, Part 2: Investing in Employees at Work

Nov. 4, 2021

Physical spaces drive culture and talent development.

 Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series from the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) on the return to the workplace and how the office is evolving due to the pandemic.

Returning to the office provides companies the ultimate opportunity for change and rebirth. The pandemic has disrupted many industries, and, for most, working from home has lost its allure. In addition to increasing productivity and community, companies that return to the office have greater opportunities for creating a culture of talent development, which is pivotal in building long term competitive advantage.

Working from home was initially successful due to the preexisting social capital built between teams during office “downtime.” Social capital, or the value derived from positive connections between people, creates trust and is crucial for culture and talent management.

Talent management is the focus of identifying and developing an employee’s potential. Successful companies prioritize placing employees in the right role with the best tools to grow and succeed. Timing is everything: from the first interview and project placement to succession planning, strong talent development strategies at every level secures top talent at the firm.

Offices Create Meaning

The physical space both creates and reflects company culture. Office layouts set expectations of work. For example, individual spaces create a sense of ownership but may also silo employees, whereas “open office” seating encourages collaboration and shared space. Design choices like color scheme, lighting and noise level affect employee psychology. 

Even operations and on-site facilities communicate company values. Companies that conserve water and other resources, recycle and manage their waste communicate their values around sustainability.

Without access to the office, implicit values and expectations set by the physical environment are left to memory or, in some cases, completely lost. For current employees, company culture has been sorely tested by the pandemic, raising questions such as:

  • How were remote work policies communicated?
  • Did expectations of work change?
  • Did company values or priorities change?

Whether companies successfully pivoted or floundered, employees had, at the very least, a benchmark of what the culture had been. Going forward, the office space can be a way for companies to communicate any changes in their values and processes due to the pandemic.

[Related: Office Matters, Part 1: Reviving Work at the Office]

Entry-level and early career employees stand to gain the most from the return to the office. These new members of the workforce have been disproportionately affected by the isolation of remote work. Experienced workers who are newly hired can also grapple with getting culturally integrated to their new organization if there is no physical space to facilitate this process. Interns and new hires have had to either rely on explicit internal communications or their immediate team’s behavior to glean company culture.

The variability of this situation can unknowingly teach work habits that aren’t aligned with the company’s culture. The office space will be the place to confirm or redefine the company’s value for new employees.

Creating Competitive Advantage

Undeniably, the pandemic has shifted the way current employees now perceive work. The office is no longer a “given” and may be reconsidered as another means to enhance the employee experience. When it comes to people-centered work, both current and new employees benefit from in-person interactions. A 2021 McKinsey report found that while some tasks are easily done virtually, other critical business activities like negotiations, brainstorming, feedback sessions and onboarding might be better done in person.

The office’s role is already changing to a place of ideation—not just work. Nearly 87% of employees believe the office is important for collaborating and relationship building, as reported by PwC. The future of work will be spaces where in-person collaboration is facilitated and virtual participation is seamless.

The physical office space is attractive to new talent. During the pandemic, some companies struggled to promote or hire new professionals due to the lack of in-person passive learning. Returning to the office allows for more direct mentorship, where young professionals can build their network during the “in between moments” and learn the cues of office work and culture.

Additionally, young professionals are looking for social connection at the office. Companies are inheriting a generation of graduating students who are equally burned out by their remote learning experiences during the pandemic and want in-person connection as they begin their careers. Companies can make their physical office spaces a point of competitive advantage in recruiting new talent hungry for personal connection, career development and company community.

Post-pandemic, the office space will remain the place to foster talent for most organizations. Current employees will benefit from revitalized office spaces that either reinforce the company’s long-standing values or provide a canvas to express new ones. Thriving workspaces will become a source to attract and keep talent.

About the author:BIFMA is the not‐for-profit trade association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers. Since 1973, BIFMA has been the voice of the commercial furniture industry.

Read next: Smart Buildings and Wellbeing Are Driving the Future of Workplace Design (IFMA 2021)

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