The global COVID-19 pandemic impacted how we live and work in myriad ways. For managers and employees alike, there’s been a distinct — and so far continuing — shift in how we interact with our colleagues and how we learn on the job. Real estate investment professional Nick Millican shares his insight into managing and training staff in a continually remote world.
“I don’t think we will get back to exactly the way things were in 2019,” says Millican, adding that if companies are going to drag their staff 45 minutes away from their house to come and work in the same place, then businesses need to “do a better job of making that place somewhere they’d actually like to be” and give them a compelling reason to be there.
COVID affected almost all companies and organizations with an office-based workforce. First, it was finding ways to operate during a global health crisis that forced employees to stay away from the office and work from home. Remote work became vital. In-person meetings and conferences were replaced with video conferencing. Shared printouts of documents were replaced with collaboration tools located in the cloud. It was crucial to stay productive and connected outside the office environment.
As lockdowns lifted and returning to the office became a more tenable proposition, it turns out that organizations and their employees haven’t gone back to a pre-pandemic normal. The work world isn’t as it once was and residuals remain from the shared experience. Instead of demanding workers revert to the office full time, to varying degrees, organizations have almost universally embraced a new normal that sees remote work as a necessary and desired part of life.
Many staffers believe they can be just as productive working in their homes as in the office. Or, for personal, family, or lifestyle reasons, they simply don’t want to fall back to the five-day-a-week commute.
Yet as hybrid working arrangements continue, enterprises are seeing downsides. Without people working together regularly in the office, collaboration is difficult. Companies that prided themselves on their unique cultures worry that those cultures and bonds are at risk of losing their strength — and along with it part of their particular sales proposition.
Nick Millican Explains the UK Experience
Like many other countries, by around March 2020, the U.K. was experiencing a lengthy lockdown, keeping workers away from their offices and colleagues.
For Nick Millican, CEO of real estate investment company Greycoat, lockdown was experienced both as a real estate investment practitioner and the manager of a team of people.
“It started easing up in June and July, but then we had a period of time when, depending on how infection rates were, we went into a black box. The government would raise or lower controls — not on a weekly basis, but it did go up and down a fair amount,” says Millican. “That was a very, very challenging time to run any business — to run a business where you have offices that your people are not legally allowed to work in. Even today, I think a lot of the turmoil in the sector is really still a hangover or a legacy from that time.”
Millican says after the difficulties of managing during the pandemic, there have been some continued issues — specifically, dealing with hybrid work and a change in the expectations of employees.
Nick Millican: Low Quality Office Spaces Won’t Lure Workers Back
Real estate goes through cycles, Millican explains. “But by mainstream corporate businesses, for a long time it was seen as a cost center. Their real estate team’s job was to lower the cost per desk and drive efficiency out of it. And so you ended up with people being crammed into very dense open-plan — typically not great quality — offices. Hot desking was also increasingly seen as a part of the solution by employers, which also diluted the individual employee experience of being in the office.”
But as a result of the experiences of employees during and after the pandemic, there’s been “a fairly vociferous reaction against that,” Millican added, because it’s hard enough to get people to come back to the office, let alone to low-quality office spaces they didn’t want to be in to begin with.
Offering employees a free lunch or happy hour on Thursday — the initial solution some businesses used to attract employees back to the office after the pandemic — simply isn’t going to cut it anymore, Nick Millican observed from the tenants of the buildings he owns and manages.
“The feedback we hear a lot — because we obviously speak to tenants that are in our buildings — is it’s very difficult to build any sort of a team culture remotely,” says Millican. “If you’re a business that recruits graduates, then you just can’t train them remotely.”
In many industries, Millican notes, there’s an entire two-year crop of graduate employees whose training level — compared to their peers who joined before the pandemic — is about 18 months behind where they should be in their training and integration into the business.
“It’s fairly universal,” says Millican.
Nick Millican: The Implications for Real Estate Are Clear
In terms of what the situation means for commercial real estate providers — and the companies they lease to — is that the future of office space will likely be fewer suburban office parks and more city center offices that can attract employees not only with their attractive and innovative design, but also with the buzz that comes more naturally to cultural and commercial hubs.
“The city centers’ stock that’s good should survive,”observes Nick Millican. To keep employees engaged, to sustain an organization’s culture, and to train new staff, Nick Millican believes office buildings must attract organizations and their employees by offering attractive design, healthy environments, and innovative spaces for collaboration.