Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the percentage of flex space in the average Fortune 2000 company’s corporate real estate portfolio was 2 to 3%. As of 2019, leading brokerages were estimating that, within the decade, that percentage would increase by a factor of ten. Then 2020 happened: As our use of workspace adapts to the pandemic, companies — from start-ups to enterprise institutions — are embracing flex office models at breakneck speed. For many, the concept of flex space, much less the increasingly common hybrid model of hub space and on-demand spokes, is completely new — and change doesn’t come without its challenges.
Earlier this year, Upflex welcomed flex space strategist Vincent Lottefier to the team as our new Chief Strategy Officer. Vincent has consulted extensively with companies who want to put flex space strategies into play, and he and I talk constantly about how if flex space is implemented correctly, it is productive — not to mention popular. We know from experience — not just ours, but the experiences of Upflex users — that more flexible workplace strategies can not only save on the bottom line but help companies attract fresh, forethinking talent, drive productivity and increase employee happiness, to name a few of the benefits we see over and over again. But if you don’t do it properly, it can generate fear, and risk, and people saying, ‘It’s not for me.’
Often this can be because, as Vincent puts it, workers are wary. Some have had their own offices for years, or even decades. The commute may be inconvenient, but walking into one’s own space at work feels familiar, safe and comfortable. Changing gears doesn’t come without friction, and while, for many people — at all levels in a company hierarchy — now may be the best time to add more flexibility to where and how we work, big change during the COVID pandemic can add yet another new layer of resistance and friction.
There is a fair amount of onboarding, education, support which is often not being done as it should to make these models work, and how to help the end user to see how to make this work best for them — how to be flexible, while feeling in control.
- Talk Early and Often
Late last month, we announced that Schneider Electric recently chose Upflex to implement a hyperflex workspace model — a blend of work-from-home set-ups, conveniently located micro offices and larger purpose-built hubs. During the pandemic, the company started using our platform to offer employees access to on-demand offices closer to their homes, allowing them to get out of the house without commuting all the way to an SE hub.
I have been in touch with their team about how the transition is going. The takeaway: The model is ideal; to make sure employees get the most out of it, SE made sure to introduce it in a way to lay out its benefits and best practices.
Head of Real Estate Karen McClellan and her team have been rolling out a ‘Workplace of the Future’ open-office concept since 2018, when they launched their Nashville hub. While she told our team that this cultural and logistical shift toward its vision for the future workplace has accelerated during the pandemic, the transition being underway for years has given McClellan’s team time to understand and consider employees’ concerns and, at times, misconceptions.
“Once they get into the new space, 95% of people say, ‘Oh, I get it. You’ve freed up my stuff. I don’t feel tied to a workstation.’ It’s liberating,” she told us. “It’s a credit to our company that we have a lot of people who have stayed with us for a lot of years — but that also means that they’ve had the same desk and the same office set-up for a long time. It’s a major adjustment to change that.”
- Influence Change
It’s important to introduce the concept well in advance of a transition, fielding questions and building confidence. It also matters just who is doing the talking.
“In some ways, we’re an engineering company, and I’m not an engineer, so it isn’t always productive for our teams to hear about [this new model] from me,” Karen told our team. Instead, SE arranged to bring team members from the company’s Nashville hub and allow employees who hadn’t yet experienced the Workplace of the Future flex arrangement to “grill them with questions.”
“We had people from the Nashville site explain how easy it is to just sit down in the morning and dive in,” she told me. “Employees found that so helpful.”
- Make It A Package Deal
SE didn’t stop at communication. They also upgraded tech and amenities in line — and they had more resources to do this, considering the company cut back on underutilized office space leases.
Now, I’m told each workstation at SE’s new hubs have dual monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse, all of which make it easy for employees to plug and play. That’s the in-office part of the puzzle; but what about your at-home workers? SE considered those workspaces equally, offering teams a work-from-home package that included adjustable-height desks, new chairs, monitor arms and other equipment to make the home office healthier and more hospitable, available to any employee who asked for one.
Other companies have offered employees a few hundred dollars of reimbursable expenses for setting up their own ideal at-home workstations.
- Consult With Experts
Working remotely is only part of the puzzle; some companies are facing, for the first time, divided teams — some employees working together in person, while others are siloed in their own spaces, connected to their teams only by tech. Bridging the virtual-physical gap with tech tools and collaboration strategies will also be key to not just sustaining company culture, but helping it thrive — and to making sure everyone on your team has equal buy-in, despite their different geographies.
Not every company has the strategic or HR resource to pull this off without a little extra help — and that’s OK. Onboarding, education and support are as central to a new workplace strategy’s success as the physical spaces in which that strategy unfolds.
Think outside the box, commune with thought leaders outside of your own company for fresh perspectives, and communicate with your team. Change is a challenge, and hybrid workspace models are new; we all have a lot to learn — and a lot of potential yet to recognize.