Is your
ready for a return
to work?

More than 100M Americans are fully vaccinated. If you don’t yet have a plan in place to bring employees back to the office, it's time to get started

June 24, 2021

Many organizations are welcoming employees back to the workplace. Some have been at the office since the pandemic began, and some are still unsure when they’ll return. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum, it’s crucial to consider how the workplace will function in the future. Your physical space is an investment in your brand, talent and business.

While the workplace will remain central to where work gets done, many organizations will maintain a level of flexibility for their employees. Now comes the key question: how can you ensure equality and productivity when employees are remote and/or at the office? Company culture, technology and strong leadership are key to making it successful.

In this episode of the Building Places podcast, James Cook talks with Ram Srinivasan, Managing Director, JLL Work Dynamics, about re-entry, how the workplace will be used in the future and more.

James Cook: [00:00:00]: The pandemic is winding down. We need to get back to the office. Most of us want to do it. But the question is how do we get back to the office properly?

Today, we're talking about workplace re-entry with workplace consultant, Ram Srinivasan. This is building places where we look at the world of commercial real estate through the eyes of the experts that study it every day.

My name is James Cook. I research real estate for JLL.

Ram Srinivasan: [00:00:41]: Ram Srinivasan, I'm managing director with JLL consulting. We work with global organizations to shape real estate strategies for the future. I'm based in Toronto, Canada. I've been working from home last 12 months, hopefully back in the office later this year.

James Cook: [00:00:55]: I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying, oh, you know, people are used to working from home now. Is that the future? Are people going to stay at home when they can?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:01:04]: The office has always been emblematic of what companies stood for. And companies have always used the physical manifestation of space to convey everything from culture, to purpose, to organizational brand, to values, and so on and so forth. Without that physical manifestation, a lot of companies have kind of struggled to understand how do they convey culture? If all of us are emblems on a screen, are we all equal? How do we convey things like hierarchy? These have been questions that companies had, and of course, companies have also always wondered: can you make remote work productive, especially at scale?

The flip side of this equation is the employee and what the employee feels. A lot of people have reported, self reported, saying they've actually enjoyed working from home. They've enjoyed the flexibility. They've enjoyed work-life balance. We’ve also missed our colleagues. We've also missed the ability to just grab a coffee with a friend, a colleague downtown, and so on and so forth. So how do you ensure that you provide people with the ability to work flexibly anywhere, and the ability to work together with colleagues in person in the office?

So that's kind of what companies are dealing with right now. The hybrid model being some mix of virtual, physical in-person coworking spaces, headquarters, suburban offices, et cetera.

James Cook: [00:02:18]: So, we've got more hybrid workers. Does that mean we need, you know, we're going to need less office space in the world?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:02:24]: It's a question that one needs to look at slightly differently than we have in the past. Offices and office space use was measured based on consumption. And by consumption, what we mean is utilization density. These kinds of things are metrics that we use to measure office space performance. But what's the quality of that space? What's the purpose of that space? So, we are seeing a lot of companies now think about office space very differently. They think about space as assets that generate specific outcomes. Assets that are driving certain experiences for individuals. Assets that allow individuals to connect with the organizational purpose. And if we look at real estate from that lens, then it's not a question of more or less. It's a question of, what does that asset do? And does it meet the purpose? And this is the fundamental shift in the way we view real estate.

James Cook: [00:03:13]: What do these companies who haven't had people in the offices in a while—what do they need to be thinking about and planning for?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:03:22]: I think there are a few interesting elements that companies need to think about, right. So, when we're saying hybrid, we mean as somebody working from home and somebody working from the office. How do you ensure the experience parity for those two people? Imagine you're in a meeting room, I'm at home. Can you and I have the same experience? Do I feel as included in conversations?

If not, every space, every meeting, will need a technology upgrade. One of our interesting product platforms is called Experience Anywhere. And this kind of speaks to this ability to provide people the right enterprise experience regardless of where they work from. It's agnostic of location. And this is what companies will focus on, will need to focus on, going forward. A question that often comes up is: how do you ensure the right mix of people show up at the right time?

You know, you choose to work on Monday from the office. I may choose to work on Friday. So how do we ensure that the right kind of mix is created? And this is where data and technology and applications will play a big role. We have a product called JLL Jet which allows people to make this hybrid transition much easier in a smoother way. It creates an umbrella of applications. So instead of, an experience of death by a thousand apps, now you go through a single application where you have Outlook and meeting booking systems and everything else connected. I think technology will play a big role as companies plan their return to work.

James Cook: [00:04:37]: You know, I was thinking, if we give people more flexibility on what days of the week they want to come to the office, I'm wondering if everybody is going to say, I'm going to do Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I mean, does it feel like that space is going to be wasted or how do you manage that?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:04:53]: This was a question James, that companies have been asking perhaps last five, 10, 15 years. Because ever since the invention of a utilization study, we have known that office spaces are never utilized a hundred percent at peak. I would also say that it, this goes beyond just individual spaces. It also—you need to think about meeting spaces. We need to think about collaboration spaces. We may need to think about modular popup environments. There is a bunch of innovation that needs to happen in this space.

James Cook: [00:05:21]: Are there other examples of the ways that technology is going to support this return to the office?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:05:28]: One of the big elements that we need to consider is the focus on health and wellbeing and wellness. And this is something that I think if there were one takeaway from the pandemic for organizations, perhaps this is the one: how do you ensure that people are healthy? Not just from a physical perspective when they are in the workplace, but from a physical, emotional, mental perspective, regardless of where they work from. And while this is a broad subject area, one element that we should think about as kind of safety. If I were to provide a specific example, indoor air quality is becoming a big topic that companies are considering. It was always important, but never to the extent that it is now. So, how do you measure quality of air? How do you ensure that your HVAC is fully operational? How do you ensure that people have peace of mind when they enter the space? So healthy environments will be critical and certifying those environments to be healthy will be even more critical. Technology plays a big role but equally I would say human beings and individuals play a big role as well.

James Cook: [00:06:25]: It seems to me that sort of the post-pandemic return to the office, I would say you hear three buckets. You've got the one group of companies that says as soon as we can, everybody has to be back in the office. Then you've got the other group that says, oh, we're giving up our office space; we're going to fully remote. And then the third in the middle is sort of, you know, we're going to be flexible. What are you hearing from your clients?

Ram Srinivasan: [00:06:49]: So, James, you know, this is a deeply philosophical question in many ways. if we consider that no one size fits all from an individual perspective—literally the suit that I'm wearing won't fit you—so why would we assume that the return for return to office that I choose will work for you? So, the way I would consider this is to each his own. And for each individual, we need to think about this differently. They are an aggregate of the people; they're are only as good as the people who are producing for those organizations. For each organization, strategy is going to vary. And that variance maybe significant. We're, in fact, seeing that even within the same industry, within the same geography, companies are thinking about this very differently.

One piece that we are finding being extremely powerful is: how do you convey trust and faith in your people? And, we recently collaborated with GM, and one of the thoughts that GM has is “work appropriately.” That's their future workplace policy in two words: work appropriately. And those two words actually are very powerful. They convey trust, they convey culture. They convey that, you know, hey, look as an organization, we trust you as an individual, as a leader to do the right thing. If I'm not going to tell you what kind of clothes to wear, I'm not going to tell you how and where to work. I'll measure you by outcome. I'm not going to measure you by process or presence. And that's a significant shift in the way companies need to think about themselves as embodiments of their culture. How do they convey that? Those companies that kind of showcase trust and faith in their people will be clearly differentiated. And, you know, they win this war for talent, which I'm sure we are about to see in the next world reading.

James Cook: [00:08:18]: That's great to hear that from GM. Ram, it's been a fascinating conversation hearing. I love your philosophy about return to the office. I want you to hold my hand as we return to the office. But thank you so much for joining me today.

Ram Srinivasan: [00:08:34]: Lovely. Thank you, James.

James Cook: [00:08:37]: If you want to hear more topics about commercial real estate, you should be a subscriber to our show. Find Building Places on the iPhone podcast app on Spotify. Really, wherever you get your podcast, you can find Building Places. We're also on the web at BuildingPlaces.Show.

For the latest research and insights about commercial real estate visit our website: This episode of building places was produced by Alexandra Dalton. Our theme music was written and performed by Joel Caracci.