Employers Are Bringing the Office Back to Life

June 14, 2023 4 Minute Read

Employers Are Bringing the Office Back to Life

Headlines declare the death of the office while workers wind their way through bustling downtown cores on weekdays.

What’s really happening with Canadian workplaces right now?

CBRE’s Lisa Fulford-Roy advises corporate and government clients on how to navigate changing workplace dynamics in the hybrid era.

Here are some of the trends she’s tracking:

Flexibility is a new currency

Flexibility with working arrangements is indisputably the future, according to Fulford-Roy. “It is here to stay.” Organizations that hesitate to create new ecosystems and quality workplace experiences aligned with their flexible working arrangement face the greatest risks of sustained change.

“Employers are asking or mandating employees to return to the office, for collaboration, community, culture and mentoring,” says Fulford-Roy. “Yet in the short-term many are struggling to fund or execute meaningful workplace changes that support these newly prioritized behaviors.

“The physical and operational changes are lagging and as a result, show-up rate, while improving, is generally lagging expectations.”

Real estate has become an HR focus

Traditionally a company’s real estate arm would report to the CFO, CAO or COO, and operate somewhat independently of other stakeholders.

Now that the employee experience is centered on talent retention, engagement and performance, HR is taking a lead role as a stakeholder partner to align on priorities and intentional outcomes of any workplace solution.

“Real estate still plays a critical role in the solution and execution,” Fulford-Roy says, “but the experience and motivation around long-term engagement and retention of employees needs to be aligned with HR.”  

Team alignment and engagement

Office demand and utilization continue to slowly rise, but it’s been uneven. “It’s stabilizing for some and still lagging for many, particularly in larger companies, and cities with longer lock-downs,” says Fulford-Roy. “Even with mandates, we’re not expecting to get a big surge in demand, but rather more stabilization.”

Those lagging behind are still defining their policies or establishing new team norms within their organizational policy. “The ideal is to create a healthy virtual and in-person culture aligned to business outcomes and also have teams embrace coming in together for specific activities and engagements.”

Sustaining engagement requires strategy

It starts with defining the purpose, or the Why, for returning to the office. “The most successful firms are the ones that have been clear in establishing the role of the office at a macro level,” says Fulford-Roy.

“Then it’s about a team having flexibility within a mandate or guideline to make office time purposeful and productive. When there’s team ownership and autonomy it works best.”

Leader and manager upskilling

Getting the most from a team in the hybrid world requires a new skill set founded on trust, transparency and exceptional communication skills. Managers are key to engagement and retention and in getting teams to develop purposeful habits and routines.

New hires from 2020 to 2022 left feeling less connected to their organization can benefit from being “re-onboarded” and getting paired up with others in a buddy system to build their internal network. “Leaders and managers now have to be proactive in how they're curating the experience for all employees and not just relying on the physical office to deliver on culture” Fulford-Roy says. 

Flight to experience is everything

Curated social events, learning events and other programming works best when it’s connected to an organization’s values. Like socials featuring thought leaders who can enlighten staff as they enjoy sharing food together (versus just enticing them into the office with free food and little else).

How organizations deliver experiences has changed. “It’s active programming, training and learning, strong team building,” says Fulford-Roy.

Experience goes beyond events

ESG awareness is influencing how we use office space. Fulford-Roy is seeing the growth of empathetic design, ensuring that spaces are accessible and inclusive, including gender neutral washrooms and signage and wayfinding for the visually impaired.

“Now, not only is there a flight to experience, there is more intentionality when it comes to that experience being inclusive of all people.”

Commuting is an experience buzzkill

In Toronto, where Fulford-Roy is based, the nightmarish commute has become a huge deterrent to office attendance. “Will people be willing to undertake the commute a few times a week if they have a great experience when they go in? I think so,” she says.

“We are already seeing employees use flex hours to avoid heavy rush hour peaks or working extended days with social time after work to make the most of their time with colleagues and industry peers.”


Hub and spoke could be a solution

Fulford-Roy’s team has been working with private and public sector organizations on distributed occupancy models, or hub and spoke solutions, where there are team days at a highly amenitized and easily accessed hub office and flex days at a regional or spoke office.

“The hub and spoke solution can help with commuter congestion, offset peak demand and still offer convenience and better ESG outcomes if people have a shorter commute on flex days.”

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