The Price of Autonomy, The Value of Flexibility

September 15, 2022 4 Minute Read

Client Services

Greg Devitt made a career-altering decision. Life had other plans – we can all relate.

After seven years running his own business from home, Devitt, CBRE’s Managing Director of Client Solutions, decided to reengage the corporate world. His children had grown up and he felt disconnected from the marketplace. He wanted to prioritize his career and access opportunities in the workplace. He found inspiration in commercial real estate, built a team, reputation, and a new service line at CBRE, only to have the pandemic send him back to his home office for two years.

“I was an early adopter of work-from-home,” Devitt says. “It was a novelty when I did it in 2007 and people were jealous of the flexibility and family-time it afforded me. This time around, I still appreciated the obvious benefits, but I was very aware of the costs over time.”

The lack of a commute, increased flexibility and access to family were welcome revelations for many in the first year of the pandemic. To this day, CBRE research shows that flexibility ranks only second to compensation in terms of employee priorities. Survey results also show that the most satisfied employees are those spending time in the office.

In his role as Managing Director of Client Solutions, Devitt counsels business leaders on real estate solutions and the future of work. He works from both his home office and CBRE’s office in downtown Toronto and is providing global best practices and insights from his personal experience.

“You don’t have to be together all the time, but you do need to be together regularly and in a quality way,” he says. “I started my career in the 1990s at IBM in high-walled cubicles where you couldn’t even see your team members. We might as well have been at remote offices. It was very isolating.”

“We took matters into our own hands because no one could see what we were doing anyway,” Devitt recalls. “We removed a few cubicle walls and made an open, collaborative space for the creative team, which is exactly what office users are doing with their space today to support collaboration when people are in the office.”

I'm not just hiring people to be productive. I'm hiring people to be collaborative and creative. - Greg Devitt

Because I Like You

Nearly 60% of respondents to CBRE’s Spring 2022 Office Occupier Sentiment Survey indicated a need for more dedicated meeting space and more casual collaborative spaces. While overall office attendance is lower than before the pandemic, many businesses are finding that their meeting spaces are oversubscribed with people using their time in the office to work together.

“The number one reason people want to be in the office is to see other people,” Devitt says. “I don’t need to see you every day, but I do need to see you sometimes because I like you!”

And while he may be uniquely blessed with great colleagues, Devitt knows firsthand that the more time spent working remotely, the more likely an employee is to lose personal connection and integration into projects and processes.

“Having some flexibility is wonderful, but in my experience, there is a price for autonomy,” he says. “People stop calling at some point. You aren’t as far upstream in many conversations and remote employees can become order takers. It just isn’t as engaging, interesting or rewarding. After two years working remotely, I think people got a taste of that and the desire for a hybrid work arrangement is on the rise.”

Client Solutions
Greg Devitt and the CBRE Canada Client Solutions Team

You’re Not Making Widgets

As more companies introduce return to office mandates, the possibility of losing autonomy is a source of stress for many employees. Some 94% of employees want at least some option to work from home. Many will find themselves in the same life stage as Devitt was when running a business from home made more sense for him and his family.

“Hybrid work is the right thing to do,” he says. “I say that as an employer and as someone who has seen how flexibility helped me and my family at different stages. But I’m not sold on the argument that you’re simply more productive from home.”
Future Forum Pulse surveys over 10,000 knowledge workers around the world and found that 36.7% of employees were most productive in a fully remote work environment.

“You may be more productive at home for some solo tasks, but I’m not just hiring people to be productive. I’m hiring people to be collaborative, creative, innovative and to motivate each other,” says Devitt. “You can’t achieve any of these things to the fullest on your own. You need in-person exchanges that draw out experiences and ideas from other people.”

All the World’s a Life Stage

After two years apart, employers and employees have a better sense of what each side needs to succeed in the new era of work. Solutions will differ for each individual and stakeholder group, but the pendulum has clearly swung from no-office-ever-again to the realization that neither employer or employee can be fully realized with complete physical disconnection. 

“Life stage is going to be a big determinant of how people use an office and how often,” Devitt says. “To business leaders and managers, I’d encourage you to define what hybrid is to you, to each team and each individual.”

Devitt reminds us that creating workplaces that address a range of needs within a hybrid framework will require the collaboration of leadership, HR, IT, and communications. “And a lot of those discussions will take place in-person in an office.”

And once you have those answers and can build offices to support them, the effort to realize hybrid work will have been worth it.

“There’s no downside to happier, more fulfilled employees,” says Devitt.

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