The Future is People

March 5, 2024 5 Minute Read

Brianna Van Der Mark sitting on a desk in the CBRE Downtown Toronto office

It's the people, stupid.

There can be a disconnect between what leadership believes and what the average person is thinking.

In 1992, Democratic strategist and Bill Clinton advisor James Carville thought politicians and their handlers were overcomplicating the U.S. presidential election. He cut to the heart of the matter with a statement that continues to echo through the halls of Congress: "It's the economy, stupid!"

It’s akin to the current situation surrounding office space, where there is often a disconnect between what company leadership believes their people want in a workplace versus the actual wants and needs of their employees.

“Leaders can provide all of the free lunches and yoga classes they want,” says Brianna Van Der Mark, CBRE’s Director of Workplace Strategy for Eastern and Central Canada. “But if an employee’s basic functional needs are not being met, they will not want to be in the office.”

“For many of our clients, it’s often the lowest hanging fruit possible that impacts their employees’ daily experience and enjoyment of the office. It comes down to the basics.”

They want to move around the office easily with technology; they want ease of connection to Wi-Fi; they want variety in the work environment, access to private space and options for collaboration. And don’t forget the java. “Everyone wants good coffee,” says Van Der Mark. “Ideally fresh and available all day.”

The problem is, not all organizations approach return to work challenges holistically. Without a channel for employee feedback, leadership takes their best guess at what is and isn’t working about the office experience.

Typically, leaders don’t always have the same pain points and daily headaches as the average employee, Van Der Mark says, so they fail to understand the impact these are having on their people.

“When an employee’s ability to focus, be productive, and have access to the spaces they need is compromised, it leads to a lack of control over the day. And many people will avoid this at all costs simply by staying home.”

Leaders can provide all the free lunches and yoga they want. If an employee's basic functional needs are not being met, they will not want to be in the office. - Brianna Van Der Mark

Smartest Person in the Room 

As companies grapple with creating workplaces to entice employees back, Van Der Mark’s expertise, drawn from her extensive frontline experiences working with clients across a variety of industries, has never been more in demand.

“Everyone wants to know what others are doing,” she says. “People are frozen in the face of decision making because things seem to be changing all the time. What will it look like two years from now? How about in 10?

“People are terrified, so they want to know what other groups have done and what has worked. Or just as importantly, mistakes others have made, so they don’t make the same ones.” 

The challenges are not unique, she adds. Most organizations are struggling, to varying degrees, with the same issues. “But the solutions are not the same.

“The average organization does not have it entirely figured out right now. That’s important for people to hear. Everyone is working with the best and most current information available when it comes time to make a decision. But it rarely feels like the ‘right’ time.”

Brianna Van Der Mark sitting on a desk in the CBRE Downtown Toronto office

Fostering Compelling Experiences

The purpose of the office and the workplace experience needs to be compelling for employees, and that usually comes down to the quality of in-person interactions.

“The top reason people are coming in for is other people,” Van Der Mark says. “They want connection, and they want a feeling of vibrancy in the office. It’s less about what’s there amenities-wise, and more about making it a compelling experience for your team. It happens at the team level versus the organizational level.”

Rather than dictating that employees be in the office three or four days a week, “it’s about being thoughtful about what activities are better done at the office and what are best done remote. There is a time and place for both options.

“But there is no question that the things that make an organization special, the things that make the experience one you want to be part of, happen in person,” she adds. “You can’t do that virtually. Meaningful experiences and organization building happen in the workplace.”

The highest turnover in companies is among fully remote workers, she points out, “because there is no personal connection there, no sticky-ness.”

Deeply Curious

Van Der Mark’s success as a workplace strategist stems from the fact that she is deeply curious about people and how to create great experiences for them at work.

When it comes to the million-dollar question of how much square footage a group might need, “the solution is truly holistic – and we always lead with people,” she says. “It’s not as simple as how many and what size meeting rooms you need, and it’s not a blanket assumption you’ll want to reduce your footprint by 30%. Most organizations are seeking vibrancy (what we used to think of as simply 'density') in the office - how to get there will be different for everyone.”

“We’re solving for the business, the culture, not just the real estate. We want to understand the pain points and then make people-based recommendations.”

If a company values future-proofing their business and wants to attract and retain talent, its goals and purpose must be reflected in their workplace and the experience it offers employees.

“Post-pandemic, every organization has to think about this,” Van Der Mark says. “You must solve for your people – you must solve for the talent piece. No organization has the luxury of ignoring their most valuable assets anymore.”

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