Nick Srebrow, who leads The Clearing’s Workplace Change Management practice, has a front-row seat to how the nation’s workforce and their leaders are adapting and evolving to hybrid work and the use of office space. In his work with the private sector and government clients, Nick and his team are helping those leaders navigate the new reality of hybrid work and to shape the right workplace experience for their organizations. With the workplace pendulum still swinging—most organizations are seeking a balance somewhere between pure telework and mandated days in the office—here are Nick and the team’s observations on what they are seeing as we enter 2023.
2022 Workplace Client Engagement Surprises
I originally thought that when the worst of COVID had passed, there would be a wider acceptance of remote work. But the pendulum swung more than I expected; it seems many organizations are mandating that employees return to the physical office on a more prescriptive schedule. It felt like a quick shift and in some ways feels like we’re going backward in terms of our openness and trust in people. Maybe it’s not really a trust issue—maybe we’re just nostalgic for how the office used to be or feel our connection to the mission and people slipping.
However, we’re also seeing a lack of alignment among leadership on this issue. It’s not that entire leadership teams are saying they want everyone back—rather, one or two people are, and it’s impacting the whole workforce. We’re watching the data and will see how that lack of alignment impacts 2023. If an organization loses people as a result of any in the office mandate, they’re probably going to have to shift their posture. For our team, that will inform how we approach discussions around trust in the workplace and how that trust—or lack of it—affects the employee experience.
2023 Workplace Service Predictions
Our federal clients are thinking about how to manage the return to the office—either full-time or as a hybrid model—while the private sector is already settled. In the private sector, we’re helping clients down-scope office size. Having more people work flexibly in a smaller space is the norm now; it’s rare to see anyone getting a private office. We’re also helping people get accustomed to working in that environment. We’re seeing some pushback against open office space—people saying they can’t concentrate, they can’t get anything done—but the financial benefit is currently outweighing the intangible realities of open office space, so it’ll be interesting to see how it settles out. We may not know this year, but either way, we need to watch how space relates to the benefits that employers give their staff.
How The Clearing Is Uniquely Positioned to Meet Client Needs
If you look at the employee experience, organizations need to understand what the selling points are for staff. What can organizations give that’s not financial but that can lead to a positive experience? Helping leadership and staff come to a joint understanding about those kinds of benefits, while also understanding any barriers, are at the root, and that’s where we come in.
We take a people-first approach to workplace issues. When considering physical workspace changes, for example, that means we start with how employees will be affected and build out rather than starting with a plan for physical space and fitting employees in.
That approach means our workplace team is very adept at helping leadership understand and empathize more with their staff, thereby improving the employee experience.
We also have deep experience guiding federal agencies through workplace change and know that many have rules or mandates set by other parties, as well as internal workplace rules they need to navigate. Our experience working within these parameters combined with our people-focused approach helps our clients stay in compliance while also staying attuned to their employees.
Advice to Leaders Entering 2023 Ready to Make an Impact
Understand the labor market and know what the drivers are.
This is critical for all organizations, particularly those that are requiring in-person work. The labor market is going to go up and down, and for a while, it seemed everyone was taking off for new positions. Now it’s tightening back up. However, the pandemic has taught us that we shouldn’t always look at those drivers as purely financial. Workplace experience is one of those drivers—increasingly so—and physical workspace is a part of that.
In my experience, if you want to lose your talent, the best way to do it is to keep looking at everything in terms of how it affects the bottom line. That’s a surefire race to the bottom as you find yourself rationing supplies and not giving people the physical space they need to be effective and feel valued. Instead, view those expenses as another form of employee perk. It’s an investment in your people and a morale boost. There are so many studies showing how expensive it is to replace people; I’ve seen it estimated as high as two times the cost of retaining an employee. That should help make it easier to look at space as an investment rather than as a cost.
What Leaders Should be Thinking About as 2023 Gets Underway
If being in the office is going to be the norm, then employers must focus on the tangible benefits of working together. In short, demonstrate the value to employees of required time in the office. I’m tired of the words innovation and collaboration—yes, we want both, but what are the other benefits of working in a shared space? I’d suggest looking across workplace cohorts, like the brand-new employees, the long-time employees, and then the people in the middle. For new employees, for example, being in the office is how they meet people and develop their network and social capital. Each of these three groups wants and needs different things, and it’s up to organizations to figure out what means the most to each group and then act on it.
If you or your organization is trying to find its workplace footing, I would love to chat. I can be reached anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org—I look forward to hearing from you.