I’ve been reading a lot lately on the “future of the corporate office.” While many of these stories detail how companies have changed their floor layout for social distancing measures or the fact that they’re shedding their offices altogether, a critical element of the story always seems to be missing: culture. What will happen to company culture with the prolonged absence of the office?
You might be thinking, “you don’t need an office to have a culture.” That’s true to an extent, but culture-rich companies—and I would consider West Monroe in this group—typically develop and sustain their culture through togetherness. That means having a space to do so. For many companies, this place has naturally been the office. For us, we are reimagining our offices to be treated as in-market collaboration spaces.
Being in consulting, before the pandemic most of us were on the road working with clients Monday through Thursday, and on Friday we’d come together across our local business-city offices. Team meetings, learning and development, philanthropy, a catch-up over coffee, Friday libations …. the list of activities goes on. Going into the office was never mandatory—but we all had routines, like the rest of the world, that brought us there. We’d wake up, shower, get on the train, bus, or in the car, and go to the office. And we looked forward to it—to collaborate, to socialize, to learn, to have fun.
All that has changed. Now, we’re doing our day jobs from a number of places and spaces—but mainly from home. And because offices are sitting vacant with many lockdown measures still in place, real estate investments are on the chopping block for many executives: 42% are cutting costs in real estate, according to our latest poll. What I’ve learned? Throughout all the conversations and decisions we’ve faced, it’s not as simple as “do we keep this fixed cost or not?” Deciding whether to have an office, where, and how much is a highly complex question that speaks to the heart of a company and its culture. We’re going forward with spaces, not “traditional” offices.
We are seeing companies make the early decision to never go back. Us? We’re not making that call. In fact, this year we built out new collaboration spaces in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. This is not to say that others are making the wrong decision—the point is, the decision about real estate is laced with determinations about culture and the future of work. Our perspective is that the future of work will most certainly be different, but coming together still matters. It matters a great deal to fulfillment, to quality, and to the human experience.
Since coming together still matters, we made the decision to keep our spaces—with the following philosophies for leveraging our in-market collaboration spaces explained:
As a people-first organization, we are opening our spaces where laws and infection rates allow, providing our people a safe place to work if they need it—whatever their reasons. However, we are not requiring their in-person presence. We understand that most will remain remote for now, but are increasingly getting use out of our beautiful collaboration spaces where we can.
We are still committed to relationships, growth, and a people-first culture. All of the intangibles that make us different as an employer and as a consulting partner are engrained in an in-person, high-touch environment. But we’ve also seen the tremendous benefits of increased flexibility in where and how people get their work done. There is a very big difference between productivity and effectiveness: Some days will be head’s-down productive to crank work out by working from home while other times we will opt for maximum effectiveness, which might just warrant in-person with our teams to convey compassion, inspiration, building culture, and trust.
We drive results for our clients because we thrive on working together—and yes, often times in person. We aren’t capable of giving that up to go with the “remote forever” trend because we don’t feel it will drive the same results for our people and clients. We still want collaboration spaces where people want to be there—because they enjoy their colleagues’ company, thrive on the energy, and feel a sense of belonging.
The future of consulting will be different. We don’t see the typical default workweek requiring on-site client work four days a week. But we also don’t see it going completely virtual. The key is going to be balance and the right venue for the right activity.
I can envision every one of our people thinking about the week ahead and determining with their teams where the work for that week ought best be done. No longer will we be on auto-pilot when we wake up, roll out of bed, jump into the shower, choose an outfit and get dressed, and get out the door to commute to an office or client site. We will modify this tired routine accordingly given the hybrid and flexible working models based on what the work to be done is for that day, week, or month. The requirement will be increased communications with team members, managers, and clients as to what the expectations are for getting the work done, and if that should be done via home offices or in-person collaboration spaces.
We’re moving forward. We can no longer wait to have an opinion or a plan—but we’re also willing to change our minds and approach in a test-and-learn mode. No one has the answer or a definitive vision of what the future looks like. That’s OK. For now, we need to be comfortable in the gray and communicate openly—with empathy and understanding—compromise, and collaborate to ensure not just a productive working arrangement but one that is most effective.
And that is a challenge that will all make us better consultants, leaders, and professionals in the future.