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#32 – Corporate Change Part 1: The Death (and Rebirth) of the Office

The Working Well Podcast

Podcast Summary

This two-part Corporate Change series dives into what our new work reality means for people, companies, leaders, and the community. Part one looks at the accelerating evolution of work. The challenges people in companies are facing and how successful companies are harnessing this opportunity for their strategic advantage


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Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Working Well podcast. I’m Tim Boris, CEO of Fresh Wellness group. This show explores the diverse aspects of workplace health and personal performance on the working well podcast. We dive into the foundations of what makes wellness work in workplaces around the. We connect with corporate leaders, executives, and industry experts who are helping make life more awesome at work and home.

Join us to learn workplace wellness, best practices, personal performance tips, and access resources to jumpstart your personal and corporate programs.

Welcome to another episode of the Working Well podcast. There’s no question that the nature of work has fundamentally changed. The challenge is that physical office structure, corporate culture, and the mindsets of many leadership have struggled to adapt to the new reality of work. This two-part episode dives into what our new work reality means for people, companies, leaders, and the community.

Part one looks at the accelerating evolution of work. The challenges people in companies are facing and how successful companies are harnessing this opportunity for their strategic advantage. From back to office mandates, the dreaded commute, productivity levels, stress collaboration, and shifting employee expectations. The future of working well is either full of exciting change or impending disaster. It all depends on your perspective and the actions you choose to take during this period of rapid change.

In part two of our Corporate Change series, we look at how work and office needs are transforming urban planning, building design, and downtown cores, along with our ability to work and live well.


The Evolution of Work

The nature of work and the corporate office have fundamentally changed. This change brings great opportunities, but also many challenges. Now, of course, the COVID pandemic rapidly accelerated the changes we’re seeing, but the transition has been happening slowly for many years, particularly in progressive industries, such as software development.

To put it another way, the pandemic has helped everyone realize what a few people have known for at least a couple of decades, that information workers can work from anywhere, that people don’t need an office or cubicle to be productive, that they can do it without a manager, supervising them every minute of the day, and that corporate mindset and our definition of the office is in desperate need of an overhaul.

A silver lining to the length of this pandemic is that it lasted long enough to force people into accepting that many of these changes are permanent. It’s typically only stubborn old-school dinosaurs that still think things are going to go back to the way they were before the pandemic. Leaders and organizations that fail to seize the opportunity in front of us will fall behind in the market. They’re struggling to find workers and their businesses will ultimately fail.

To properly understand our current work situation. It’s helpful to know where we came from. Events from over 200 years ago are still shaping our current work culture and they’re so ingrained in our collective psyche that few people question them.

The followup from COVID is an amazing opportunity to pause and rethink our desire to get back to business as usual. It’s tempting to be nostalgic about how things were before. But if we look closely, we’re going to realize that it wasn’t as glorious as we remember. A key factor in our modern workplace disconnect is that the reason offices were invented bears a little relevance anymore, at least for information workers.

You see, in the past, consolidation of people in a central location was absolutely necessary for a number of reasons. Most businesses literally couldn’t function without employees in a central location. The main reason was communication.

Technology wasn’t ready for instant communication between multiple locations and people. In most situations, if something needed to be done, leaders physically had to meet with the person to communicate. Written letters and telegrams were too slow. Even with the advent of telephones, the technological limitations were too steep for a lot of people.

Speaking of technology, another key reason for having a centralized workforce was access to specialized equipment. And of course, this still applies today for many companies in different industries or types of workers. Examples would be manufacturing, labs, and hands-on services. Even in the eighties and nineties when computers and devices were large, expensive, generally tied to the office, and internet access was dial-up, the centralized office made some. Now if you’re lucky enough to have been spared the squealing sound of a dial-up modem, count yourself lucky. I do not miss those days and I think that broadband internet, every single day.


How Technology Is Shaping the Future of Work

These days, specialized equipment is less of an issue for greater percentages of the working population. A huge percentage of our workforce is able to work remotely. The numbers of these knowledge workers are growing rapidly every year. Estimates for knowledge work ranges from 48 to 60% of the US population, and the pandemic has repeatedly shown that most information workers can work from anywhere at the same or higher levels of productivity.

The confluence of technology, greater geographic mobility, and changing employee preferences has made remote work, not just a possibility, but a preferred option for hundreds of millions of Estimates are that in 2021, over a billion people worldwide, we’re working away from the office, almost exclusively. Software company, Slack, surveyed over 9,000 corporate employees in six countries across multiple industries and found that 72% said they prefer the hybrid work environment. Only 12% said they preferred to work from the office full-time.

A separate survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found almost identical numbers, and this has massive implications for the future of work and how companies are hiring, onboarding, evaluating, and compensating their employees. Particularly relevant is how leadership has had to come to terms with outdated concepts of worker productivity, performance, and wellbeing. Like it or not, for many leaders, physical offices were a method of controlling employees. For command and control leaders, the physical presence of employees often replaced clear communication, respect, and the often difficult work of building trust with those employees. In low trust companies, leaders like to have people in the same physical location so they can quote, keep an eye on them and ensure that their employees are working their eight hours.

Next let’s look at the definition of health. Now the world health organization defines health as quote, a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, which means illness. I like this progressive definition. It’s much more in line with the definition, definition of wellbeing we just discussed.


Employee Productivity

As we’ve discussed at length in other episodes, the world of work has changed. Sadly, the mindset of many leaders is still stuck in the quote, bums in seats from nine to five mentality. This mindset is rearing its head again with many organizations, mandating employees back to the office. Some are even requiring full-time in-office work.

Now, even before this pandemic disruption, studies for in-office performance were abysmal. On average, less than 50% of the time in the office was spent doing productive work, less than 50%. For years, studies have shown that people generally only have about six hours of quality productivity in them each day, regardless of how long they work. To make matters worse, this is ideal productivity. More commonly, employees are only productive for around three hours each day. The rest of the time is a mixture of distraction, inefficiency, and time-wasting tasks.

A UK firm recently surveyed almost 2000 office workers and found that four common non-work tasks made up an average of three hours of wasted time at work each day, and these tasks were in order of distraction level. Reading news websites accounted for an hour and five minutes. Checking social media, 44 minutes. Discussing non-work-related activities with colleagues took up 40 minutes, and looking for new jobs took up 26 minutes. Remember, this is a survey of close to 2000 office workers. Of course, there were multiple other time-wasting tasks that took up another couple hours of work time each day.

Now I can’t say whether this study is representative of employees in your organization or not, but if you think your employees are sitting there fully productive for eight hours a day, thinking again. They’re not. In fact, if you even think they’re doing half of their productivity time on work-related tasks, you’re probably doing well. This doesn’t have to be the case. But for most organizations, modern corporate culture and ingrained organizational habits are a black hole of inefficiency. Sadly, some companies are still struggling to figure out that bums in seats for eight hours per day, doesn’t equal productivity.

At the heart of this issue is that our standard 8-hour workday has nothing to do with how long humans can focus or concentrate. It’s based on factory work in the industrial revolution and virtually irrelevant to an information worker. In the industrial revolution, when factories were run 24/7, work shifts were often 10 to 16 hours. It soon became clear that these hours were grueling and unsustainable for workers, and people lobbied for shorter workdays.

In 1817, Welsh activist, Robert Owen, popularized a slogan that was a century ahead of its time. He said, “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Now, the change didn’t happen until 97 years later when Ford motor company had a revolutionary insight on employee productivity. In 1914, they shocked the business world by reducing daily working hours to eight and simultaneously doubling worker wages. Even more shocking, well maybe not considering hindsight, was the result. Higher productivity and profitability.


Rethinking the Work Environment

So, what does this all mean for us getting back to the office now? Well, first it means there’s a huge opportunity for companies to rethink our work environment, to help employees be more productive that doesn’t require them to be in an office, sitting at a desk all day with a supervisor, looking over their shoulder. It means assessing the type of work people are doing and how companies can create an environment that improves employee health and happiness as well as productivity and profitability for the organization.

It also means that companies should think closely about mandating employees back to the office. That’s a company-specific decision that’s going to have consequences on the type and location of workers they’re able to attract as well as the quality of work they get from the existing employees.

Let’s look at the reality of our current back-to-office situation. Even before the pandemic, a typical office environment was defined by people in cubicles, typically donning headphones and messaging each other on Slack or Teams. This is essentially the same thing as people were doing throughout the pandemic. They were just doing it home. Sure, in an office, they have the opportunity to go for lunch together or maybe chat about their weekend plans as they walk to a meeting or visited the infamous water cooler. But for the most part, most employees sit in a solitary cubicle, looking at a solitary device, and communicating with each other through digital means. The typical information worker essentially works remotely, even when they are at the office.

However, this comes at the cost of an average 40-minute commute each way, along with the expense of parking, fuel, public transportation, and traffic stress. With the current back to office mandates, many employees are beginning to push back on how much time they spend in the office. To make matters worse since not everyone is back in the office all the time, many meetings are done with mix of people in-person and online. Feedback on these hybrid meetings is that it’s smoother and easier when everyone is on their own device even if they’re in the same room. Of course, some companies have installed specialized meeting software with voice-seeking microphones and cameras that help make hybrid meetings more effective, but few companies have these systems at this point in time, and they’re often very expensive.

Moving forward, smart companies will be highly strategic about when and why employees meet for in-person meetings. As mentioned earlier, about three quarters of surveyed employees say they prefer a hybrid option where they’re in the office for two to three days per week. The challenge is going to be for companies to figure out what those days are, how much flexibility employees have to choose the days, whether teams and departments will coordinate certain times to be in the office, and how to maximize the use of both in-office and remote work environments.

Based on my observations and conversations with many corporate leaders, this is going to be a highly individualized process based on corporate culture, the industry, and leadership preferences. It’s also going to take time to optimize and adjust to ongoing changes. What seems to be undeniable is that those companies that adapt most rapidly and effectively are going to have a large strategic advantage in people and organizational performance.

In Calgary, over the past few weeks, many companies have been slowly coming back to the office. From the people and clients I’ve spoken with, the reviews are definitely mixed. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s happy to get back to their commute. Most of them say it’s great to catch up with colleagues in person. They agree that certain types of meetings and conversations are much better in person. However, they also say that the sheer amount of time wasted with commute and transition tasks connected to the office are highly inefficient. The consensus is that working from home is great for some things, and the office is great for others.

I’ve personally experienced the shift in my own business and schedule. The commute back into downtown has been a rude awakening. I have not missed the traffic, particularly in the downtown core. I’ve found that blocking my in-office days with strategic face-to-face meetings, team development, and business development or networking task is working well.

Getting back to the office on specific days has also helped me reevaluate what actually has to be done in-person versus online. Recently, there’ve been a number of meetings where after walking or driving and finding parking, I determined that the meeting would have been better done with a short Zoom call. Well, frustrating in the moment, this learning is fantastic and will continue to shape the way workers everywhere structured their workdays.

One emerging theme in this back-office transition is to make physical offices a destination. Yoga classes, fitness sessions, bistros, and free lunches are becoming popular again. And while these can have their place, if other essential corporate culture and leadership changes fail to happen, these perks are going to fail like beanbag chairs and foosball tables did a few years ago. Regardless of whether employees are in the office or working from home, employers and leaders have the ability to curate the workday to improve employee morale, productivity, performance, health, happiness, and wellbeing.

At the most fundamental level, executive leadership must begin to look at work and people’s performance through a different lens. The data’s clear and can’t be denied anymore. Sitting in front of a computer for prolonged periods of time isn’t good for business nor is command and control leadership, especially for information workers. Productivity suffers, employee happiness and retention, decrease stress rises, mental and physical health decrease, and illness and injury are inevitable. Smart leaders and companies are swallowing their pride and realizing that change is happening, whether they accept it or not. They can either learn and adapt or be left behind.


What Does the Future of the Workday Look Like?

Well, first, it’s going to be customized to the needs of each individual and team. It’s going to be defined by how each person works best. They will have the knowledge, skills, and support to do their best work each day. This includes not just their job or industry specific skills, but also how they feel their body and mind for success. They’ll learn mindset and mental health skills, health, and performance habits, time management, productivity skills, physical health knowledge, and have opportunities for social connections whether online or in person.

Leaders will understand the personal and business impact of these areas and act as facilitators to their teams by providing them access to the tools, the training, and information they need when they need it. Leaders will evaluate which meetings are necessary, determine who actually needs to attend, encourage shorter and more focused meetings, facilitate asynchronous collaboration so people can work together and promote individual productivity cycles; promote hourly movement and mindfulness breaks throughout the day to boost productivity.

Leaders are going to think beyond passive EAP and benefits programs by hiring experts to facilitate personal performance and wellbeing education and programming across the entire organization. Organizations and leaders will realize that their results mirror the health, happiness, and wellbeing of their people. People will be at the heart of strategic decisions in the organization even when these people are contractors.

With the knowledge that people can work from anywhere and skills are increasingly portable, companies will have a renewed incentive to cultivate a positive, proactive, and people-based culture that attracts and retains the best talent, because those people want to be part of a great organization. Companies that embrace this mindset and the daily habits necessary to make it a reality, will outpace the market by exponential margins.

The time for this change has been here for years and the window to take advantage of it is closing rapidly for many organizations. Some companies are doing some of these things now, but few companies, even the largest ones have taken the steps to optimize the performance of their people at work and home.

Now, you may be thinking that this sounds good in theory, but it’s an operational nightmare or impossibility. That’s because most companies and leaders are putting significant effort and resource into ineffective strategies and programs. They’re essentially wasting millions of dollars per year on programs that don’t work.

If you’d like to learn more about how to optimize employee performance, retention and profitability at your company, just message me on LinkedIn or contact me through my website at Of course, be sure to keep an eye out for part two of this series, where we look at how working office needs are transforming urban planning, building design, and downtown cores along with our ability to work and live well in those places.

Think, move, and be well, I will see you on the next episode.


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