Avoid the All or Nothing Real Estate Trap

After more than two decades of implementing high-performance flexibility, we’ve learned to spot common mistakes leaders and employees can unwittingly make. Right now, it’s falling into the “all or nothing” real estate trap. 

Organizations are settling into the current now of flexible work where a large percentage of employees work remotely, many for the first time. It’s from this backdrop that corporate leaders (especially CFOs) and employees risk making drastic decisions related to workspace and housing.  They’re doing it without considering what will happen should the next phase of flexible work end up being a more hybrid onsite/remote reality.

If you work for an organization where many, if not most, people are working remotely right now, reducing the fixed cost of real estate can be enticing.  We can’t blame a CFO who sees thousands of square feet of unused workspace for asking “Wait, why do we need corporate offices at all?” And we can’t fault an employee living, but working remotely, in a high-cost city for imagining how much more space their paycheck could buy in a lower-cost community.

But, as I noted in an interview with Marketplace about REI’s decision to sell its brand new Seattle-based headquarters, you need to approach ‘all or nothing’ decision-making with caution.  Organizations and individuals want to ensure they can effectively recalibrate and adapt to how, when, and where work will be done in the coming months as realities change.

Here’s what we’ve seen repeatedly over the years in organizations that voluntarily implemented high-performance flexibility pre-COVID.  When given the freedom and ability to determine what they needed to get done and how, when, and where to do it best, most people choose to work remotely about two days a week.  They decide it’s optimal to work together in person at least some of the time, but they want to do it with intention and purpose.

For sure, there will be those who prefer to work in the office most, if not all, of the time.  And there will be others who will remain full-time remote employees because they don’t want or need to relocate within physical distance from their corporate office. But, on average, organizations should plan for a flexible work model post-COVID that involves about two days of regular remote work for jobs that support it. 

Will CFO’s still save on real estate costs?  Absolutely.  But it means reimagining real estate needs probably within a smaller or more distributed footprint, not eliminating it altogether.  When planning for the amount of space required for a flexible workforce operating about two days a week remotely, identify the tasks performed in that workspace and how it should be configured to accommodate that work. These are the questions to ask over the coming months to prepare for the way organizations will work next.

Should an employee consider relocating for more square footage?  Of course. But think about how you want to do your job if most of your colleagues end up going back to an office and physically working together two to three days a week.  Will you want to be able to do that too?  If so, consider moving to a location that offers easier, periodic access to the office.

Or are you comfortable working full time remotely even if that’s not the norm for the majority?  If that’s your preference, consider how you will advance your career and pursue promotions. I shared some perspective on this topic in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “While Working Remotely, How to Get Noticed and Promoted.”  How will you ensure you and your work are still recognized when you’re not regularly seen at the office? How will you stay in the loop and meaningfully contribute?  When considering a permanent remote-primary opportunity make sure the formal performance measurement and leadership development processes of the organization have been updated to align with a flexible workforce. 

With any new way of working, it’s helpful to step back before making all-or-nothing decisions that could limit the ability to recalibrate how, when, and where work is done as realities inevitably change. If there’s one thing we know for sure, they will change!