Moving Past the Office Occupancy Scorecard

While there may have been a Labor Day bump in return to office occupancy, rates have remained steady, and a variety of data indicate “where” we work patterns appear to be stabilizing somewhat. Hopefully, we can now move beyond RTO/hybrid limbo and start to answer these important questions:

  • How are team-based decisions about “where” people will work best being made?
  • Is the work (what we need to do) or the where/location leading these decisions?
  • Do these decisions reflect the core values of the organization? (Read last week’s newsletter on why this matters.)
  • When (hours) are employees working?
  • How are they using technology to enable efficient communication, coordination and collaboration while working flexibly?
  • And, have processes, such as meetings, scheduling and onboarding, been reimagined and updated to support, or be supported by, new work patterns?
  • Do managers and teams have the skills and tools needed to flexibly work with strategic, coordinated intention?
  • Do individuals have the skills and tools they need to flexibly fit their work and life together in a way that considers their needs and the needs of the business?

“The office” is a location. It’s ONE enabler of work, and will continue to play an important, albeit reimagined, role, but it’s not the work itself.


Optimizing flexibility to achieve high levels of performance and well-being requires three stages that leaders, managers, and employees need to be trained to execute:

Stage 1 – Define: Use of a CONSISTENT PROCESS (not a policy) to define the unique “how, when, and where” guardrails within which the organization as a whole and individual teams will operate based on the work that needs to get done.

Stage 2 – Operate: Actively plan and coordinate the work, day-to-day, within those flexible operating guardrails.

Stage 3 – Review and Recalibrate: Evolve the guardrails and flexible way of operating as realities and needs change. Because flexibility is never “done.” It’s a continuous loop of improvement and innovation.

More on the role of the office and occupancy rates

Just as work has as fundamentally changed since the start of the pandemic, so has the role of the office. This was a topic I explored with Ryan Anderson, VP Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll on a recent “Looking Forward” podcast episode (link includes audio and transcript links). Give it a listen or a read if you haven’t yet.

Understandably so, there’s a lot of interest in office occupancy data. But we must remember, pre-pandemic office occupancy was not 100%. Check out my twitter feed for this interesting exchange as Nick Bloom and I try to understand the 100% occupancy on the ‘Y” axis of the often-cited Kastle occupancy barometer:

Our Flex+Strategy Group research found that as far back as nearly a decade ago, one-third of full-time U.S. employees did most of their work from a remote location other than their employers’ office. This aligns with average pre-COVID occupancy rates that ranged between 60%-70% (we have confirmed this pre-pandemic rate with reputable commercial real estate sources).

While occupancy data is important and helpful, if organizations continue to look to it as a scorecard of who’s winning and losing the RTO tug of war, they’ll remain stuck where they are – trying to force an outdated work style that was disappearing even before the pandemic and is no longer valued or understood by most employees.

Hopefully, now that there’s more clarity about the “where” we work, we can focus on:

  • What it will take to work (and live) across workplaces, space AND time successfully and flexibly, and
  • How to make it a win for the business and employees?

The good news is there is answer, and it lies beyond “where.”

Boards Can’t Ignore the Lure of a Flexible Workplace

“Boards can’t ignore the lure of a flexible workplace.”  That’s the headline of an article I authored in the latest issue of Directors & Boards, a quarterly journal dedicated to the topics of leadership and corporate governance.

The article’s publication is an important milestone in the evolution of work flexibility from an optional “nice to have” HR perk or program, to an operational necessity especially with the economy at full employment.  It demonstrates that building a flexible work culture is now recognized as a critical business issue from the boardroom to the break room.

Leaders at all levels, including the board, need to position their organizations to strategically leverage flexibility in how, when and where work is done to creatively compete for talent on multiple fronts, including:

  • Attracting and retaining millennials who routinely rank work flexibility at the top of their employment wish list
  • Accessing talent based on skills not on geographic proximity to an onsite office
  • Keeping valuable baby boomer employees who don’t necessarily want to retire, but don’t want to work full-time either
  • Tapping into the growing pool of on-demand, project-based talent and integrate them into a cohesive flexible work team alongside full-time employees who are also able to work flexibly, and
  • Improving gender diversity in the leadership pipeline.

Companies can’t afford a headline-grabbing misstep, like IBM and the former Yahoo, and they can’t continue the traditional policy and program-based approach to flexible work.

Organizations need to dedicate the resources required — time, people and money –for an enterprise-wide culture shift that makes flexibility in how, when and where work is done real and meaningful.  As noted in the article, board members and directors need to:

“…educate themselves about why a flexible work strategy matters to people and the bottom line; step in and push management to embrace a culture-based approach to flexible work; and rein executives in when they are about to make ill-informed moves related to work flexibility.”

If they don’t, they risk unnecessarily limiting the pool from which they can draw top talent today and they won’t be positioned to respond when an inevitable economic downturn occurs.  Culture-based work flexibility allows an organization to creatively scale up and skinny down how, when and where people work based on the current economic climate.

Today the issue is how many people do we have to do the job, but at some point, the focus will shift to how we get the work done in a more efficient, streamlined way.  A strategic approach to work flexibility will help companies make that pivot. This is why Boards can no longer ignore the strategic lure of work flexibility.

What about your organization’s Board?

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