September 4, 2020

7 min read

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Featured image photo source: Unilever HQ – Hefen City, Hamburg, Germany

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Is this the end of the office era? Or a temporary hiatus from HQ? If you believe your people and culture are critical to your brand, you need to figure out the physical space of your business.

Any big brand is a reflection of the culture behind it. But when that culture is fragmented, how does a brand sustain its momentum? A brand is built on people, and when those people no longer come together in a physical space, they’re no longer grounded in the brand. They risk feeling disconnected—even commoditized. Loyalty weakens, leaving fewer brand zealots. Some lose their passion. Others leave.

Yet more big brands—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Visa—are having employees work from home. For some, that means home until 2021. For others, it means home for good.



Can a brand continue to thrive amidst indefinite Teams calls and Zoom meetings?

How do employees put down roots and build trust in an organization when they physically aren’t part of it? When they don’t have the visual cues and nuances that come from body language —the interaction with others, the corporate identity and history of the brands they’ve been entrusted with?

Apple Park (Apple HQ) - Cupertino, CA, USA
Apple Park (Apple HQ) – Cupertino, CA, USA

Think of how some of the world’s most successful brands have been built: by strategic visionaries leading small armies in vast communal facilities, the designs of which date back 80 years. AT&T. General Motors. General Electric. These enormous campuses built in the 1940s and 50s were intended to inspire and engage employees, as well as remind them daily of the importance of their work, and their accomplishments. Today companies like Apple and Microsoft continue the tradition with jaw-dropping, billion-dollar head offices—each a corporate and cultural anchor for the brand behind it.

“When enough people are packed into a finite space, interaction will happen,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in 2012. “And by bringing the university vibe into the workspace, the goal is to encourage an atmosphere of learning and scholarship.”

So have we all done a complete 180 in the past six months? Are these centres of innovation and achievement no longer relevant in our post-covid world? Have we decided, in fact, that the 80-year migration to more open, collaborative spaces—spaces that encourage dialogue, brainstorming, idea-sharing—was all for nought?

Employees, not their offices, are a company’s most important asset. But if employees don’t have the opportunity to come together, discuss, and exchange, how much “company” is there to bind them? Without that solidarity comes not only a general loss of identity, but also a greater potential for turnover, and higher costs stemming from hiring, onboarding, training, and the overall lost productivity that recruitment entails.

There are also the very real challenges of problem-solving: We’ve all experienced the frustration of trying to get information or answers when people are remote. Conversely, we know the satisfaction of sitting around a table, addressing issues, and taking action—or a brief hallway exchange that eliminates the meeting altogether. Done, done, and done.

It’s interesting that millennials and Gen-Zers—both considered vocal proponents of WFH—have revealed in a Harvard Business Review study that they want to belong to a community and be mentored and promoted within it, and further, they know they need to be in the office to reap those benefits. For them it’s not an either-or proposition. It’s flexibility they seek.

Looking beyond the office, all these factors—culture, collaboration, innovation, efficiency—contribute to a positive or negative customer experience. Not only because collaborative, engaged employees provide better service, but also because they’re better brand ambassadors.

Ultimately, it’s not difficult to connect the dots between a unified, headquartered company and the success of its people. And if a company is really all about its brand, people, and culture, then it needs to figure out the physical space of its business.

So how do we do that? How do we continue to promote culture and connection while incorporating social distancing?

We blend technology with new approaches to environmental design, with flexibility at the core of our strategy. Flexibility in purpose, usage, and attendance.

Give people different ways to meet: Use open spaces to allow natural distancing for groups of two and three, and use meeting rooms with video screens to enable employees to dial in from their desks when the groups are bigger.

Use modular designs that can be “rolled back” to open up space, then reassembled to provide workstations when needed. Increase flexibility with agile ownership; provide the opportunity for privacy while maintaining collaboration.

Make larger spaces adaptable to various, different-sized occasions, from town halls to birthday celebrations. Give people the option to attend in person or dial in. Again, allow for distancing, which, along with stepped-up cleaning and disinfection, will continue to be part of the office experience for the foreseeable future.

Providing employees with options should be the first consideration as we rethink corporate HQ. Offer people more ways to work. Make them part of the team, but on their own terms.

Meetings spaces modular furniture.
Meetings spaces modular furniture.
Work areas can be transformed into meetings spaces
Work areas can be transformed into meetings spaces

Work areas (above left) can be transformed into meetings spaces (above right) using modular furniture.

Society’s mass migration to WFH in recent months has been a necessary change in controlling a pandemic. As a long-term strategy, however, companies may be taking “flexible” too far—and in reality, when working from home is the only option, there is no flexibility. While WFH appeals to corporate accountants, it could ultimately cost the brand its identity and loyalty.

The solution lies in evolving the role of head office in a way that balances alignment with autonomy—connection with independence. Smart brands will strive to find that middle ground, knowing that fundamentally, any team works better when its members are truly together.