Many aspects of life are on pause, but cultural change at work is on fast-forward. Gerard Corcoran, CEO of Hassell, urges us to take the opportunity to rethink the workplace for everyone’s benefit after COVID-19.

Countless column inches were already devoted to the ‘future of work’ before the awful catalyst of COVID-19 turned the preoccupations of design and strategy firms into regular conversation pieces for a much wider audience.

When will we return to the office? Do we even need offices anymore? Assuming we do, what’s the role of the office? How can we hold onto what we’ve learnt from this grand experiment in remote working? Are we more or less productive? More or less connected to our colleagues? More or less balanced between our personal lives and work? What does this mean for architectural practices?

Whatever your position on these questions, it seems to me that we will need to work explicitly and persistently to carry forward hard-earned benefits and add in ever-new initiatives, while also making deliberate choices about the aspects of the workplace we no longer need or want.

Human nature and habit are powerful forces that create inertia. The idea that different approaches to working will simply make their way into our working DNA because of their obvious ‘desirability’ is idealistic, to say the least. Leaders will need to be clear, engaging, agile, open and compelling to make these new approaches part of the culture. Listening – and then acting – will be vital.

At Hassell we’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of organisations of all shapes and sizes, worldwide, to design more than three million square metres of workplace. Through that work we’ve seen increasingly rapid changes stem from big issues like globalisation, digitisation, the growing urgency to address sustainability, and fundamental shifts in what employees expect.

But the pace of change over the past few months has been remarkable. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella cited just one example of this when he said the company had seen two years of digital transformation in just two months.

In our series of recent workplace forums with clients in Australia, that sentiment echoed across the Zoom room. Shaken from the normal pace of organisational change, many leading companies said they were already starting to think well beyond the practicalities of returning to work to use this opportunity to stretch their goals even further. Discussion in those forums centred not just on spatial, organisational or performance concerns but genuine cultural change. Architects are well placed to help our clients explore these new workplace futures, but the profession should also look inwards, and take the opportunity to remake and reshape our own offices and work cultures.

What do leading organisations think – and how are they responding?

Amid these remarkable circumstances we’ve conducted a stocktake of our lives, our values and our environment and reconsidered what works, what doesn’t, what we care most about, and what we have the power to change.

And there’s a new level of honesty about all of this. As Dominic Price, Work Futurist at Atlassian, put it, “Already, we feel less pressure to present a brave face when we’re feeling anxious or sad. I think that will follow us back to the office. Because being real is healthy. It even feels good!”

I think this honesty and the trust it engenders has powerful potential. It could move along stubborn conversations and lead to real gains in workplace satisfaction overall – as well as some specific practical shifts that could positively impact gender equality in the workplace.

Before COVID-19, boundaries between work, life, learning and play were already blurring, with work encroaching on private time. Post-COVID, this will perhaps become more of a two-way street, with employees expecting to maintain the balance and health and wellbeing benefits of working from home when they return to the office. In particular, this is likely to end the idea of fixed workplace attendance or ‘presenteeism’ as a way of measuring productivity.

At the very least, the crisis has helped prove the case for greater flexibility in how, when and where we work. Some of our clients have noted that prolonged working from home periods could have long-term effects on workplace equality. They saw ‘enforced flexibility’ as a passive way to address some gender disparities in the workplace. Some also raised concern for younger workers who were more likely to be working from shared housing and missing out on formal and inadvertent mentoring at work.

From my perspective, this global moment of pause is an ideal opportunity for organisations to use what they’ve learned during the crisis to increase employee engagement, think more creatively and unlock further growth. In our firm, we’re having conversations about what we want to start, stop and continue based on our experiences in 2020.

And it’s worth noting that employees are watching all this closely. According to LinkedIn’s list of the top start-ups in 2020, the organisations in greatest demand are the ones that appear to have handled this crisis well.

Post-pandemic workplace change requires a strong sense of purpose.

So, how can organisations make sense of such pervasive disruption? For me, the critical starting point is looking at your core purpose – and then working outward, in a clear and sustained way.

At Hassell, the pandemic followed hot on the heels of the launch of our new brand – the culmination of years of strategy work designed to prepare our practice for the next 80 years.

Through this process, we more clearly defined our promise to our clients and communities around four pillars: insight, creativity, inclusion and accountability. We also have a defined target culture that nurtures ambition and purposeful learning and ensures everyone cares about one another and the work we do together. Like most organisations, it’s important that we harness what we’ve learned through this COVID-19 period so we can accelerate progress on key goals linking back to our purpose and aligning with our culture. We need to adopt positive aspects of our experience during the crisis to support our work on those goals.

Overall, our trajectory is moving in the right direction even though our efforts are imperfect and inconsistent, and a key learning for any organisation looking to develop its culture in unprecedented circumstances is to keep its finger on the pulse and to make sure everyone has a ‘seat at the table’ to rethink how to collectively work in the future. Initiatives like ‘Listen and Learn’ sessions across our practice and extra employee engagement surveys for the year help us get a deeper understanding of how to meet the changing needs and expectations of our people.

One thing is certain: COVID-19 has shown the importance of moving more quickly and decisively. We have to keep learning from our mistakes and failures if we’re going to make faster, greater progress on critical cultural issues.

Finally, I believe one of the most important challenges will be to chart a course through the interplay between more flexibility, agility and the ability to work ‘at distance’ or in some decentralised model on the one hand, and the needs of an organisation and culture to bring people together in a purposeful and focused way on the other. Ultimately, we need to ensure that the workplace meets a range of deep social and personal psychological needs.

Gerard Corcoran is the Chief Executive Officer of Hassell, a leading international design practice with studios in Australia, UK, China, the US, Singapore and Hong Kong. Hassell works globally across a range of markets, including urban design, cultural and civic buildings, transport, education, health, hospitality, sport and entertainment, and residential.