Regardless of vaccines and the impotence or otherwise of Omicron, it’s hard to imagine that those of us who self identify as ‘knowledge workers’ we are ever going back to fully in-office-commuting-to-work.
Considering this I think there are three areas of challenge and opportunity to build, develop and maintain teams in a hybridised world?
While some roles and organisations may be able to go fully remote, there’s still value in some degree of physical interaction for most of us. Until Meta achieves the vision of an almost seamless virtual existence as described in Snow Crash, we’re still going to want to share physical space with colleagues. I wanted to consider three of the most valuable opportunities; when we onboard staff members, when we go ‘off-site’ and when we bring our teams and clients into our offices.
Supercharging the employee onboarding experience
In recent interviews, SalesForce CEO, Marc Benioff has been talking about his plans to buy a dude ranch (that’s a cattle station in Australia or a farm in the UK that’s been converted to tourism). His plan is to build a resort for onboarding new employees as well as running team building activities. He’s been citing the example of Crotonville, GE’s management training campus they build in 1953 on 59 acres of land north of New York City which they still operate today.
We had a similar facility when I was at Ogilvy, although in typical David Ogilvy style it was a French chateau in the Loire Valley. Chateau de Touffou was used to run client workshops, staff training programs and company retreats and as far as I know still is. While the bean counters at WPP are no doubt keen to get the 12th century castle off their books, it might just come into its own as a focal point for an increasingly fragmented network of knowledge workers and creatives in the world of hybrid working.
While it’s always possible to rent a facility for these kinds of events, at a certain scale it becomes economically viable to own the property. (hello Liz Taylor – I know what you’ve been building over at Camp Wandawenga – the ultimate corporate retreat location!)
And as Benioff makes the point when comparing his vision to Disney’s, it also enables for a full brand emersion;
“What they’ve done so successfully with their parks is you show up at a Disney park and you smell Disney, you see Disney, you feel Disney, you hear Disney. That’s what I want my new employees to feel for Salesforce. That’s the culture coming through.”
Re-imaging the office and bacon
If expressing that culture in physical form is important for high-touch points like onboarding and kickoffs for employees, then the same is also true for them during the regular working year, and for customers and clients. This is where I think we’re going to see the evolution of the office from a place to work to being a place to experience the culture and brand of a company.
There is a similar shift happening in retail. I worked with Burberry a few years ago on their social media strategy as they invested heavily in their in-store experiences, including turning their Regent Street store in London into an immersive brand experience including pop-up restaurants, a gallery and cinema. Always a leader in these areas, this kind of shop-as-brand experience is now spreading to a wider set of retailers.
As with all things, the pandemic has accelerated this, boosting digital sales. Bain consulting estimates luxury sales have gone from 12% online in 2019 to 23% in 2020 https://www.bain.com/insights/the-future-of-luxury-bouncing-back-from-covid-19/ . As a result luxury retailers are responding by rethinking their physical footprint. Quoted in ‘Re-engineering Retail (FT Weekend Subscription needed) Eleonore de Boysson of LVMH explained their strategy for luxury department store Samartine in Paris “We do have to offer something other than just product – we need to give the client a real experience, which goes far beyond shopping.” Selfridges MD Andrew Kieth expressed a similar point of view “We want people to have such a fantastic time at Selfridges that they come back..physically or online, it’s about making sure they value the relationship and enjoy the discovery.”
If retailers, whose customer ARPU is measured in the hundreds of thousands are making that commitment, what of consultants and SaaS companies whose average customer revenue is measured in the hundreds of thousands or even millions?
Will offices look more like versions of Soho House, offering a range of enjoyable ways to engage with client services teams and other clients? Or will they encourage learning and development with features like the Genius Bars and lecture theatres of Apple’s flagship stores?
PP (pre-pandemic) I visited the Facebook offices in Rathbone Square. Being a company from the future they already embraced the concept of office as brand experience with a photo booth on steroids for Instagramming, a candy bar, multiple restaurants and cafes, and 3 types of bacon reflecting their internationalism; crispy strips, back bacon and the combo rasher varieties favoured by Americans, Canadians and Brits, respectively.
If we only bring our teams and clients into the office on specific and special occasions, what will we need to do to ensure they come away with a lasting and positive impression of the company’s culture, values and brand proposition? What does the company brand look like architecturally? How is it reflected experientially? What kinds of bacon will we have?
Making Off-sites Great Again
The final area of hybrid impact is one of my favourites; the Offsite.
I have long been a champion of Making OffSites Great Again. See earlier post here. If this is going to be one of the few times we get our teams together, then they are going to have to be significant cultural touch-points. No longer can these be back-to-back briefings from Nigel in sales in airless Radissons on the outer ring road of an airport.
As with the hybrid office, the hybrid offsite is going to have to work a lot harder to impart the company’s values, to build team connections and make a lasting impression that can get us from one quarter to the next.
They will need to be longer, they will need to be valuable (for both company and employee) and they will need to be enjoyable. Especially now that as we now have our routines so closely bound up in our domestic routines; breaking them is going to have to be worth it.
I’m excited about this evolution. In my experience, the bigger the company the harder it is to maintain culture and communications. This new barrier of remote working is an opportunity for multi national / multi site organisations to rethink these key employee touch-points and possibly to make up for the sins of the past. And to buy castles!