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The Role of Real Estate in Organizational Culture (Now)

When clean space is more important than cool space, how will it change the workplace? 

By John Jarvis

Public speaking wasn’t my thing. I just didn’t see myself as a talking head, standing on stage, pontificating. So throughout last year and earlier this year I decided to try and improve my on-stage presentation skills with a talk I developed titled “The Role of Real Estate in Organizational Culture.” I have now given this talk to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) and others. At the risk of immodesty, it was a pretty good presentation, and it was really well received.

I talked about the role of environment on company culture. I reminded people that culture is also a verb, from science, where “to culture” means to maintain something in an environment suitable for growth, like a petri dish, or yogurt, (or your employees). I told stories about clients that had gotten a big boost in productivity and morale as a result of great real estate decisions. And in the end, I suggested that there is no single formula for getting your real estate right. I suggested that, rather, it is about each organization getting it right in their own way. Authenticity, in the end, is key. Meaning that if you have a surfboard over your reception desk, I hope it is because one of your Founders surfs.

Then the pandemic hit, and most people stopped going into their office altogether, which leaves me with lots of questions. Like, what is the role of real estate in organizational culture now, when we aren’t even using our spaces? And how will corporate real estate change on the other side of all this?

To be honest, in this moment, there are many things that we just don’t know yet. Like, will companies need more space overall in order to reduce density and crowding? Or will companies need less space overall as a result of work-from-home acceptance for some people, some of the time? And how many companies are simply not going to survive this brutal, overnight economic shock?

There are, however, two things I know. Here is the first–In moments of fear and uncertainty, the character of our leaders is revealed. The culture of any team is laid bare in a crisis. Moment by moment, our true nature is exposed–in how we treat one another, in the decisions we make (and how and why we make them), and in how we respond to the most difficult challenges we face. In this context, our company culture has nothing to do with real estate.

Then what will be the role of real estate in organizational culture as we move forward?

If you think about it, the role of real estate was already undergoing massive change.

When I started in commercial real estate as a broker in 1986, I had to go to the office every day because that’s where my computer was, and my business phone, and the fax machine, and the microfiche (yes, I am that old, and if you don’t know what a microfiche is you can Google it!) and, of course, all of my hard copy property brochures that I used to keep track of available space.

Now? I literally carry all of those things in my pocket.

Which means I don’t need to go into the office in order to be productive.

And if I just want to get out of the house, I can stop by any neighborhood coffee shop and log onto their network. Again, I don’t need to go into the office in order to be productive.

But I do miss the office right now. And what I really mean is that I miss my teammates.

This part is important– we will always need a place where we can come together as a team. For my part, this work-from-home experiment has reminded me that I like people. I like sitting with you while we talk, so I can see you, and so you can see me, and I can smile when you mention your dog. I want to notice if you seem a bit stressed, so I can ask how you’re doing. As good as Zoom may be, there is nothing like being together in person.

So here is the second thing I know–when we do have the opportunity once again to gather together, the space will matter, like it always has. Environment matters. In my talk about real estate and culture, I borrowed from the great writing of James Clear, author of New York Times Bestselling book Atomic Habits, who says environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. He also says that in the long run, and often in the short run, your willpower cannot beat your environment. Environment matters. Clean space, inspiring space, functional space.

In the future, when we can finally gather together again, those gatherings are going to be a heightened experience. A reunion. A rejoicing.

What is the role of real estate in organizational culture now?

In the immortal words of the foremost Talking Head, David Byrne–same as it ever was.

John Jarvis is a senior vice president of Hughes Marino, an award-winning commercial real estate company specializing in tenant representation and building purchases with offices across the nation. Contact John at 1-844-662-6635 or john@hughesmarino.com to learn more.

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