Workplace leadership needed to ‘earn the commute’

Hybrid is here to stay but the problem now is that there are no rules. Everyone fakes it and leadership is required.

6 Parramatta Square (6PSQ) workplace interiors fitout by Woods Bagot.

Strong yet empathetic leadership is needed to get back people into the office, according to global architecture practice Woods Bagot.

Head of Workplace at Woods Bagot Amanda Stanaway says hybrid work is entrenched after three years of COVID-19 workplace disruption, but many businesses still have no firm rules on the home/office split.

Or if there are rules, they are frequently not enforced. Staff rather than management are choosing the number of days they come into the office every week.

This is eroding company culture, she says, which can’t be sustained if large chunks of the workforce are regularly absent.

“Hybrid is here to stay but the problem now is that there are no rules. Everyone fakes it and leadership is required,” says Stanaway.

This could be simple as business leaders talking about their company’s approach to workplace strategy and what they have done to “earn the commute” and attract staff back.

But many large employers are choosing to stay quiet and keep their learnings inhouse as they work their way through uncertain times rather than being open about their experiences.

“No major company has made a move and actually shouted about it – ‘hey we’ve made an office of the future that embraces hybrid, has better technology and is absolutely amazing’.”

Bronwyn McColl, who leads Woods Bagot’s workplace team in Melbourne, says the “big thing is you can’t fake culture” which is often the difference between getting people back to the office or them staying home.

“Businesses are now realising they actually have to deliver on culture. It just can’t be a value proposition on a website and that’ll get everyone back in,” says McColl.

“If you really do have strong culture and it’s present, people want to be a part of it, that infectious piece that people then want to be involved with.

“That gets back to leadership.”

She says it’s key for company leaders listen to staff.

“If they’re not coming in why not? What’s working, what’s not working, what do they need from a workplace? And it might not be the stuff that we all think it is,” McColl says.

“Good leadership is listening to your people and understanding what their needs are.”

Hybrid is here to stay but the problem now is that there are no rules. Everyone fakes it and leadership is required.

Amanda Stanaway, Principal & Global Leader – Workplace Interiors, Woods Bagot

The other big issue confronting the workplace sector is excess office space post-COVID-19 due to hybrid work compounded by significant staff cuts at leading tech companies including Facebook (Meta), Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter.

“Some of these big companies are getting rid of 30 to 40 per cent of their portfolio but they’re doing it really quietly,” says Stanaway.

“We’re better off dealing with the truth than hiding it under a rug and not talking about it.”

Stanaway says the most widespread and pressing issue for numerous businesses is managing staff – where they work and when.

Even those that have implemented guidelines on office/home split, are reluctant to pressure their employees to comply for fear of losi­­­ng them in a tight labour market.

Others, however, have benefitted from being more decisive by pressing ahead with a fresh workplace approach supported by a new office designed for the times.

A case in point is M&C Saatchi Group, which recently unveiled its new headquarters at 99 Macquarie Street, Sydney, a space that “reshapes and reconnects” its entire business.

The new creative hub brings together, for the first time, M&C Saatchi Group’s collective of specialist agencies in a space designed by Woods Bagot for collaboration and creativity.

“The M&C Saatchi Group is all about realising the big ambitions of our clients, our people and the industry we are a part of,” says Justin Graham, CEO of M&C Saatchi Group AUNZ.

Graham says the new office “allows us to inspire, create and collaborate in a cutting-edge environment.

“It is a critical step forward as the business evolves.”

The hub is designed for hybrid working with multiple collaboration spaces as well as a library for quiet time across 3000 sqm over three floors in Transport House.

Stanaway from Woods Bagot says the M&C Saatchi Group office redesign embodies two of the primary post-pandemic workplace trends.

“The flight to quality is also a flight to character,” she says.

6PSQ offices designed by Woods Bagot for the NSW Government.

6PSQ Workplace fit-out

On a much larger scale, the NSW Government has brought together around 10,000 government workers from multiple departments at a “future focused workplace” in western Sydney designed by Woods Bagot.

The workplace hub encompasses 109,000 sqm of connected workspace – 15 levels of 6 Parramatta Square and all 33 floors of the adjoining tower at 4 Parramatta Square.

Stace Fishwick, Executive Director Commercial Development and Management at Property and Development NSW, said the completion of 6 Parramatta Square in mid-2022 caps a “significant revolution” for the government

“The tower at 6 Parramatta Square successfully adapted to a changing world,” Fishwick says.

“It was designed during the pandemic and demonstrated in real time that well designed spaces can flexibly respond and adapt to changing tenant and user requirements.

“The strong sustainable design reinforces the government’s approach to bringing people together into workplace hubs, creating efficiencies and reducing our environmental footprint, while still creating quality spaces that cater to all types of workers with a variety of work settings and a consistent user journey.”

Stanaway says contrary to prevailing wisdom, the role of traditional, physical offices has never been more important, providing a central collaboration space and cultural touchstone.

“Like most of our clients, the NSW Government continues to evolve how they curate their workforce, elevating the role the physical office plays in enabling culture, connection, and collaboration,” says Stanaway.

In conclusion, Stanaway and McColl stress that excellent design is only one element of a vibrant workplace and must always be underpinned by a strong corporate culture and effective leadership, now very much under the spotlight.