Outside Consultant: What Is the Best Way to Think About Office Space and the Way We Work?

This "Outside Consultant" column by Rod Hagedorn, adjunct faculty member at the Opus College of Business ran in the Star Tribune on Oct. 18, 2021.

Think in terms of what the drivers of change are that we have all been dealing with. The pandemic has taught all of us the need for agility in terms of business operations. The pandemic has shown us that there are other environmental challenges we are facing that require us to be nimble now more than ever before.

If you have a huge 200,000-square-foot office space, you are spending a lot of money on rent. Half of the time that office is empty. That doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. At the same time, you want to have that agility for people to potentially work from wherever they need to work. The organizations that were not able to adapt and not able to switch to remote forms of working quickly are the ones that really struggled during the pandemic. The ones who were able to switch over to remote work came through the pandemic just fine.

Recent surveys indicate that most employers would prefer to have their employees come back to the office full time, but we are balancing that against a tight labor market. It is becoming more difficult to find talented professionals. Employers are going to have to find a balance between requiring people to come back to the office and taking into consideration the cost of having a huge office space that’s potentially empty part of the time. The best solution is somewhere in the middle, having a space where people could go to meet centrally, but giving employees the opportunity to work remotely.

We know that there are certain activities that are better done in person. For example, innovation and creative problem-solving. The best way to come up with innovative solutions and creative problem-solving is the old-fashioned way: in the office with colleagues. It's because of the dynamic. We need that presence, people around us. We need to be able to sense what someone is feeling or see what their reactions are. You can't really get that on a Zoom meeting.

Companies who have agreed to a hybrid relationship want people in the office for things like brainstorming, ideation and problem-solving sessions. Routine tasks such as building spreadsheets or doing research can be done anywhere. Certain things require community to maximize the output.

Rod Hagedorn is on faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.