The Evolving Role of Workplace Leaders

What’s ahead for workplace leaders? Density’s Nellie Hayat takes a look at how leadership roles are being redefined. 

Photo by Redd F on Unsplash

The beginning of the pandemic was an uncertain time for everyone and companies felt the need to cut any potential losses quickly. Sadly, today we’re witnessing new hiring freezes from tech giants like Apple, Alphabet, and Meta and new rounds of layoffs from Amazon, Stripe, Lyft and Twitter. Once more the two largest teams impacted due to office closures and hiring freezes are HR professionals and workplace professionals (which includes real estate, facilities, workplace operations, office designers, food staff, cleaning crew, and even shuttle drivers).

I had been in the workplace industry for almost a decade when the pandemic forced companies to close their offices and I noticed that many great leaders and professionals in my network were losing their jobs. So much knowledge, insights, lessons learned, and expertise was being flushed down the drain. But, the pandemic was not the end of the workplace, but rather its renaissance – and the beginning of a redefined leadership role within companies.

What is the role of the Head of Workplace today?

This title emerged nearly two decades ago inside fast-growing companies. The role focused mainly on finding offices and designing offices on a regular basis to accommodate the rapid growth of headcounts. Some Heads of Workplace were more innovative than others and pushed for a modernization of the office with open-floor plans, nap rooms and biophilic design.

However, during the pandemic, designing and building offices was put on hold. And the simple question, ‘do we need offices?’ became controversial. Ultimately, the questions raised over the last two years have revealed that workplace strategy does not work in a silo, and needs to be aligned with company culture, vision, overall business strategy, diversity and inclusion goals, and sustainability goals in order to be a ROI center.

…Workplace strategy does not work in a silo…

This new paradigm has forced the workplace department to move away from reporting to the CFO. Workplace is not seen as just generating cost anymore. Instead, it can amplify the ability to foster culture, a sense of belonging, and attract and retain talent. We’ve seen a rise of companies merging the workplace team with HR. And it makes more sense. Workforce and workplace investments are offering the biggest ROI to businesses. There’s no need to say that a company is nothing without its employees, but data has shown that employees need a place (or more accurately, an array of many, diverse places) from which to work, values to align with, tools to collaborate across time zones, and a global mission to ascribe to. Heads of Workplace today have a role in shaping all of these key elements within their companies.

A more data-powered approach to workplace

One of the challenges Heads of Workplace and People leaders face together is balancing the needs of employees with those of the business and its shareholders.

Strategically leveraging data has been key to reducing the disconnect between employers and employees. Heads of Workplace now can tell a story about the health of the company and the success of their actions by measuring four key metrics:

  • Engagement score – how do employees feel about the culture of the company and how often do they engage with the internal community?
  • Accessibility – do people have access to places, tools and tech they need to work efficiently?
  • Equity – do employees feel like their work is valued whether they work from home, a coworking space or the office?
  • Responsibility – do employees feel like the workplace team is making progress decisions regarding designing for mental health, professional development, diversity and sustainability?

Workplace leaders can’t do it all

Today, employees have a totally different relationship with their work and their place of work and countless studies have shown that employees, especially Gen Z, are asking for more equity, authenticity, transparency and intentionality. Heads of Workplace cannot cover these areas alone and the renaissance of the workplace will be dependent on the company’s willingness to change or adapt to the changes or else it will fail.

I applaud companies like Twitter, Atlassian and Okta who created new teams called “new ways of working”, “dynamic work” or “workplace journeys” and are studying employees’ behaviors and trends in order to create spaces that are aligned with these changes.

Heads of Workplace cannot cover these areas alone and the renaissance of the workplace will be dependent on the company’s willingness to change or adapt to the changes or else it will fail.

But for all the other companies, the forced remote experiment or the move to a hybrid model without proper strategy and resources has led to a lack of equity, middle-manager burnout, low engagement, and high employee turnover. Heads of Workplace are reporting feeling helpless in front of these challenges due to a limited number of staff.

In order to see employees even coming back to the office, companies need to empower their workplace leaders with new partners focused on the following areas:

  • Digital work experience
  • Culture, purpose and off-sites
  • Career development opportunities
  • Wellbeing

With these new partners, Heads of Workplace can now achieve designing inclusive, engaging and equitable work environments, and attracting and retaining talent.

A new role for a new way of working

The workplace now lives beyond the walls of the office and employees have more choice than ever but employees are also looking for belonging, mentorship and purpose. The role of Head of Workplace is more critical today than ever as the workplace, or rather the integrated network of multiple places, will be seen as a place to connect and belong, a refuge from distractions and the platform to which employees witness their contributions in the world. Companies will need to back up their workplace leaders with more resources, empowerment and the freedom to evolve if they want to remain agile and resilient in a world that keeps on changing.

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