Written by Fran Ferrone, Senior Associate

I was late getting to the office. Not literally – but because for the first dozen or so years of my working life I was “on the road”.  I was an actress long before becoming a workplace consultant, and as such my “office” was a bus, train, plane, hotel room, dressing room, stage. Despite – or perhaps because of – the transitory nature of the work, my fellow actors and I shared a sense of community, equity and autonomy. 

So, in changing careers years later to find myself in a static environment, I didn’t know what to make of the “traditional office”. Having been bred to know my lines and avoid bumping into the furniture, the fuss about the size of a cubicle or who got an office was lost on me at first. 

In trying to adapt, I thought back to how important it was for me to create my own sense of place when I was on the road. How decorating the back of the tour bus seat in front of me, moving hotel furniture around, taping mementos to my dressing room mirror, all helped me understand that no matter where you are, certain “amenities” make us feel safe, welcome, and at ease so we can do our best work. Too, in recalling the ways my fellow thespians made themselves at home on the road, I knew that because that meant different things to different people, one size did not fit all. Before long, I was thinking that the office could stand to change it up a bit; could use some of the serendipity I’d experienced on the road. 

While I’d asked for serendipity, what we got by the 90’s was sea change – mostly imposed vs. organic – changes swept the office like a tidal wave. Some welcome – technology that untethered us from our desks and eventually, even our offices and global markets that created new opportunities. Some not so much – mergers and acquisitions, market crashes, super-storms, pandemics – putting us into a constant state of uncertainty as we realized that welcome or not, change was inevitable and here to stay. Adaptability became essential to survival, not to mention success. 

I admit to having a somewhat easier time of it. Having initially chosen a non-conventional career, my perspective of and expectations for my place of work had always been different. Yet I empathized with those who joined the corporate world straight out of college – or with some learned expectation of workplace management, office centricity and uniformity. For them the past 20 years has been a roller coaster of adapting to a workplace that must keep congruent with ever-changing business realities.  

We’ve learned this past pandemic year – as we’ve gone our separate ways to create individual places of work only to come together virtually – that the workplace, and indeed workplace strategy is becoming more complex, ephemeral, bespoke. Ironically, in some ways the pandemic has given us more agency to create our own sense of place as people have now worked out that there is a different way to organize and manage. Hopefully, some of these changes will carry forward as we venture back to the office. And venture back in some way we will, mostly because we miss the people and require that physical collaboration and social cohesion. 

Still, we will want to maintain some sense of autonomy as to our choice of place, whether a destination of our choosing or a designation. And just like my long-ago life on the road, I expect it won’t be the same for all. Open and honest conversations need to be had between employees and employers, to create working agreements that embrace all ways of working and take into consideration people’s needs and aspirations (you can read more on this in our latest report – ‘A New Deal’).

All this creates new challenges for our senior leaders, and a tacit responsibility to not only adapt, but redirect the course of their operations and management styles in a way that allows us our individual sense of place and means of worker productivity as we work toward a common corporate goal.     

If you’re tasked with navigating this pathway of change and creating a “new normal” for your organization’s people, why not join us for part three and four of our AWA People Series – a series of live webinars that will share the latest lessons and insights from global business and HR leaders around the world.

There’s a time and a place for change… the time is NOW, the place is… anywhere.  All you need to do is find yours.