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Forget Floor Spacing, CRE Offices Will Lose Employees Post-Pandemic Without A Welcoming Culture

A year of working remotely in commercial real estate has highlighted the issue of mental health and cultural safety for the sector's employees, particularly those who battled toxic office environments before the coronavirus pandemic


"CRE had cultural and political issues in the workplace long before the pandemic," said Maria Sicola, who previously sued Cushman & Wakefield for gender and age discrimination after her three-decade career within the brokerage space ended abruptly while she was in her 60s.

Sicola, who plays an active role in following issues impacting women and professionals in CRE, said the pandemic pulled the final Band-Aid off a toxic brokerage culture that many workers were forced to put up with for years.

And now, with more employees working successfully from home, forcing certain workers to return to a physical office will require a stronger commitment from brokerages to create congenial, nondiscriminatory and psychologically safe workspaces, she said.

Sicola said this past year has already brought an uptick in the hiring of diversity and inclusion officers, but the industry still has a ways to go. 

"As with many other trends in commercial real estate, the pandemic really brought into focus the urgent need for transformative change in the industry," Sicola said.

Sicola, who works on the Commercial Real Estate Women's Research Committee, said one of the group's recent surveys show signs of CRE women balking at the idea of having to go back into an office five days a week. 

"There has been a great deal of concern expressed, particularly by and about women, not returning to the workforce after the pandemic," she said. "A number of issues are driving this. Women and younger workers who have been able to achieve a greater work/life balance during the pandemic are unlikely to return to the office."

One such woman is an urban planner in the South Texas area who asked not to be named. She previously liked the idea of working in a physical office, but she found working from home a relief when her employer refused to do away with a drab and depressing cubicle environment.

The urban planner and other colleagues pushed for beanbags on the floor, a more collaborative open environment and access to windows while working on-site prior to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Without considering their input, the company's managers decided there was no need to give up cubicles, which the woman saw as disinterest in aiming for a more collaborative culture. Because of their failure to recognize what rank-and-file employees wanted, she now has little desire to return to her office after the pandemic is over unless she's allowed access to coworking space closer to her home. 

"It was one of those things where I was just so disheartened by it," the urban planner told Bisnow. "I thought this could finally be a chance for not just [a new] office design, but I thought it was also reflective of how they were shutting down a culture shift too. To me, those things are tied up in a similar discussion, so I am dreading going back because we had this big missed opportunity."

CRE Recruiting founder Allison Weiss said she's advising brokerages and CRE firms that want employees to return to the office this year to begin thinking about how well their office environments take into account not just the physical needs of employees, but their mental health as well. 

The time is now for self-reflection and improvement, Weiss said. Her firm is already fielding job searching activity from employees who are not happy with how their firms handled the pandemic or work-from-home and from those who don't see a flexible work environment in their future.

Like Sicola, Weiss agrees CRE workers working remotely for more than a year will not take kindly to returning to environments that have failed to end workplace toxicity, whether that be as simple as red tape, petty office politics or more serious instances of lack of inclusion, harassment or bullying. 

"I have definitely heard that," Weiss told Bisnow. "Those are the parts of the job that I think tend to exhaust and overwhelm and distract people. There are a lot of people who I hear from now that say, I am just not ready to go back, and I am not ready to confront some of the things that I used to have to deal with, or I am not ready to see this person."


Angelique Hamilton, founder and chief coaching officer at HR Chique Group, said most of her conversations with employers are about how they can communicate workplace safety and quell anxiety in the wake of a pandemic. But, she said, none of that matters if the overall office culture is still broken.

"The key component for the employee wanting to return is the culture," Hamilton said. "If there are concerns where they felt they were bullied, or there was a hostile work environment, that needs to be investigated immediately. The goal is not to have someone isolated or feeling siloed. If that has been an issue as a company, I would encourage that team to dig deep down with their team members and to see what has transpired prior to Covid, so that can be resolved prior to those employees returning to the office."

Deniz Caglar, a principal for organization and workforce strategy at PwC US, said while his discussions on the employer side of the market have not highlighted a concern about toxic work environments, he said a recent survey of workers by PwC found one of returning employees' top concerns is commuting, which can take multiple hours out of a day, hours that could be divided between work and personal life and care. They also don't miss commuting expenses like parking, gasoline and clothing expenses tied to working in an office. 

"The third thing they came up with was avoiding distractions in the office," Caglar said. 

Caglar said in PwC's survey, distractions mostly relate to office interruptions or petty annoyances on the job, but he said workplace culture can become a distraction in itself. 

"I suspect a good portion of that distraction is probably, what you are pointing out, that when people are in person, tensions do arise. When people are in our faces all of the time, inevitably some friction will pop up," Caglar noted. 

A whopping 68% of employees interviewed by PwC said they want to work remotely three days a week or more even after the pandemic is over. 

Caglar, Hamilton and Weiss are already advising employers, particularly those in CRE working with Weiss, to conduct in-depth surveys with employees to document how well they worked from home, what stresses them about returning to the office and what do they expect in terms of future remote opportunities and workplace flexibility. 

They also should be asked specific questions about workplace culture to see if changes need to be made prior to bringing everyone back to the office, Weiss said. 

"As long as you give people an outlet, and you take their information into account, you can then sort of say based on what we heard, here are some themes, here are some things we are working on as a company, and these are the things we are going to make priorities," Weiss said. 

But without that level of introspection, employees like the anonymous urban planner say they are out for good once a better opportunity comes along. 

"I have loved not working in a really drab cubicle environment, which is a design issue, but it shows a lot of other issues come into play when you are there," she said. "Culturally, it has just been a really hard place to get used to."