CRE Opinion

Will A Return to the Office Rebuild Company Culture?

Whitebox Real Estate executive Beth Burke says it's not that easy. Here's why.

As 2021 ramps up and employers are starting to figure out how to navigate an office environment in this new world of precautions and restrictions, I’ve heard and read interviews with C-level executives weighing in on how important office culture is to overall success.

With each new day, I read that managers and executives are eager to return to the workplace because they didn’t realize how much they would “miss the people.” What is meant to be a rallying cry for solidarity comes across to me as an alarm—sounding out a warning that the culture to which they’re returning may not necessarily be a good one.

Based on leaders’ opinions across all industries and corners of the nation, it would seem that this pandemic has eroded company culture. Somehow, a return to the office will magically revive this mythical culture simply because we are all back in the same room. I believe that, to the contrary, our recent challenges have prompted a complete overhaul and rebuilding of office culture by taking the lead from our employees in the cubicles—our support staff.

The majority of my career has been in commercial real estate, usually in a catch-all category considered “support staff.” Through various economies and recessions, like most people, I took on more work as companies strained. Yet as business rebounded, my workload never got lighter.

Beth Burke, Whitebox Real Estate
Beth Burke, Whitebox Real Estate

When I would really start to feel the strain and ask about backfilling support staff, I was consistently told that corporate policy (typically handed down from an HQ in another market, state, or even country) mandates that there is X number of staff allotted for every Y number of producers. This policy doesn’t consider the volume of the producers you support or the type of product they specialize in. It doesn’t even account for contracts individual producers have with their local branch regarding dedicated staff. Staff count is a specific number, regardless of the disproportion in workload or strain to the employee.

Imagine not just feeling like it but actually being told repeatedly that you are just a number.

I don’t think most executives or corporate leadership teams realize that their companies most likely have a subculture that’s not even on their radar—an underground, productive, tangible culture they don’t even know exists.  This is not an initiative-driven culture mandated by executives; it’s an organic collective of people all working to accomplish the same goal.

If I could only share one takeaway from the first 12 years of my career, it’s that the support staff knows a thing or two about collaboration, constructive communication, and culture.  Were we always all best of friends? No. Were we all in it together? Absolutely.

At one firm, the phrase “Operation Pancake” was whispered from one cubicle to another until enough support personnel were gathered to help one of their own complete an impossible task driven by an unrealistic deadline. The bond created by respectful, collaborative work is a surprisingly strong one—if only because everyone knew that someday they would be the one calling out for pancakes as they were drowning in syrup.

Ten years after my last Operation Pancake, one former co-worker and I regularly counsel each other on the most efficient Excel formula and most eye-catching design placement. I’ve also cheered her on as she and her husband try to navigate parenthood. Though less often with COVID ever-looming, I regularly meet old teammates for a catch-up lunch. We trade war stories and talk about the best resorts to stay at on our coveted vacations. I sang at the wedding of one of my fellow comrades years after we had both moved on to different firms.

When leadership says they miss the people, I will venture to guess they actually miss the convenience of office life.

A producer with a good staff supporting them may not realize the things their team automatically takes care of for them daily, simply based on intuition and experience.  The producer may not have realized the cumbersome processes required to create a document or piece of collateral. The people are not missed as individuals; they are missed as crucial machinery.

Savvy executives would positively bring their subcultures to the surface and evaluate how working from home has changed communication and expectations standards. Not having support staff immediately at hand or available to overhear and observe what is happening minute by minute has all but forced managers and producers to change their communication style from a vague verbal explosion to a clear request.

There’s value in this transition, as accountability is created for both sides of the partnership. This is where real trust is built and where companies will thrive. That trust will eventually transition a company’s culture from a buzzword to a living, breathing necessity for success.

After working many years in that strange comfort-fear hybrid of just being a number, I leaped two years ago and joined Whitebox Real Estate. I was immediately stripped of any anonymity I may have had at the big firms by joining a privately held firm just three years old.

Although every accomplishment was celebrated, every failure was also laid bare for all to see. That vulnerability has driven our entire organization to work together as one team. We draw on each other’s experiences, warn one another of potential pitfalls, celebrate the wins, and evaluate the losses.

A positive culture naturally developed because we were all driven to one ultimate goal: success. During the lonely days of working from home, I often had a Zoom window open with one or more people as we went about our business. I chatted every day with my coworkers, either by text or on the phone, just as we would if were together in the office. We brainstormed ideas to push the business forward, discussed pending tasks at hand and what we had for lunch.

The transition from office to home to the office was seamless, as our culture allowed us to thrive in challenging times, rather than strip us of our identity or give us an excuse for failure.

Beth Burke is the director of corporate branding and operations at Whitebox Real Estate. 


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