Can Employers Use Real Estate to Attract Talent & Solve Labor Problems?

Right now, it’s really hard to attract and retain quality employee talent, and employers are shouldering the brunt of the market's dislocation. There are more job openings than unemployed persons, and employees are leaving more traditional work environments for flexible options faster than employers can backfill them. And as a result, the employees who stick around feel the pain through longer hours and an increased workload.

We could speculate why that’s the case – changing lifestyle habits, government assistance, or evolving workplace strategy. The answer is probably some combination of the three, but that doesn't change the reality that every business faces the same challenges.

As an employer, you can grumble about unemployment assistance, inflation, and rising wage requirements until you're blue in the face; they’re an easy scapegoat. But there’s nothing you can do about it, and in this "new normal," you need to be able to pivot and compete with the firms that have access to resources you may not. So instead of complaining, we’re going to shift our focus to what you can control.

It used to be that creating an environment where employees wanted to work was a relatively straightforward formula. Assuming you had a decent Glassdoor rating and positive workplace culture - a combination of clean and modern space, supplemented by attractive aesthetic features, and gathering and collaboration areas would often do the trick.

But today, creating an inviting and productive workspace is more than beanbag chairs and a foosball table. And free childcare and Silicon Valley esque lifestyle campuses are neither appropriate nor realistic in many cases.

But there are ways that employers can inexpensively and effectively leverage their real estate to create an environment that supports employee attraction and retention. Let’s look at it from a couple of different angles.  

 

Solving the labor attraction problem

Finding and attracting quality talent isn’t some new challenge, although the most recent government market interventions of 2020/21 have certainly exacerbated the problem.

Generational differences in the workplace have posed problematic for years – employers have always had to figure out how to cater to multiple competing generational personalities and requirements - Gen X’ers want one thing while Gen Z’ers want something entirely different. But these generational gaps are primarily cultural, and there's no straightforward solution to pleasing everyone.

But then you add COVID to the mix, shutdowns, and hybrid work schedules, and suddenly as an employer, you have way too many personalities and priorities to cater to.

There are ways, however, to adapt and implement your real estate to help attract higher-quality talent. Because if you can't offer remote work and don't have an endless supply of cash to out-pay your competitors, the physical workspace will play a pivotal role in courting employees.

These solutions shouldn’t be vapid or superficial, but they shouldn't break the bank either. So let's discuss a couple of ways to attract labor more effectively through your real estate.

 

Foster personalization

Don’t conflate personalization with eccentric. An overly eccentric office design can be counterproductive when it detracts from the workplace aesthetic or it’s distracting and unprofessional. But, conversely, if you think allowing your employees the freedom to tack up a couple of personal photos in their cubical is personalization, that’s wrong too.

Workplace personalization should serve as an extension of your corporate culture. That includes elements that will help increase workforce productivity, two-way communication, and create an environment where your employees want to show up to work.

Encourage employee input on ways to personalize the office using real estate, whether design or appearance modifications. If you don’t have an extensive budget for renovations or space up-fit, offer employees a small stipend to help personalize their space. Create a workplace culture conducive to attracting and retaining quality talent. The average American spends nearly 100,000 hours working over their lifetime, and with greater than ever professional flexibility, employees have more power than ever.

And if you can’t afford to offer a stipend, encourage employees to get creative with their own personal effects, from soundproofing to office reconfiguration, within moderation. Cube farms are a thing of the past, and if you can’t compete with your competitors on salary or remote work flexibility, you need another competitive advantage.

 

Space updates

No one likes working in a dingy, poorly lit warehouse space or a cube farm that looks like it was plucked out of Office Space.

If you genuinely champion attracting quality employees, a marginally higher salary or quality workplace culture will only get you so far - you need to invest time and consideration into modernizing the workplace.

Space updates can range from inexpensive to cost-prohibitive, but small businesses often use price as a scapegoat without considering the options. Real estate that’s old doesn’t need to be outdated or dysfunctional. Even if you're stuck in a lease or can't afford to develop a property, there are options.

Quality workplace designs leave a lasting impression. They’re an embodiment of your organization’s culture and values and help to communicate your brand to both candidates and current employees.

An office renovation or new furniture are a couple of obvious space updates, but did you know that incorporating natural light is an excellent way to increase employee productivity and enhance the architecture in even outdated spaces.

Additionally, integrating updated technology and collaboration tools is powerful from both a productivity and labor attraction standpoint. They send a signal to employees that your organization is agile and focused on future growth.

And as Baby Boomers begin to phase out of the workforce, Millennials and Gen Z’ers place more emphasis on quality professional spaces in both blue- and white-collar industries. And employers that take time to help candidates and employees connect with the real estate will enjoy higher quality hires and lower turnover.

 

Parking

Adequate parking is rarely considered when companies think of real estate functionality or productivity. And it’s an often-overlooked aspect of employee attraction and retention.

Brick and mortar retail establishments have long had to worry about having accessible parking for customers. But outside of major metro areas, business owners have been mainly insulated from serious parking concerns.

When a real estate developer builds a property, they’ll often construct it using the municipality’s minimum allowable parking standards, given the property’s proposed use. Traditionally this hasn't been a problem, but as conventional retailers shift their operations towards a more e-commerce centric business model, more employees are required in person.

Remote and hybrid work may help alleviate the burden for some companies, but those decisions are largely employer and industry-dependent.

Satellite or remote parking and public transportation options are feasible as well, but require a great deal of effort on behalf of employees. And they’re rarely long-term solutions unless you’re willing to deal with more significant employee turnover as a result.

Based on your company's growth projections, consider your current and future parking requirements as you make your real estate decisions. Parking (or lack thereof) and any associated employee inconvenience could significantly impact your ability to retain talent.

 

Solving the productivity problem

Business owners have always had to figure out how to do more with less. There’s not enough time in the day. Not enough cash to fund your preferred growth trajectory. Not enough space to support your operations.

So, let's pretend that your ability as an employer to attract high-quality talent was a lost cause. At that point, the only solution would be to increase the productivity of the assets already at your disposal.

We all remember the nap pod craze, right? At the time, they were a radical concept – employees sleeping at work…really? But they were an attempt at cracking the employee productivity code, offering a place for staff to recharge and tackle the day in short energetic spurts.

The productivity problem is a challenge that every business wrestles with, regardless of size or scope. Real estate offers a couple of solutions, ranging in cost and time commitment, that can help your company achieve more with less.

 

Space planning

Space planning seems simple enough – some designers claim it’s as artless as understanding where to place furniture in the office to increase output. But space planning is more than that and can have a tangible impact on your organization’s productivity and efficiency.

How are your operations arranged within your real estate – does the space allow you to cluster teams with complementary functions adequately? Or are you forced to organize your office or warehouse operations simply by where the real estate permits you to fit them?

Think of the workplace as the medium through which the logistics needs of your employee network are served. When you begin to think of space planning in the context of operations and people-centric, you'll make smarter decisions that will positively impact workplace productivity.

Space that’s too cramped, unorganized, or doesn’t flow properly hinders efficiency - employees will make fewer sales, ship fewer orders, and ultimately collaborate less and deliver less creativity. Just as real estate that doesn't offer employees enough mobility can also have a negative impact.

But even as COVID has disrupted how some companies approach the traditional in-person work model and in-person problem solving, dedicated collaboration space remains an essential function in workplace efficiency.

Office acoustics and soundproofing have also become a hot topic over the last few years. Employees are genuinely concerned about being able to focus in the workplace, and the overuse of shared offices and "bullpens" have long sapped productivity. Consider ways to manage sound using your real estate without hampering collaboration.

There are various ways to measurably increase the productivity of a workplace through purposeful space planning. The critical takeaway is these decisions need to be made deliberately, and they're dictated by your business's unique culture, goals, and needs.

Major space planning decisions shouldn't happen in a vacuum, either. Instead, leaders should empower employees to take ownership of their work environment. The proper mixture of structure and autonomy will allow employees to thrive.

 

Reduce clutter

Employees often cite office clutter as the number 1 hindrance to workplace efficiency. Clutter could result from antiquated business practices, a poor information management system, or inadequate storage options. But the result is lower employee productivity and a negatively impacted bottom line.

Reducing office clutter begins with company leadership – it's important to create an environment that enables employees to succeed. You should dedicate office or warehouse space for storage, minimize printing, and create a culture where cleanliness and order are the standard.

If you need to print and store physical copies of documents, utilize vertical storage options to reduce clutter's impact on floor space. It would be best to consciously dedicate storage options to avoid resource underutilization and dead space as you plan your company workspace.

A decluttered office will improve employee anxiety and stress levels. As a business owner, you’ll experience higher levels of engagement and a greater workforce aptitude for problem solving and creativity.

 

Flooring

It’s almost silly to mention something as seemingly inconsequential as flooring in the context of increasing workplace productivity. But subconsciously, flooring decisions in the workplace help define functional areas – characteristics such as color, orientation, and material impact workplace productivity.

Rooms take on the persona of their design. For example, a carpeted office immediately has a different aura than a room with a concrete floor – and they result in varying acoustic properties and ultimately different uses.

Technological advancements in the industry have made low-cost flooring alternatives like LVP accessible for small businesses. In addition, higher-end "smart-floor" options are meeting the modern office's demand for cable management and data access.

As you make flooring decisions, you should determine the purpose of the room and the function you’re trying to achieve. Ultimately, what type of workplace flooring will enable maximum employee efficiency and productivity.

 

Lighting

We’ve all heard of seasonal depression - you’ve probably experienced it at some point as the days faded shorter and you realized you were driving to and from work in the dark. It’s bad enough when you’re battling mother nature, but even worse when you deal with it at the office too.

Light plays an essential role in our mood and productivity. Natural light has the most positive impact, but there are ways to replicate the benefits of natural light through artificial alternatives inexpensively.

LED lights with a cool white or bluish tint have effectively reduced eye strain and maximized productivity in warehouse settings. Warehouse layout also plays a role in how lights should be distributed and positioned to help reduce shadows and foster warehouse efficiency.

Smart lighting systems are another solution to workplace productivity challenges, offering light individualization, helping to cater to people's light preferences in color and intensity. Smart lights also help to reduce glare and eye strain associated with artificial light.

 

Why a real estate consultant can help

None of these suggestions are solutions to completely solving your business’s labor issues (if you have them). Building a cohesive team starts with workplace culture. But real estate offers a medium through which a company can supplement its culture and ultimately create an environment that fosters employee productivity.

Remember that pay is only one of several variables that employees consider when choosing a place to work. And if you can't compete on salary directly, there are various ways to create a competitive advantage inexpensively.

A great workplace design carries the tangible benefits of increased employee productivity and workplace efficiency, in addition to communicating your company culture and brand. From maximizing flow to boosting employee well-being, an intelligent design embraces the theories of lean management and makes your business a better place to work.

But simply understanding that your real estate is a tool to attract talent and boost productivity is only the first step. The process to reinvent the workplace is overwhelming, and even inexpensive and incremental changes often seem insurmountable.

Marsh & Partners has experience coaching owner occupants through the process – we’ve helped companies achieve functional designs through build-to-suit and ground-up development. But we’ve also helped businesses improve their existing owned and leased properties by leveraging these techniques.

Did you know that if you lease a property, some landlords will contribute money to space modernization and fit-up? Most don’t, but it’s a tool that small businesses can use to optimize their real estate and attract higher-quality talent.

Our mission is to help you improve your bottom line through your real estate. Marsh & Partners’ real estate consulting services are designed to help you reimagine how real estate can positively transform your business, both tangible and intangible.

If you want to get the conversation started, book 15 minutes on our calendar to talk about your project or your business's challenges. We'll brainstorm together and see if we're a good fit to help you take the next step.