Crafting the Future of Work: Burak Akalin, Workplace Leader

In this exclusive interview, workplace leader Burak Akalin - Workplace Services Executive, provides valuable insights into the challenges faced by companies in today's evolving work landscape.

With over 20 years of experience in workplace operations and experience, including at Netflix and NBCU, Burak sheds light on the complex issues surrounding real estate strategies, the impact of generational differences, and the challenges of navigating economic downturns. As an expert in the field, he discusses the struggles organizations face with hybrid work models and the importance of tailoring strategies to meet the diverse needs of employees.

This interview explores the metrics and indicators used to measure the effectiveness of new work policies and norms. Burak also emphasizes the importance of collaboration between internal teams, such as HR, real estate, and legal, to ensure the success of workplace strategies. Lastly, he shares his perspective on building and scaling workplace culture in a post-pandemic world, the future of office spaces, and the critical consideration of talent management in the current market.

What is your title and can you describe it?

I consider myself as a workplace services professional, strategically managing workplaces in a way that ensures employees are motivated, engaged and satisfied via thoughtfully designed workplace programs. I've been doing this for roughly 20 years at different companies, implementing workplace strategies nationally and internationally. 

Based on your expertise, what are some of the challenges that companies are facing right now?

  1. Real estate strategies. It seems like work from home is passing its prime but the majority of the workforce still value working from home and seek flexibility in this arena. Companies are trying to figure out what their real estate strategy is going to be, if they decide to scale down or keep their current real estate footprint while changing the use of their space from a traditional office to a more appealing collaborative space. Both options come with their own pros and cons so there needs to be a strategic approach here that is tailored towards business needs. 
  2. More younger generations are entering the workplace. These generations have access to information at an incredible speed. They use this fact to their advantage by assessing things, educating themselves in several different areas and questioning the status quo. As a result, we are seeing lots of young executives taking a seat at the table. We still have the Boomers, and GenX’ers in the workforce that were exposed to a more traditional workplace approach for years. Thus, companies are having a hard time balancing motivational factors; what works for one generation doesn't necessarily work for the others.
  3. Reacting to economic downturn. When these conditions exist, the first thing companies do is to cut down on operational expenses. And obviously we're currently experiencing that with massive layoffs. However, when it's time to scale up again - and hopefully with a better analysis this time - , these companies might be faced with finding qualified labor. 

What aspects of hybrid work are organizations struggling with the most?

At the very beginning, when there was a lot of hype around hybrid work; 90% of the companies oversimplified what hybrid work should look like. They thought it could be as simple as creating policies that define flexible work and putting groups in categories (3 days in the office etc.). Well, this strategy turned out to be not so great. Carefully analyzing the needs of the workforce and strategizing around hybrid work have gained a lot of importance. Workplace professionals need to work with other cross-functional teams to provide a clear roadmap when it comes to the future of work.

You will notice, there is an increased amount of need for experienced workplace professionals nowadays because companies want to avoid another failure. They're trying to do their best, but a combination of different factors such as different generations wanting different things out of the workplace experience is making it challenging for them. I think it's gonna take a little bit for this to settle down.

How do you help assist in the work that you do and how do you provide insight into managing those sorts of differences?

The standard operating manual is not going to work wonders anymore. Yes, there were always different wants and needs when it comes to workplace programs for each company and each location in the past. However, now we are seeing this at a departmental level. 

What needs to happen is for senior managers of these companies to understand what the driving factors are at each location, and cater to employees’ needs based on that. One trend we’re seeing in many places is that employees want increased flexibility. They want to have a say in what they do, when and where they do it. I think this is becoming a standard these days. 

It is good to keep in mind that there are different factors that contribute to a challenging hybrid workplace program, such as inadequate home office setups, smaller homes, culture based work styles etc. It's important for the executives to understand these differences and really tailor their approach accordingly.

What metrics or other indicators are you using to measure how the new work models or the new policies or norms are actually performing?

At the very beginning of the pandemic, a ton of companies popped up, claiming that they could solve the issue on hand. And I was always skeptical. I always took a step back and wanted to see how things were going to play out. Over time and as executives familiarized themselves with the new norm, most of these companies that claim to have the solution weeded themselves out. Now we are left with true solutions that can make a difference. One thing that I'm familiar with is space and occupancy sensors, which are becoming more common. Obviously, it has its disadvantages, but it gives companies good solid data on the participation levels in their offices and gives them to ability to make informed decisions when it comes to the best use of their space.

Another metric is the participation levels in workplace amenities. In the past, if companies were offering things such as free food, participation in these programs were 80% to 90%. That has changed. Free food or fancy workplace amenities alone are not going to attract employees to the office. They, of course, will provide lots of advantages from an employee's standpoint but companies need accurate data on the workplace amenities participation levels to stay lean and not provide things just to see if they stick.

There are other things such as garage occupancies and conference room booking data that are becoming useful. We have a lot of numbers to work with, so companies should make informed decisions rather than trying the wait and see approach.

Do you feel like there's a lot of testing going on?

Some companies had a really good systematic approach, such that they wanted to collect data first, test it and analyze it based on the outcomes. Then they came up with their policies accordingly and went forward with a plan. Companies that were and are making informed decisions, rather than panicking and jumping into solutions, are succeeding. They're past testing, and are rolling things out systematically. 

Other companies are benchmarking, and they're looking at the competition to see what they're doing first. After that, they're trying to implement these very same programs , which might not be the best approach. Again, each work culture is different. So what works for one company might not work for another.

Overall, we've passed the testing stage. We are at an implementation phase now, and some companies are doing this better than others. These will be the ones that are going to be able to pivot quickly when needed.

How do you work with other internal teams like HR and real estate and legal to actually ensure that the workplace strategies, you know that either you're putting forth or that generally people are putting forth like, actually succeed? And how do you imagine that this dynamic between the teams might continue to change over time?

Communication is becoming increasingly important, especially when it comes to hybrid work. Traditionally, HR/Corporate Comms was the communications tool for companies. But now, employees need constant communication and instant access to information. They want to know what is taking place at work at any given time. As a result, we’ve seen HR and communications teams gain a lot of extra importance. For this reason,  corporate real estate, workplace services and HR teams should now work together a lot more than they used to.

We need to make sure that departments are clearly communicating with each other on what the strategy is moving forward. For example, real estate needs to find optimal space for the new normal, while corporate communications or HR  relay these policies or procedures to existing and new hires. All of these departments need to be connected closely in order to foster employee confidence in the organization. Especially in the early iterations, it’s important to be well-informed when you’re getting in front of employees, so that they don't think that you’re throwing things out there. Building trust with employees is extremely important and this can only be done via honest feedback and information sharing all around.

How are you thinking about building culture into and beyond office walls? And how do you recommend scaling that culture across multiple workplaces or globally?

Before the pandemic, companies thought that a successful work culture could only be built if people were in the office. This is true to a certain extent. Interpersonal communications are very important when it comes to building the culture, and in-person conversations are a lot different than conference calls. People are social animals. They have a need to have face-to-face interactions and show their emotions, body language and so forth. In my opinion, there is definitely a social impact of people interacting less and turning more into virtual experiences but that is a topic that needs its own segment.

I think the advantage we have is that people are adaptable. They’ve adapted to all conditions and environments in the past, and that will be the case here too. With or without knowing, people are finding new ways of doing things, and building a new work culture is one of them. 

When I say building a new work culture, I don’t mean virtual happy hours or coffee chats, it's more about having answers to, and understanding:

  • How will constant communication work?
  • Why is communication more important now?
  • How are we going to give employees the knowledge they crave for?
  • How are we going to create knowledge databases so that employees can find the answers they are looking for more efficiently? 

Once people are informed, they're going to be more connected and then a new culture or different way of approaching culture is going to be built.

How do you really document a culture if it's not an office?

It's not about how shiny the offices are anymore, it's really about how functional the offices are. For example, I love office neighborhoods and have helped a lot of companies create these within their offices in the past. You’re still offering the office space, but at the same time, you're offering different experiences within the same four walls. You can go to one neighborhood and have one experience, and go to another neighborhood outside on the deck and have another. It's quite a shift from how spaces were used in the past, and I think this will continue to evolve.

What does the purpose of an ‘office’ look like from your perspective in the next five years?

I think the office is here to stay, but it will be about offering varying amounts of flexibility. There are always going to be people who want to work in an office. These are the people who need adequate set-ups, crave in-person communications or simply can get more work done in an office environment.    For that reason, I don't think we're ever gonna go to a zero-office type of environment.

The real estate footprint is definitely going to scale down and we are already heading in that direction. And flexible workplace usage will go up. Many companies are either contracting with flexible workplaces, or creating satellite offices to ensure that employees can go to AN office without having to commute for two hours. They are creating heat maps to understand where the majority of their employees are located and working towards implementing simple satellite offices based on that. I think that's going to continue. 

Also, shared workplaces are becoming a thing. Companies are subleasing their spaces to other companies to come in and do their work. The movement we’re seeing now in this arena will mostly stabilize within five years. Again, flexible work environments will be top of mind.

What is on your mind? What do you think is not being talked about enough right now?

Currently, there is a tremendous amount of talent in the market, due to mass layoffs. Some companies are showing knee-jerk reactions due to the current economic state.  They scaled up too fast, and now they're trying to right-size their companies. It's this influx of good talent in the market that will create problems in the short term - economic and social. And there aren’t enough people talking about this at the moment. 

Some companies are making changes to their comp packages, for example, and rethinking what to pay to their employees. Some are hiring people for fewer dollars because of what's taking place in the market, and this is a slippery slope. Once dust settles, these companies can expect this talent to move to other companies that pay them their worth. This needs to be top of mind, understanding what's going to happen to all this talent, where they’re going to go, and based on that, how companies should change comp strategies.

If you’d like to reach out to Burak, head to his LinkedIn.

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Danielle Farage

Future of Work Influencer

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