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Social Value in the Contemporary Workplace

A few months ago, I was invited to join a focus group at the Antwerp Management School to discuss Social Value in Real Estate. Together with experts on wellbeing and the real estate, tech industry, and public sector, we discussed the transformation of social value from pre-pandemic to post- pandemic times. The key questions to tackle were how can real estate support social wellbeing in hybrid work environments? And how to seduce the employee back to the workplace?

Video credit: Antwerp Management School

Prior to the pandemic, companies approached social value primarily from environmental or philanthropic perspectives. However, the pandemic swiftly altered lifestyles, work patterns, and common business practices bringing change to people’s behaviors and priorities. As a result, introducing a different level of self-awareness. Companies are now forced to re-think practices and be mindful of employees’ needs, health and wellbeing, increase work flexibility, and facilitate the space and time for social activities. Employees, on the other hand, have realized the benefits of working from home. For instance, time wasted commuting to work can now be spent on physical exercise, family, or personal development. Companies, therefore, are keen on finding ways to seduce the employee back to the workplace and attract future workers.

During the session, three main topics were discussed to unpack social value in real estate. First, how the pandemic shifted the meaning of social value. Second, the socio-spatial impact of the pandemic on social value in the workplace. Third, the business case to progress social value in real estate, and the workplace in specific.

Defining social value and impact in the workplace

Firstly, social value was perceived as the relationship between people and their built environment. Buildings have surpassed their purpose as envelopes that support functions, to foundations that support people and their needs. As such, the purpose of buildings is to foster a work environment that enables people to connect, collaborate and improve wellbeing. Secondly, the pandemic enforced hybrid work environments where technology, to a large extent, replaced physical office spaces. Thus altering work cultures and eliminating the boundary between home and office. Whilst people yearn for the office environment for face-to-face interaction, the idea of commuting long distances and losing working flexibility hampers the incentive to return to the office. As a result, office spaces are left empty and businesses struggle as hybrid meetings are difficult and inefficient. Companies, therefore, seek to attract employees back by introducing the possibility of third places and social activities.

Identifying a business case for social value

While the awareness of social value exists, the reason behind its slow progress is the lack of knowledge on how to measure its impact. What is the business case for social value? The answer is still quite vague and difficult to grasp. Companies measure it by employee absenteeism for example, however, with hybrid working, measuring social value becomes more complex. Nonetheless, visible progress can be seen as company leaders strive for inclusion, connect with employees, and support open communication. These are some of the key ingredients to foster social value in successful workplaces.

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