Back to McKinsey Organization Blog

Your office needs a purpose

Research shows that purpose matters to employees. How can leaders leverage purpose to turn the workplace into a competitive advantage?
Phil Kirschner

Advises executive leadership teams on future, post-pandemic workplace strategies, including the leadership behaviors and change management systems necessary to minimize resistance and accelerate adoption of new ways of working

Adrian Kwok

Advises organizations on employee experience topics at the intersection of talent strategy, real estate, technology, and the future of work

Brooke Weddle

Drives lasting change at scale for global organizations through digital transformation, operating-model redesign, enterprise agility, and leadership development

As pandemic restrictions subside, people rush back to the experiences they missed most: learning something new, making time for self-care, cheering for the home team, or visiting friends and family. 

And yet, many workplaces remain empty. Why?

The answer lies in purpose.

Places designed for entertainment, hospitality, and connection have clearly defined purposes that align with life goals and the desire for personal fulfillment. There’s a clear “why” behind their existence. In turn, the data shows that people have largely returned. TSA checkpoint travel numbers, for instance, are currently approaching pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, a tectonic shift in working patterns has irrevocably challenged the purpose of offices. A daily commute was once the norm, but sustained productivity during COVID proved that many tasks can be performed remotely. This has left many asking, “Why bother?”

Attracting these employees back to a corporate workplace will require a new purpose for real estate—one that creates both meaning and utility for in-person work.

The importance of purpose

The foundation of this perspective is a growing body of work on the value of aligning organizational and individual purpose.

Our research found that 82 percent of employees believe it’s important for their company to have a purpose. Purpose can shape company strategy, engage customers and community, and steer choices at moments of truth. It inspires employees: More than two-thirds say their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Also, once inspired by a company with credible purpose, 93 percent of employees say they are likely to recommend that company to others.

Company purpose is important. It addresses the fundamental question of “why”—a question that employees now expect their leaders to satisfy with regards to the workplace too.

The challenge in today’s workplace

“Return to office” plans have been making headlines since mid-2020. Whether the prevailing message is hybrid, team-based, or prescriptive, these pronouncements often fail to achieve leaders’ desired results. And when employees are slow to return voluntarily, companies resort to ineffective mandates, exacerbating trends like the Great Attrition.

Employees are leaving because they don’t know why to stay, much less commute.

To address this, and to turn the office into a competitive advantage, executives should focus on making their workplaces matter and measuring their success. They should design and activate offices that foster human connection, and create tailored, authentic experiences with a hospitality mindset. A more valuable, fulfilling work day can clarify the benefits of collocating with colleagues, in turn helping prevent decision fatigue as employees ask, “Do I go into the office tomorrow or not?”

The solution

The most-cited purpose for the post-pandemic workplace may be the reestablishment of employee connection and social capital. Also, there are many examples of how companies are reimagining the purpose of place for competitive advantage.

For instance, one health services company took an outcomes-based approach to the return to office. It champions employees’ autonomy to determine when an in-person presence will drive the best results for the business, turning its real estate into a tool that adds value to its employee experience.

A global banking leader built a unique and playful work environment separate from its corporate headquarters and prominently features it in ongoing recruiting campaigns.

An investment firm created a hub—think labs and community spaces—designed to support life sciences innovation.

Also, more radical approaches are being taken for places that no longer serve their original purpose. For example, a U.S.-based insurance company donated an office building they no longer needed to a nearby university that is reimagining it as a health equity innovation hub, creating a “triple bottom line” value for the company, the local community, and the planet.

Post-pandemic workplaces should be assessed on how clearly they reflect the purpose, principles, and priorities of the organization as well as those who work there. If not, talent will look elsewhere. The companies that strike the right balance will thrive.

Will yours?

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice