Stockholm syndrome: the drive to make offices sustainable

From placing employees at the centre of design to ambitious social and environmental sustainability goals, Stockholm is rewriting the traditional office playbook in order to reinvent its workplaces

The Nordic region has a long-standing reputation for hosting some of the most sustainable cities in the world.

So it was fitting that one of the core focus areas for the WORKTECH22 Stockholm conference, held at EY’s new Stockholm headquarters on 9 June 2022, was around how organisations can build sustainable futures – not just for their real estate strategy but also for employee wellbeing.

To show off its green credentials, EY preceded this inaugural Swedish event with a presentation and tour at its new office – at the time of completion in June 2021, this project was lauded as the most sustainable in the world with a LEED Platinum certification to prove it.

The conference was swift to pick up on this broad theme with large organisations such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft showcasing their future workplace plans and how they are dealing with hybrid working.

From throwing out the old workplace playbook to building an ‘espresso office’, here are some of the things we learnt from WORKTECH Stockholm:

How low can you go?

One of the burning questions throughout the day was how much office space do we need now hybrid working is the dominant model for work? Unwork CEO Philip Ross drew on his global knowledge network to showcase examples and best practice in hybrid work around the world. Data shows that the average cost reduction for real estate post-pandemic is around 40 per cent – and even then, many offices are still heavily underutilised as they are struggling to get people back in.

In considering its hybrid approach, EY opted to reduce its office space by 50 per cent during the transition to its new Stockholm headquarters. This space aims to be an experiment and pilot workplace where real-time data guides change.

The Espresso Office

Helena Grenberg from Nordea Bank told delegates that any reduction in office space needs to be compensated in other ways. In a panel discussion alongside real estate leaders from Meta and Telia, Grenberg said that ‘the new office has to be like an espresso: smaller but much more powerful’.

In keeping with that theme, Oscar Stjernborg and Erik Sornas from the Swedish-based FM firm Coor  presented research from a survey of more than 1,300 decision makers and employees across the Nordics published in May 2022.

‘The new office has to be like an espresso: smaller but much more powerful…’

The study found that the office still plays an important role, but its performance requires a vast improvement. One in three employees said they are ready to leave if their offices are not improved, with younger employees twice as likely to leave than older employees.

This need to re-engage employees is seeing the emergence of service roles within the workplace such as ‘Welcome Experience Hosts’, ‘Community Managers’ and ‘Sustainability Ambassadors’. These roles require a service-first approach and corporate organisations might look to dip into the hospitality industry’s talent pool to seek them out.

Placing the ‘S’ back in ESG

Sustainability is a topic that simply could not be ignored at the event. Magnus Kuchler from EY took to the stage to demonstrate how EY is trailblazing the path with its ambitious targets for environmental sustainability.

In 2020, EY became carbon neutral, in 2021 it became carbon negative, and now the company is striving for net zero in 2025. The firm’s headquarters building in Oslo, which is set to open in 2023, will produce more energy than it consumes – this will allow EY to sell energy to nearby buildings.

However, its sustainability goals do not stop there. EY has also set key targets for its social responsibility, which focuses on employee health and wellbeing and the diversity and inclusion of its workforce. Despite increasing regulations around environmental monitoring and reporting, the social element of ESG tends to be neglected.

Louise Dyrendahl of EY explained that, as global workforce demographics shift, sustaining the health and wellbeing of current employees is critical because ‘the talent scarcity is here to stay and it’s accelerating at a pace never seen before.’ People in the labour market today will be required to work until much later in life.

Yet, despite this reality, only 53 per cent of people feel like they have a sustainable work-life experience. Organisations need to do much more to support and engage employees throughout an extended working life. Dyrendahl suggested that there is a major shift in the balance of power towards the employee, especially as EU workforce standards are asking more questions around what employers are doing to support people and demanding more from their ESG standards.

The hybrid paradox

One of the ways to create sustainable work-life experiences is to introduce flexibility into the mix. But flexibility comes with its own challenges, as Harald Becker of Microsoft pointed out. Citing Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2022 report, Becker highlighted the hybrid paradox where 73 per cent of survey respondents claimed they wanted more flexibility, but 67 per cent also said they wanted more in-person collaboration.

This picture becomes increasingly complex when faced with the polarising viewpoint where 58 per cent of people say focus work is the biggest reason for coming to the office, and the same number say the same about working from home.

‘It’s all about experimentation and learning now, old playbooks won’t work …’

So, where does that leave office design and workplace strategy? Becker suggests the answer lies in data. Organisations can now map and design experiences into the flow of work that give signals and clarity into what will happen that day or tomorrow or next week. Becker suggests shifting the mindset of ‘build it and they will come’ to one where data is considered first to identify and understand people’s needs and then the workplace is built to accommodate these needs.

In one sentence, Becker was able to summarise the energy of WORKTECH Stockholm: ‘It’s all about experimentation and learning now, old playbooks won’t work anymore.’

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