Guest Article by Chris Kane.
When I published my book “Where Is My Office? Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century” last October that the future of offices, little did I know that it would be the most hotly debated topic in 2020. Current circumstances have certainly thrown a massive spotlight on the usually unexciting world of office work, so much so that the mainstream press now regularly feature pieces on the ‘death of the office’. It might make for sensational headlines, but I do not believe that the office is dead or dying, just that it is not going back to how it was before. That is because what has really changed is office work itself, how people feel about office work, commuting and how business view their workforces and workplaces. As we are now all enduring a period of profound change it seems to me that collectively we have a responsibility to come up with a set of fresh perspectives to counter the challenges of today, so that we can all have a better future.
Covid-19 proved to be a catalyst in the way we see the office and demonstrated that we could gradually move to view space as a ‘mindset’ rather than a physical attribute – this is a shift which I term as ‘from fixed to fluid’. This will require major adjustments for many stakeholders who will need to embrace this massive shift to a more human-centric way of thinking. Contrary to what many other commentators say we are not entering into the next industrial revolution but rather the ‘age of human’ one based on distributed workforces, working in a multi-dimensioned manner and supported by distributed workplaces – which I describe as ‘omniworking’ To set the context, this article considers the key drivers for change: the enormous transformation in how office work can now be done, the shifting nature of the workforce and how this impact on our working environment.
Drivers for Change
Central to this entire debate is putting people first, as the challenges and suffering imposed by the pandemic force us to consider options and scenarios which are unprecedented, complex and pose real dilemmas in the ways we live and work. Globally we are all facing widescale personal fear of the unknown, existential threats to business survival and even greater levels of uncertainty, all at the same time. This is having a profound impact on our attitudes, behaviours and approach to life. Office workers, for example, have now started to ask themselves – why do I need to commute to an office building and sit at a desk there, just to send emails?
Covid-19 fanned the flames of change that have been smouldering for the last decade into a firestorm. This applied to figuring out how to attract and retain the best talent, how to gain competitive advantage and sadly now for many businesses, how to survive. It all boils down to the realisation that the traditional approach to how we do office work in the 21st century is not the same as it was pre-pandemic. A US colleague recently said that there has been more progress on digitisation in the last six months than in the prior six years! Cloud technology had the effect of liberating the office worker from the desk 15 years ago, as many companies adopted agile working practices. The 2020 lockdown made it possible for most businesses to consider that working from home (WFH) was not the only option, but also hybrid/blended models and working from anywhere!
To put this in context the World Economic Forum 2020 Report forecast that by 2025 some 85 million office type jobs will either disappear or be displaced by technology change. On a positive note, they believe that up to 95 million new digital roles will emerge. Furthermore, the report predicts that by 2025 the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal. So enormous change is inevitable in the world of work accelerated by the economic and health consequence of the pandemic.
The changing face of office work
The traditional model or ‘one-size fits all’ approach of office-working was designed to make things seem more manageable for business leaders. Most of us accepted that the predictability of the ‘9-5, Monday to Friday’ routine was essential in managing large groups of people.
However, technology has freed knowledge workers from the shackles of the office desk enabling more collaborative ways of working. However, Covid-19 sounded the death-knell to those standardised norms and while it is generally accepted that we will not be reverting to exactly where we were pre-pandemic, we will not be going into an entirely different world either. More realistically the Covid-19 accelerant will bring about more flexibility and choice in the ways we work.
From the typical manager’s perspective, managing half their teams at home, the other at the office and some in a suburban hub frightens them. They are thinking “How can I make sure work happens efficiently and goals are met when everyone’s in different places?”
Right now, we are dealing with remote/home/anywhere working, but without the philosophies that go along with it, because there must be a new paradigm of management and a new paradigm of working, which we have not come across before on such a mass scale – especially since in many cases the managerial style in most companies has not been adapted to implement it.
An emerging new dynamic for workforces.
We are also entering the age of individualism, where it is accepted that we all have our different ways of working, thinking, learning and understanding. As blended and hybrid working will become more widespread, individual choices will become drivers in how we work. So, employers will have to factor these additional elements into the managerial remit to attract new talent.
So, this is where effective leadership is so important because they must manage that shift to cater for different people and for different parts of the process.
What the pandemic has also demonstrated is that the whole concept of the employer/employee relationship is starting to erode slowly. With people increasingly working as individual consultants for themselves or on a freelance basis they no longer have that same kind of social contract with an employer.
The emergence of the gig economy and ascendance of freelancers has been catapulted to greater heights by Covid-19, at least in the USA. With 90 per cent of companies depending on freelancers to augment their full-time staff. Moreover, there has been a 40 per cent increase in contingent workers who are not on the payroll and this figure is increasing.
So, the dynamics of the way that people work, who they work for and why they work is changing like quicksand and the working environment has no option but to respond to this unprecedented shift.
In the context of work, it means moving away from that patriarchal set of assumptions that has basically run out of steam. It is becoming increasingly apparent that it has the potential to be replaced by a more equitable system where all things are connected. We all have a responsibility in becoming more aware of the issues and possibly even effect a change in the system.
It is not plain sailing for office workers
People’s response to enforced remote working during the pandemic was not without its issues, complexities and disparities, and evident in the way different individuals responded to it: –
• In many cases people’s homes/apartments are not conducive to permanent and continuous working
• Some find it very difficult to divide work and home/family life.
• Most appreciate not having to do the daily commute; conversely others miss it because it is their down-time.
• Those who are disciplined organise themselves quite well – they require a manager who understands that independence by letting them just get on with things without micro-managing.
• Others who work better in structured environment are out of their depth without the rest of their team for support; and want managerial supervision and guidance.
• Middle-aged and older people who have done all their networking and business relationship-building are more content with remote working.
• Younger people cannot wait to get back into the office – they miss their mentoring, training, networking and socialising with their colleagues.
This real-life shared experience proved once again that ‘one-size doesn’t fit all’ in the working-from-home (WFH) versus office debate. Although it has created an appetite for employees wanting to explore new options in how they can work, with 72 per cent declaring an interest in hybrid remote and office working options, according to a global survey of 9,000 knowledge workers carried out by Slack.
The office building is not obsolete
Covid-19 marked the end of an era for 20th century ways of working and how we use office buildings. Whilst many senior executives are actively considering how much they can get done without offices, they are only seeing part of the picture. If they accept that to succeed in post-pandemic times they need to pivot towards a more human-centric working environment -then collaboration and adaptability will be key. To enable collaboration, one needs a physical place for people to come together, brainstorm and network, and this may turn out to be the saving grace for the central business district (CBD) office block.
Some of the same old traditional office set-ups will still exist, simply because some organisations and their leaders are not early adopters. Many will be slow to act differently until it becomes the norm and that only happens when there is legal/taxation change or a universal demand for change. In addition, there are early signs that some policy makers are starting to consider the world of remote working both in terms of protecting worker rights and promoting tax incentives to rebalance economies.
At the forefront of such is Ireland’s remote working strategy, launched a few weeks ago and it is a great example of forward-thinking, where the overall goal is to ensure remote work becomes a permanent feature in Irish workplaces.
It is based around three pillars of:
• Creating a conductive environment,
• Developing and leveraging remote work infrastructure
• Building a remote work policy and guidance framework.
Some food for thought
In shaping a set of fresh perspectives for the changing post-lockdown world, the following suggestions could be used for guidance:
Look beyond the physical building/place:
We need to think about how people can work and what they require from their office spaces and places as occupiers or users; as well as rethinking the relationship between the organisation and how it uses offices.
Adopt to the emerging new reality of ubiquitous choice:
It is now all about choice and in keeping with working in multiple dimensions, omniworking is an apt label to describe this omni-channel approach. It considers the complexity and interdependence of modular and knowledge working including interactions, patterns and the outcomes expected. It also recognises that things are continuously changing in work and the people doing it.
Reimagining the office building:
We also need to reimagine how offices are funded, designed and built by asking ourselves the question – are they being designed and built to fit the requirements of those using them? As well as understanding that they must operate in a smarter more sustainable and distributed manner.
We all need to work together to rethink the office to create 21st-century workplaces which inspire employee engagement, foster creativity and increase productivity. While also improving an enterprise’s capacity to compete and create value in all its guises. By working together both producers and consumers of real estate can create effective and engaging workplaces which play their part in leaving a more sustainable ‘built’ legacy for future generations.
Chris Kane, Author.
Chris Kane has worked in the Corporate Real Estate sector for over 30 years, having operated as the Vice President of International Corporate Real Estate for The Walt Disney Company, before acting as Head of Workplace at the BBC, where he was responsible for the creation of MediaCityUK in Salford, the redevelopment of Television Centre and oversaw the £1bn development of Broadcasting House.
He is a Fellow of the RSA and RICS and a co-founder of Six Ideas, a global consultancy focused on workplace development and innovation. Chris has extensive experience as a Non-Executive Director and currently serves on the Board of Elstree Film & TV Studios. Chris has served on the boards of Laganside Corporation, Network Homes, NHS Property Services and Reach2 Academy. He also sits on the editorial board of the Corporate Real Estate Journal.
You can connect with Chris here: https://iibn.com/UniverseOfMembers/ChrisKane