Where is my office?:

The how and the where of future office work: During your daily commute did you ever ask yourself why so many of us waste so much time sitting in traffic jams or fighting for a seat in crowded trains in order to get to the office?

Where is my office?:

The how and the where of future office work

During your daily commute did you ever ask yourself why so many of us waste so much time sitting in traffic jams or fighting for a seat in crowded trains in order to get to the office? The dreadful events of 2020 have really thrown the spotlight on all of us who endure this daily grind to reach an edifice where we work. However one of the by-products of Covid-19 is that we are all starting to question the fundamentals of office work and its practices.

Before the enforced 2020 lockdown there was no real reason for us to question the time-honoured tradition of going to the office or understanding its purpose. Though in my experience and even pre-pandemic, many business leaders had already started to ask ‘ where and what should my office be in the future?

However now regardless of whether you are a business leader or working for a global conglomerate or an SME, all enterprises are facing the conundrums of a ‘new working reality’. Some have figured out how to survive the initial onslaught, others are still trying to figure it out, but many are also turning their attention to how are they going to navigate through a sea of uncertainty to a more resilient and sustainable business. What is a given, whether you are leading a large organisation or an SME, is that we need to build some fresh perspectives on how to find a way forward. 

The Upheaval of Offices and Office Work

Walk around any major city centre in the UK today and it is unusually quiet and empty compared to recent years, which is inevitable since only 17% of the traditional office population is going to work as usual. One wonders whether we will get back to some form of normality once Coronavirus is tamed. I doubt it because something unprecedented happened and it is shaping the way we work. Businesses large and small who use offices have had to adapt to the ‘new reality’ as office workers realise that they can work differently. Additionally, their managers have had to change their tune, as they now grudgingly accept that having staff anchored to their desks Monday to Friday, from 9 to 5 is no longer essential. In fact productivity increased between 10 to 20% in most developed countries mid-crisis while we worked from home, thereby removing one of the big obstacles to agile working.

A time for reflection?

One consequence of the lockdown was that it gave us all time to think and reflect on life and work. I am fortunate that Charles Handy, a renowned business strategist and hugely influential in business management thinking, helped me consider the changing nature of work, when I was writing my book. He questioned the way we work in offices observing in his book ‘The Second Curve’ that: it has always struck me as odd to watch all those streams of people pouring out of railway stations in order to sit in box-like cubicles communicating with similar folk in other boxes by email; telephone or messaging when they could do it equally well from home, or from a local work hub.

Now that business leaders have also started asking questions of this nature there is little doubt that we are witnessing widespread and systemic change in progress right in front of our eyes.  Boards and the C-Suite are seizing this reset to reformulate their own ingredients to produce the ‘new look’ working environment. Fujitsu, RBS, Siemens and now BP have all publicly declared radical changes to their People + Place + Technology + Culture equation.  We are entering a new working reality which will be human-centric, data-driven and about quality, health, choice and trust. 

The current ‘Work From Home’ debate is flawed

When lockdown was imposed on most of the office-working population, Working From Home (WFH) became the only option. However it was interesting to see how successfully the transition from office to home working was accomplished with no major disruption; and for the most part businesses seemed to cope reasonably well. As with all generalisations there are exceptions to this, but the enforced working away from our desks has been both viable and feasible. It may not be sustainable, but it has been demonstrated that if we wish it, we can do things differently.

Sadly, the debate about how we work in the future has got stuck in analogue mode. Vast reservoirs of printer’s ink have been wasted debating the pros and cons of office work versus work from homeworking (WFH), which is also known as remote work. However, the discussion is only focusing on part of the picture. If we continue along these lines we will miss out on the full potential of being able to work anywhere, anyhow and anytime.

Rather than focus on headline grabbing statements such as ‘the office is dead’; there is much to commend the office in terms of collaboration, creativity, cohesion and the social aspects of working together. However, I suggest we need to revisit the overall purpose and function of the office. The key question in my mind is the fixed nature of the pre-pandemic system ‘ everything revolved around a fixed physical place within four walls. What about the potential of multiple workplace dimensions rather than the traditional either/or binary choice of office or home? We must start thinking about alternative ways of how we carry out office-type work today.

Harness People and Place

The only purpose of an office is to enable the business – if you take this as a starting point and add to it the viability of working away from the office, there are many possibilities. I have long held the view that when it comes to office work it is shifting toward something very different compared with the traditional operating model. I call this a shift from ‘fixed to fluid’ and we are already seeing evidence of organisations starting to design a new model which operates on an omni-channel basis.

Offices will not die nor disappear, but with the behavioural change ensuing as a consequence of lockdown and the demonstration of the viability of working remotely at scale, the model needs to adapt.  I suggest we need to design something which is people-centric because for too long we have been anchored in a mindset dominated by the physical location of work. This is perfectly acceptable in factories, workshops and warehouses but things are different when it comes to office activities.

In developing a fresh approach this time round, the people aspect takes precedence. In the past business selected an office block and staff were compelled to commute there. In the new reality workers may only go to that location for part of their working week. By introducing distributed working strategies employers can facilitate this, which in turn makes them an employer of choice in the new order by attracting and retaining the best talent, giving them a competitive advantage 

Maybe there is a better way?

The Covid-19 crisis has certainly accelerated the need to be able to manage and implement alternative ways of working and the time has come to consider a much wider permutation of options.  There are many narratives in play at the moment especially ones based on a return to the ‘new normal’ since most commentators are anchored in the long-held view that everything must revolve around a fixed location ‘ the office.  We ignore at our peril the reality that technology is transforming work, place and community and that Covid-19 has now accelerated the need for us to consider a wider and alternative view of our working environment. 

Chris Kane
Chris Kane

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