Sept 1, 2020
I’ve helped clients plan for the future with scenario building, identified disruption strategies and delivered innovation projects. As head of PwC’s digital Crowdsourcing Innovation service, I created digital communities focused on problem-solving. I’ve even attempted several proptech startups in the corporate sharing economy space.
So you’d think I’d be leading the bandwagon on, the ‘death of the office’. But I’m not, and quite the opposite. The current headlines are too coarse. The stick to come back to the office, to save them, is unsophisticated. Why? Because the office in itself is a shell, a canvas for which an organisation projects into the world. The conversation, unlike the buildings themselves, is 2D. We are not talking about them as an environment, a sense of space and what they speak for and who they speak to. Like an eBay or Facebook, the office is a physical platform, acting as the infrastructure to enable a community to connect and exchange value. This brings invaluable and unforeseen network effects. Can Zoom replace this? The office acts like a flag on the moon - the endeavour, the purpose, the collectiveness of intelligence and determination to reach the common goal. In essence, a physical emblem of a business and the employees who bind themselves to it. If the office is to go, does our connection to the organisation and our colleagues and friends go to?
Offices were drivers of productivity. But open-plan offices created both noise and isolation, reducing their benefits.
From its beginnings, the office was the only location you could do work. People placed together in proximity to match the structures the ‘Organisation’ deemed most effective. A white-collar factory which streamlined processes and activities to reach the objectives as efficiently as possible.
Mirroring the techniques of mass production, the first offices had rows of desks where employees performed tasks as they faced their supervisor. By 1950, this collection of workers under one ‘roof’ was a competitive advantage. This consolidation of workers resulted in 0.5% of American corporations controlling more than half of the nation’s corporate wealth. The cubicle workstations of the 1970s and 80s were replaced in the computer age with open-plan offices and the green movement - but productivity has stagnated. The Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow wrote that "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics."
A recent HBR article, ‘The truth about open-plan offices’, indicates that face-to-face interactions drop 70% after an organisations transition to open plan designs. I've experienced this too. When we have hoards of work to plough through or are sat next to non-team members, we create a fourth wall between us and everyone else. How often have you been in a big office and not had a conversation with the person next to you? Offices can be isolating and remain one of location, 'I’m off to work’ we all say, hoping that no one gets in before us and sit at ‘your’ desk.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re Trumpian efforts at wall building fail, distractions and noise abound - which is perhaps the reason 47% of us feel that conversations with our colleagues are the biggest challenge to productivity in the workplace.
Working at home can boost productivity, but a loss of place and community could be catastrophic
The office does not feel like it is working for either us, or the companies, we work for. So it is no wonder that we have adopted the chance to work elsewhere. This trend, already happening before COVID-19, has now accelerated, with almost 50% of us having done so since the crises began. There are no more 4th wall requirements, no commuting, increased flexibility and productivity (for some). Digitally, we stay connected, allowing us to remain in proximity without being physically close - and how often did we sit in the office to send emails to people not close to us anyway! The digital tools we all use are brilliant, and I’ve long been an advocate. As head of crowdsourcing at PwC, I could identify, create and motivate diverse crowds from anywhere in the world to solve a problem. Here at Upside, we use tools like Miro to run fun (and more effective) workshops. These digital spaces also don’t have to end, allowing collaboration to continue and increasing buy-in to change.
One of the key changes I've noticed is I now say ‘I have work to do’ placing the emphasis on outputs and leading to productivity gains. This is a positive shift. But there are negatives.
Can you delineate work from home, workday from the weekend? Not great for employees or employers - increased burnout and reduced attendance can affect the bottom line.
How do you motivate, train and mentor juniors to ensure your future productivity is ensured? How do you monitor quality and timeliness?
How do you recreate the randomness of conversations and insights? Some of which could, rightly, be described as a distraction - but other times are crucial to the diffusion of knowledge and tap into the network effects of an organisation’s people.
Will placelessness result in a lack of emotional bond to the company and colleagues, increasing turnover of staff and corporate amnesia?
The new future has to incorporate the benefits of both home and the office. We should start with humans' primary drivers - community and purpose.
So, forgetting the awful term the new normal, the new future has to be a mixture of the physical space and the digital space. A ‘clicks and bricks strategy’, adopted and adapted from retail, is needed. Experiential offices, efficient and secure digital tools and infrastructure - all designed for flexibility across teams and business units.
From a digital perspective, we can picture what this looks like for us: our equipment in the home, a large extension of software to use (an increasing headache for COOs). But there are also gaps to fill. For example, with so many people out of the office, do organisations know where their people are and who they are with? My startup Aboveboard Bubble would enable employees to connect with local colleagues and choose to work together on a given day (or find empty spaces to utilise - say if someone has gone away on holiday). This would enable an organisation to capture more data on how and where people work.
From the Office perspective, it’s a little less clear. We need to ask what will change, but also what will remain the same. From that context, what problem does an office need to solve? For me, it will no longer be a place we just go to, nor do we need to think about an office to do the work - it will be about the why. The office will provide employees with places to learn and grow. It will provide experiences people can’t create at home. It will be a place to enhance your mental health and energise you. A place to influence and be influenced. A platform to be tailored by the consumer.
Beyond the practical, it's a sense of place, it provides the platforms for organisations to plant their flag and allow employees to have companionship, society, belonging. The unexpected interactions which make life fun. Growth. In essence, it’s all about keeping one another ‘company’ - a word which doesn’t look to out of place. The word comes from the French, compagnie (first recorded in 1150), meaning a "society, friendship, intimacy;” and has been used to describe business since the 14 century. It’s a word that’s lasted through the centuries. But in the corporate age, it’s devoid of meaning, its spirit, its magic to drive progress.
So, my view is we’re having the wrong conversations around offices. It’s not about costs or unused space, or the need for corporate employees to save city centres. Instead, it’s an excellent opportunity for organisations to rearticulate their purpose, attract the best minds, and inspire great things. With that accomplished, the future office can be designed. Not in terms of where the coffee machine sits, or where to place the ball pit. Instead, based on how employees interact with the digital and physical spaces they need to motivate, support and inspire people to achieve those goals - increasing productivity in the process.
There is an upside to this upheaval - opportunity to grow has become cheaper and more flexible.
The added upside to all of this is that companies can recruit without strong ties to real estate strategy. Homeworking is here to stay, so companies can now scale activities without the overheads of the complexity of office space to worry about. While the ability to scale up and down employee numbers is not necessarily quick or easy, it is certainly more flexible than a ten-year lease. Leasing costs are now on average 7-10% of overall employment costs, a significant saving. As the workforce numbers increase, not only will finance directors see increased revenues, but the allocated cost of premises to each employee will come down - making the decisions about office space even less about costs - but about benefits.
Perhaps then, a renaissance of how we work collectively and as individuals will drive the future of offices, making them work better for us all and the wider societies they sit in.