The Office is Dead – Long Live the Office!

Ian Housby, Interim Manager
Ian Housby has over 20 years’ experience working with business leaders resolving their global real estate, FM and workplace challenges. He is a specialist in delivering innovative programmes and unlocking the potential of the built environment.
After the big news from Nationwide Building society yesterday, where they are closing three of their offices in Swindon and offering a home working arrangement to all, Interim Manager, Ian Housby addresses the learnings from the last couple of years pre and post covid and Ian ponders the way we will all be utilizing the office in the coming years.
INTRODUCTION

Having spent the last 12 months with most of the world’s office-based workforce working from home, the traditional office environment could be said to be seriously under threat, if not moribund.

Whether you an ardent supporter of the office or whether you can no longer see the value of commuting three hours a day to a sterile environment designed around an accountant’s dream of an efficient workspace (80 sq.ft. per person); there is no doubt that the existing model has finally seen its day.

During the pandemic, staff have been told to work from home and in the main, have done so with amazing grace and cooperation. This is frankly because (a) it was something they had been aspiring towards anyway and (b) it was the only common-sense approach to the Lockdowns. On the side of the employers, those who had hitherto invested in their staff and provided mobile phones and laptops/tablets, did not really have to invest heavily at this point. However, those who had not been so forward thinking, found they were forced to scramble around and lay out a significantly large (unplanned) investment for this kit, and the supporting infrastructure, in double quick time. However, both types of firms needed to introduce new and different virtual ways of working to be able to sustain a functional operation including, setting up new governance structures to cope with this change of operation.

The impact on the office environment is substantial and irreversible. To put some perspective around this, most of what has happened in the last year has caused companies and their staff to rethink ‘work’. It has now become more focussed on the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘where’.

THE OFFICE IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE OFFICE!

Many organisations, prior to the pandemic, recognised that the traditional office needed a complete rethink. Much of it was old fashioned, built on principles that were long out of date. COVID-19 has caused an acceleration in new ways of working and this is forcing management to rethink the workplace. Most office interiors, even the newer ones, are based on decades old concepts. So, there is an urgent need to reconsider the working model of the business and its constituent parts. In balance, a long good look is needed into the by-products derived from the new ways of working that have been forced upon companies. There can be some very surprising learnings to be had;

  • Previously, office space was poorly utilised with up to 50% of the space unused, particularly on a Monday and a Friday. If managers were now asked how many of their staff could continue to work from home, say at least 2 or 3 days a week, this number would rise exponentially particularly, in a post COVID-19 world.
  • If it is accepted that half the workforce wants to work from home and that 35% would prefer a hybrid solution of home and office working, then there are obvious economies that can be made. Indeed, there is already a massive bank of unwanted office space in the City of London and this is mirrored elsewhere around the globe where corporations are trying to shed unwanted space. This will probably be a short-term market condition which will eventually be soaked up when the economy recovers.
  • Office space needs a rethink around how it should be designed and reused. The office needs to reflect the needs of the staff so that when they do come in for meetings, to collaborate and work together, it serves their needs – otherwise, what is the point?
  • Technology is a significant component in any business operation. Without wishing to belittle the fantastic successes derived throughout the pandemic, the future of IT is only going to be as good and worthwhile as the foresight of senior management teams who recognise that this phenomenon will continue to make massive inroads into how businesses, their offices and homeworkers operate in the future.
THE GENIE IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE

To recap, most workers do not want to return to the office five days a week. They particularly do not want the arduous and expensive commute. Neither do they want to work in sterile, uncomfortable and stressful conditions. They have been told they are doing wonderfully at home, and that remarkably, there has been little effect on their outputs. Armed with this, they see no reason why the old ways of working should persist.

Furthermore, old principles of a workplace being constructed from anonymous open plan desks, cramped meeting rooms and private offices needs urgent rethinking, especially amongst those firms who profess to want to embrace collaborative new ways of working. The office will very likely become even more of a technologically advanced and be a dependent environment designed around the need for staff to meet comfortably, to network and socialise. It needs to be an environment where teams can collect together to collaborate, and plan their success, engender creativity and celebrate change. How these needs manifest themselves will be different for each organisation but clearly, the space created will have to be dynamic, flexible and progressive.

CHANGE NEVER STOPS

One thing that we have all learnt over the last decade or so, is that transformation is a continuous process – the office must be a key enabler for this.

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