This profession has long understood the need for the workplace to be a fluid and changing product, adapting to the evolving needs of users. The pandemic, however, looks set to trigger a step change as businesses learn lessons from the sudden necessity to adapt the workplace and how users work within it. An entirely new relationship between office workplace and user is on the cards. But what can we realistically expect? Bradford Keen reports.
The pandemic hasn’t fundamentally altered the office of the future but it has accelerated its arrival, albeit
with unforeseen additions such as physical distancing to comply with the government’s orders to mitigate the spread of the virus and assuage employees’ fears about returning to the workplace.
“The pandemic has sped up the research and, indeed, the debate around the future of the office,” says Giulia Robba, architect and urban designer at Farrell’s. “Principles such as smart working, flexible hours, and the hub-and-spoke model were already considered key features of the future office, but not widely implemented by businesses yet.”
One certainty prevails, according to Allison English, deputy CEO of Leesman: “The office of the future won’t look like the office that many people left.”
Increased attention to hygiene, contact tracing and contamination, with fewer colleagues as organisations stagger their return, are inevitable. Although many are eager to get back to the workplace for at least some of the working week, English says there will be a readjustment period, just as working from home took time to get used to.
What’s important is that the long-term approach to the corporate office is to make it a destination of choice rather than obligation to visit.
“If we can get that paradigm shift there we’d be making some real progress for the future of the office.”
“This has to extend beyond revisions to workplace facilities and services,” says Chris Kane, founder and director of Six Ideas Europe, a community of workplace professionals. “It has to be seen by the FM sector as an opportunity to assume a greater role in reshaping the workplace agenda.”
Flexibility, safety and technology
A recent CBRE survey of more than 250 occupier clients showed that 93 per cent expect home or remote-working practices to rise in the long term and 46 per cent anticipate a decrease in office density requirements. What this means, says Andy Cook, director, investor developer project management at CBRE, is that “some organisations are likely to significantly invest in associated technologies” and seek out “greater flexibility and fluidity of space”.
“In offices the outcome may well look like a composition of workspace,” continues Cook. “A reduction in single-person desks and drop-in areas to support the increase in remote working, areas for group engagement of teams and clients, and multifunctional space comprising a mix of temporary and permanent furniture solutions.”
Flexibility is not necessarily simple to achieve. Physical distancing requirements make flexibility of space challenging. If only every second or third desk can be booked to ensure the safe space of 2 metres, this will be jarring to those who have previously had options such as a desk, booth, pod and café. These diverse spaces cater to different working needs and provide informal social interactions – “keys to high-performing workplaces”.
Robba argues that there are “several constraints limiting companies from fully realising the potential of flexible working” such as being restricted by existing office layouts and “inefficient and outdated” building management systems, and “inflexible planning system and building regulations”.
The restrictions are practical but also psychological. Robba notes that “our pre-existing ideas of the office” need to be checked. “The concern of many organisations post-pandemic will be to ensure that flexible working policies and environments would still foster creativity and collaboration while keeping the productivity levels high – this
is where the wider adoption of ‘smart technologies’ can help to monitor not just the physical environment but the mental wellbeing of their employees.”
The workplace ecosystem
Kane predicts that the physical office will become simply one aspect of an “overall 21st century workplace ecosystem”. By taking an ‘omnichannel ‘approach, he says, organisations will work within a “multifaceted system [that] encompasses the fixed traditional leased-based model, flowing through the various flexi and co-working options, expanding to the fluidity of remote and distributed work, but also extending into virtual work (including AI, chatbots, avatars, etc.)”.
Andrew Mawson, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, points out that in the time before the virus, the centralised workplace represented a physically and socially safe space. The commute, while arduous, was also safe. Nowadays, “the current new safe” is working from home.
Many workers will find safety through a combination of working from office and home.
“A reverse change management process is required to get people back into the office,” says Mawson. They will need to know why they are expected to come into the office, how it is going to work, and how they will be kept safe.
A smart choice of working environment
‘Safety’ is best spoken about alongside ‘technology’ and ‘flexibility’. Robba says: “Smart buildings, supported largely by intuitive technology, will enter the mainstream of the office. And businesses will need to focus not only on the physical and digital infrastructure but also on employee wellbeing and mental health. The proximity to open/green spaces, flexible working time and spaces will generate a healthy workplace while bolstering employee trust.”
The pandemic has also necessitated better relationships and communication between landlord and tenant. Cook says: “The huge shift in commercial building usage and necessity to optimise efficiency is widespread. We’ve seen change of operational hours in several sectors as organisations diversify their work pattern, which has an impact on building systems such as HVAC, lifts, cleaning regimes etc.
“We’ve also seen how occupiers and building management employees interact with their premises. Consideration needs to be given to technology: to allow for greater ease of adaptation and accommodate changes in occupancy and spatial arrangements, touchless operations and Smart Building tech, and performance of building services to highlight just a few.
Location, location, location
“Striking a balance between WFH and working in an office is the workplace’s ‘Eternal Triangle’ – one that defines the interplay between the changing nature of office-type work,” says Kane. “This means acknowledging the changing dynamics of the people who carry out the work and the changing nature of the actual workplace (office), where this work happens.
“However, we are only seeing part of the picture. This bipolar debate, which focuses on either working in the office or working from home, is holding people back. This is also the challenge for the FM world: they have to realise that there are three components to this relationship: understanding the links between work, the worker and the workplace; the workplace is not anchored in one particular location, building or portfolio of buildings; and having the ability to work on an omnichannel basis – one that functions in a number of different, yet complementary channels.”
“Just because Outlook is organised in one-hour segments, you don’t have to plan your day that way”
One idea being touted as a post-pandemic solution is satellite offices away from busy metropolitan centres. Employees would thus abandon long commutes and carbon emissions would likely drop. Mawson sees a decline of the central office model in favour of “more satellite offices closer to people’s homes”. Regardless of whether it’s a central hub or a local satellite,
Mawson stresses that there has to be a reason for coming together, namely, “building relationships or working together on complex tasks, and dealing with things that demand physical proximity”. He dismisses the idea of increasing physical segregation between people by reintroducing cubicles. “We need to be doing things that enable the workplace to be more healthy.”
The 24/7 hotel lobby
A more radical option comes from digital optimist Allister Frost of Wild Orange Media. A long-time work-from-home advocate, Frost believes that employers should be encouraging staff to work wherever and whenever they can be most productive, adopting a “hotel lobby” workplace that is open 24/7. Such an approach would reduce demand for fixed office working space in favour of “fluid” and “adaptable” occasional meeting spaces and “flexible virtual working facilities on-site” that enable teams to meet on particular days and manipulate the meeting room settings to suit their needs.
Most agree that despite the smooth transition for many to working from home, the office – whether central hub, satellite sites or occasional meeting space – remains fundamental to companies’ overall strategy and offering. Cook says: “Overwhelmingly, employees view the office as a critical place to meaningfully connect with colleagues, highlighting how in-person meetings and chance encounters with co-workers are difficult to replicate online.”
English shares the sentiment, noting: “You don’t Zoom someone to say, ‘What’s up? I’m making a coffee.’ But if you run into someone in the kitchen, you talk about your weekend and that may be someone that you don’t work with directly – so you wouldn’t necessarily have a work reason to talk to them. Those are some of the key areas where the office is king.”
Balancing act Balancing workplace, home space and third spaces, then, is going to be critical. However, “there’s no one-size solution; there are too many variables,” says English. “It’s about understanding those variables and how they interplay within an organisation.” The solution, she adds, is data to build employees’ wants and needs into business strategies.
Importantly, the new way of working will be based on trust. The ‘arrive early, leave late, impress the boss’ model “disappears when everything’s done virtually”, English opines. “So there has been this handover and this trust that wasn’t necessarily there before.”
English says she can’t envision employees “going back to that ‘before’ state… because a lot of them have tasted freedom”. Having that ripped away now would create further tension and challenges.
“The level of trust and flexibility that employees have had to be able to do their work from home or in the future potentially from other spaces, in addition to having an office to do it, that’s going to be crucial for businesses.”
New discipline for FMs
“I’ve seen people complaining these last few weeks,” Frost says. “They’re working from home and they’ve been on eight Zoom calls or Microsoft Teams calls that morning. Replicating the lunacy of the office environment while at home is just nuts, you’re totally missing the opportunity; you don’t have to be in back-to-back meetings, you can do things in a different way. Just because Outlook is organised in one-hour segments, you don’t have to plan your day that way.
“The opportunity is for FM and HR to work together to educate staff about new ways of working so that they can be productive when they are best able to be productive. The notion of nine-to-five – employers should be abandoning that where practical. There are core working hours but the notion of putting your employees onto a rush-hour train to go home is absurd. Why would you do that to them?”
The pandemic has shown people that change is possible. Frost asserts: “We are fabulously skilled at adapting and evolving. We won’t do it because there’s risk attached to it, but when it is thrust upon us as it has been in the last few months, people have realised that change can actually happen much more quickly than we would have predicted and people can embrace that change positively.”
An opportunity awaits FM and HR professionals: “start from a blank sheet of paper” and determine what the organisation should look like, where people work and how they do their work. Frost urges: “Have the courage to pursue that ambition and dream, because you probably would design something very different from what you have today.
“The more facilities managers can separate themselves from the physical location, as a definition of who they are, and the value they bring, the more they focus on helping people to be productive on their terms, the better. And if people aren’t in that facility but in a place of their choosing, they also have a responsibility to help them there as well.
“So you see a job that has a bigger responsibility than just tied to a physical location.”
Now is the time, Mawson argues, for facilities managers to seize on the potential of the chief workplace officer or chief experience officer role, “coordinating the different modes of workplace” to provide an effective and consistent experience regardless of employees’ location. “If people in facilities management don’t step up to the plate to take the leadership position in that kind of area, somebody else will.”
When it comes to delivering services to those working from home, workplace and facilities managers should determine how to discharge their duty of care to ensure end users are physically and mentally safe. Careful risk assessment is essential, especially if large numbers of staff choose to work regularly from home.
“Historically, FM has always looked at the ‘fixed’ bit,” Kane explains, “namely, the building and its functions. But now it has the opportunity to move its focus from being solely building-centric towards becoming more people-centric. Covid-19 is marking the end of an era for the old ways of office working.”
The pandemic has forced sudden and, in many cases, irreversible changes to the way people work. It has also provided opportunities to learn how to create better workplaces in the future.
English says one such lesson has been the importance of collaboration across functions. In an organisation of knowledge workers, employees are the single biggest cost to the company. FM, HR, CRE and IT “play a crucial role in an employee having a frictionless day at work”, English says. “Being able to collaborate and coordinate and have an aligned approach to ensure employees are able to do the work they need to do and, essentially, wherever they need to do it, that is the biggest lesson to take forward in any future workplace transformation.”
Frost’s focus is on the technical infrastructure, arguing that you don’t need much to work effectively. “A decent webcam, a bit of light and microphone and you can be super-productive and it’s as good as being connected in the office.”
“It has to be seen by the FM sector as an opportunity to assume a greater role in reshaping the workplace agenda”
FMs should see that “fancy conference centres with overpriced kits” is an antiquated model as employees are more comfortable using their phone, tablet or laptop than trying to “master some clunky bit of kit”. “FMs should be looking at the space they have and asking how do we allow people to recreate what they’ve had at home – this productive thing they’ve designed themselves these last few months – and be able to replicate that in the workplace. And that shouldn’t be a separate system – it should be one and the same. Because the minute it’s harder to do something in the office than it is at home, people choose to work from home.”
What is indisputable is that much has changed in society and the way we work. Kane calls it a “seismic shift” and the workplace and facilities management profession must provide solutions.
“Its role in the office will only survive in this ‘Brave New Working World’, if it can demonstrate how it can enable work by helping improve productivity, promote creativity, enhancing teamwork and collaboration. In this way, FM can add significant entrepreneurial and social value.”
Time to flip the ‘office default
Consultant and author Dave Coplin says workplace managers should expect a “bumpy ride” as they wrestle with new realities.
“We’ve been talking for at least a decade about the opportunity of flexible working, and at its core is this need for a fundamental cultural change of headship styles. But it’s hard for lots of people in organisations, in particular middle managers, who will struggle the most with this.”
People’s expectations of their workplaces will dramatically change over the next six months, said Coplin, “but I would argue even longer period than that”.
“Don’t for a minute think we never have to go back into the office. This isn’t about never going back. But we need to work out what is best about this [pandemic remote working] experience how can you perpetuate that.
“Organisations have to lean into this experience and talk with their people to work out the right balance. They need to build a flexible working approach that works for everyone.” Flexible working should now be about employees empowered to work from whatever is the most appropriate location, only going into an office when it is essential to a task.
“If we can flip that default, that would be one of the best legacies from this horrible experience that we’ve all had to endure.”
Chris Kane on the shifting workplace agenda: Awareness, Acceptance and Appetite
Awareness: The C-Suite has taken note, with high-profile leaders such as Barclays’ CEO Jes Staley, that remote working is more than viable but resilient too. “They are starting to question the need for large corporate headquarters, which is also underlined by the fact that 25 per cent of CFOs are thinking of cutting back on office real estate.”
Acceptance: Other leaders and middle management have seen that work can be done remotely without much supervision.
Appetite: Economic pressures will drive management to seek new solutions and fresh approaches at work.
Andrew Mawson, director at Advanced Workplace Associates
Andy Cook, director, investor developer project management at CBRE
Giulia Robba, architect and urban designer at Farrells
Allison English, deputy CEO at Leesman
Allister Frost, consultant and digital optimist at Wild Orange Media
Chris Kane, founder and director of Six Ideas Europe, a community of workplace professionals