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19 October 2018
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Workplace trends: The office of the future

9 December 2010

Cathy Hayward

“Work has left the building”. That was DEGW’s Philip Tidd arguing against the motion that tomorrow’s workplace will be similar to today’s in the debate at yesterday’s 8th annual Workplace Trends conference.

“Synchronicity and co-location are being turned on their head by new generations and new technology,” he said. People no longer need to be in the same place at the same time every day. “We will still need the office, but the office will be different as technology and the way we works changes. We will connect virtually.” 

But things don’t change as much or as quickly as you think, said Paul Morrell, chief construction adviser at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, arguing that despite the hype around Gen Y, social media and the cloud, the workplace of tomorrow is likely to be very similar to what it is today.

“We’re dealing with a very simple thing: a desk, a chair and a light. The furniture and lighting may change style, but the office itself hasn’t changed for a hundred years.” The humble paper clip, for example, has stayed almost exactly the same since its invention in 1892. Offices one hundred years ago had big atriums and rows of desks and nothing much has changed since then, he said. 

Both speakers repeated the familiar complaint that the architecture,  real estate and FM professions are not keeping pace with business demands. “Architects have no new ideas,” said Morrell. “All the funky space in offices is spectacularly under-used. Rows and rows of desks are not conducive to work but neither are huge floor cushions,” added Tidd. 

The use of social media, how individuals and companies use it and how the digital natives of Generations Y and Z will use it to transform work, was a recurring theme throughout the day – although only four of the 150 people in the room were tweeting their views on the conference leading one of the twitterati @theatreacle to claim that the train had already left the station. 

Marie Cecile Puybaraud, director of workplace innovation at Johnson Controls, argued that social media can make or break a company and ruin reputations.  But she went on to claim that we have been talking too much about Generation Y. “We seem scared about the way they are transforming the workplace, using technology and space.” Talking through some of her recent research projects, she depicted Gen Y as a selfish and needy generation, wanting to come to work for the social structure and collaboration, but also wanting flexibility to move around and work where they want, how they want and when they want – and own their own desk in the office.

The challenge for FMs and real estate professionals is to make better use of the space they have. John Anderson, CEO of PeopleCube, which produces space utilisation software, argued that workplaces have much to learn from the airline industry. Aeroplanes used to carry extra capacity but were forced to become more efficient after 9/11. “When was the last time you travelled on a half-empty plane?” he asked. In the same way that the airlines had used data to analyse everything from traffic volumes by route, passenger no-show rates, seasonal traffic patterns and delays/ cancellations to determine the most profitable routes, the right equipment to use and the right mix of seats to offer, workplace managers must make more efficient use of existing space, reduce space through alternative workplace strategies and track actual usage to make better decisions. Data is the key, he said. 

Despite Tidd and Morrell’s insightful comments, many corporates aren’t listening. A case study presentation from the FM director and agile working director at Unilever focused heavily on the (admittedly stunning) office interiors at the new HQ for UK and Ireland in Leatherhead and less on the way people were working and the change management that had accompanied the introduction of agile/ flexible working. What was interesting was that although three workstyles have been created depicting people’s use of the office (resident, mobile and offsite) Unilever allows employees to work how and where they feel they are most productive – which seems like a sensible option that more firms should follow – if they have the right performance management structure and the right training in place to help people adjust to the new way of working. The introduction of agility has paid off for the firm – the site was shut for eight days over the past two years due to snow. But no orders were lost and staff were able to work flexibly from other locations. “But they were all keen to get back into the office to reconnect with each other and collaborate again reflecting the enduring importance of the workplace,” said Ian Dunning, FM director, south-east at Unilever. 

A similar case study presentation from Deutsche Bank was more focused on the people aspects of workplace change. The bank capitalised on a pre-existing highly mobile workforce (real estate behind the curve again) through the db New Workplace programme. The aim was to standardise operating platforms, functionalities and the look and feel of offices around the world while increasing flexibility and future proofing the business with a distributed workforce. Improving the end user experience was a key requirement, not just saving money. 

The tangible benefits were obvious: 70 per cent reduction in future churn costs; 10-15 per cent reduction in direct occupancy allocation; reduction in power use from new IT. But the less quantifiable benefits were far more interesting. People felt they had access to decision makers and could make decisions far quicker as a result; without a fixed desk and often working remotely there was a feeling they owned the whole office and not just one desk; there was a reduction in email traffic which seems counterintuitive but distributed working empowers people to use the phone, chat, or find out things for themselves; and finally improved collaboration. 

The challenge for Jeanie Chuo, head of workplace strategies at Deutsche Bank was to sell the idea to those holding the purse-strings. Workplace change is costly, and its implementation does not always result in immediate cost-savings from real estate disposal and improved employee productivity and associated business performance. “There is a conflict between long term business benefits and the immediate impact on the bottom line.” 

Location is less of an issue than we think argued Robin Dunbar, professor of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Oxford. In a fascinating presentation about the social brain in the workplace, he argued that happiness, like obesity, is contagious and it doesn’t matter how far you are away from someone as long as you maintain good contact – ideally face-to-face through something like Skype. 

Dunbar went on to talk about management structures within organisations, arguing that the size of a military company, c150 people, is the perfect size for good co-operation and communication. Larger than that and you need a strong management structure (and probably strong discipline like the army) to maintain co-operation and order. 

Poetry is fast becoming de rigueur at workplace conferences. Following on from the excellent Matt Harvey at Worktech last month, Neil Usher, head of property at Rio Tinto, electrified the Workplace Trends audience with his entertaining and provocative verses. 

Like Deutsche Bank’s Chuo, he saw the property and FM team as there to look after the core business, and respond with elasticity to their needs not as an end in itself (we provide the best possible workplaces but go with the ebb and flow of the business) but he railed against workplace change programme having funky names – as both Unilever and Deutsche Bank have done). People should be treated as adults and not told how to work, he argued. 

Most interestingly, he called for a return to chaos, out of which comes creativity. The workplace is not a rigid place, we must respect the encounters which may be inconclusive and the ideas whose time has not yet come, Usher said. 

Despite the allusion towards the imminent death of the workplace, its future is secure –  if only in the arts. The final presentation of the day from architect Brian Szpakowski explored the depiction of the workplace in art, film, TV and books since its inception in the late 1800s. Until the 1990s, the office was portrayed as a negative place. Szpakowski quoted Charles Lamb's 1825 essay "The Superannuated Man" which described :  " the irksome confinement of an office” and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener" which describes how the conformity of work and the office results in physical and mental deterioration of Bartleby and the only way to resist is to do nothing – which eventually results in Bartleby’s death. 

The films and art Szpakowski continued this conformity trend – tall, identical buildings full of identical people doing identical jobs. But the workplace is not all negative, Szpakowski said. “Eroticism in the office is unavoidable. Men and women are put together in an erotically-charged atmosphere, when they look their best, in a completely separate sphere for their home environment – and in the past the women were always single and the men were in positions of power. The office is an easy target.”

Read the Twitter feed about the conference at #wtrends