The future of the office

This is the second post in a new series of compelling content titled Matrix: Future Workplace Forum, which will share with you what is going on in workplace, including live interactive webinars and in-person events.  The first post explored how work has changed as a result of the pandemic.   

The world of work has changed forever.  For many of us in the knowledge economy, location has truly been severed from how and where work can be performed.  Work is no longer somewhere we go; it is something that we do.  Enforced working from home mandates have removed any cultural and social barriers to a completely decentralised working model for all of us.  We have experienced such profound changes in the last 18 months, none more so than in how we work.  We might feel that we are finally adapting to remote working by mastering those essential skills such as figuring out how to unmute ourselves when using Teams and Zoom.  But what of the offices we have left behind?  Do those walls, rows of desks and meeting rooms reflect how we are working today?  What are we missing out on by not meeting up in person?  Who needs an office anyway…?!

Rumours of the death of the office are greatly exaggerated.  We are gregarious creatures; we thrive on the company of others.  Whilst we are able to communicate on video calls, it does not have the immediacy of meeting in person.  “Can you hear me now?” / “Sorry I was on mute” /  “…poor… Wi-Fi…. connection…………”.Relationships are built on trust, and the primate nature within us develops this through interactions with one another.  Perhaps some teams and colleagues have worked with each other for many years, and have transitioned to remote working with ease and operating as productive (if not more) than previously.  However for others, remote working can be seen as a barrier to developing the working relationships from which organisations thrive.  Certainly for new entrants to the workforce, it is difficult to learn “on the job” by listening into video calls:  perhaps it’s asking a colleague about the context behind something complex that is explained in the corridor after a meeting.  In the cut and thrust of the back-to-back video call day, there is no time for the chit chat prior or after a meeting where some real connections are made and insights uncovered.

The FT reported last week that KPMG are expecting auditor teams to be back in the office four days a week in the near future, over concerns that remote working could damage audit quality and limit learning opportunities for younger auditors.  This proposal is being viewed with interest by other consulting and accounting firms, who are similarly considering how to adapt to post Covid ways of working.  Other organisations are looking at ways to entice people back into the office with incentives such as free breakfasts.  If the carrot doesn’t work, employers should pause before using a stick.  Research from IWG suggests that almost 50% of all office workers would ‘quit their job’ if they were asked to go back to their office on a permanent five-day basis.  It is a challenging conundrum for organisations when considering how to transition to a Hybrid way of working that gives the best of both worlds.

So what is the role of the office in these new ways of hybrid working?  Perhaps the answer lies in exploring how our work has changed, and how the office can support some of those work activities.  Pre pandemic, the more effective workplaces provided a range of work settings that supported the various types of work activities we may have throughout our working day.  These different work settings could be summarised as the “Four C’s”: ‘Concentrate’, ‘Collaborate’, ‘Communicate’ and ‘Create’.  The ideal office would provide ‘Collaborate’ settings for in person meetings, brainstorming, scrum meetings, coffee lounges and informal soft seating for casual conversations.  For tasks that required focused work such as contract work, writing, and in depth analysis, the ‘Concentrate’ settings would provide soundproof booths and quiet spaces to focus away from distractions.  ‘Communicate’ would incorporate the use of video technologies such as projectors, interactive white boards and video conferencing.  ‘Create’ might be important for some types of companies such as architects and designers, where shared workbenches and workshops would be used.  These settings would be provided on a shared “use what you need” basis without assigned or fixed ownership.  It’s worth noting that often the pushback against the ‘open plan office’ was due to a lack of Concentrate settings: no privacy for confidential phone calls and nowhere quiet for focused working.  I am sure we all have experienced plenty of examples of open plan gone wrong.

Home working has completely changed the work settings landscape.  If we are fortunate, we may have our own private space in the home where we can be focused and work in peace and quiet.  This is great for some work activities, but not all.  Perhaps when we consider the future role of the office, we need to first consider what work activities are best performed in this location.  The Leesmans Index has conducted industry leading research identifying what work activities are conducted by individuals, and how effective the workplace is in supporting these activities. 

Through this research, it became clear that home working is a better work setting for almost ¾ of work activities.  This perhaps is reflected in how well many of us have adapted and embraced the new ways of working.  However note the activities where the office is a better work setting:  informal interactions, meetings, learning from others, hosting customers…  These activities are absolutely best served by the office through in-person interactions.  Reviewing this infographic leads to some new perspectives on how the office should be configured and designed, to best service the needs of our people moving forwards.

One global manufacturing organisation provided some prophetic comments in what would be the last in-person meeting I had prior to the start of the UK lockdown the very next day.  We were discussing how the office will adapt as a result of what appeared at the time to be colossal disruption that we were just about to enter.  The workplace lead there commented how the high street used to be where we would do all of our shopping.  Now much of this is done online, the high street has become much more of a social setting.  More coffee shops, bars, restaurants, meeting places.  He commented that the office would evolve in a similar way:  much of our core work done online, with the office for more social interactions, meetings and experiences.  In the age of Amazon instant deliveries, the high street continues to be a key location for many of us.  The office will equally play a key role in our working lives.  We now need to reimagine the future of the office, but not before we consider what we actually need it for.