The office of the future will need to diversify its usage

Do farms, cathedral markets and the campus provide signs of how the office will look beyond the pandemic?

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Across the globe, nations are tentatively moving to release their national lockdowns as the spread of the Coronavirus abates, and vaccination programmes protect many of the most vulnerable from the worst effects of this virus.  Many hope this is the last time economies and communities go into lockdown. If that is the case, many areas of working life will need to be changed - and changed for good. 

Knowledge working has been protected from the worst ravages of the pandemic, with administrators, technologists and leaders continuing their roles from desks at home. A growing number of studies demonstrate that organisations and their staff expect home working to continue as an element of the week for many knowledge workers.  As a result, organisations will need to reconsider the role of the office.

The office, in its simplest form, took the thinking of the industrial revolution and transplanted it to knowledge work, and as the CIO and CTO community know all too well, much of that work is not actually bound by place. But claims that we no longer needed office buildings and commercial hubs is pie in the sky. 

The role and therefore the environment of the office needs to embrace this opportunity to change. This is about more than creating hotdesks, coffee bars and collaboration zones. All of which are really just new forms of furniture. This is a time to take inspiration from other sectors that have reconsidered how their physical assets are used, and how that then creates further changes and benefits. 

In agriculture, as less land produced higher crop yields or demand for certain products decreased, farmers were encouraged to diversify. Farmyards became rural small business centres, fields and forests turned to leisure facilities or new crops were sown. It is important to note much of this was done with significant financial support from the public purse, especially in Europe. 

In parts of the USA, communities have put streets on road diets, taking away one use - a thoroughfare for motor vehicles - and increasing the space for another.  With fewer cars on the road and broader sidewalks, local residents have spent more time in their community, leading to the opening of more local businesses. Research demonstrates that this has lowered crime rates and increased life expectancy. 

Religion too, has a history of this; innovative clergy for hundreds of years threw open the doors of their cathedrals and places of worship to market traders, placing their organisation - as if wasn’t already - at the heart of the community. 

None of this is easy.  In a recent business leaders debate Anna Barsby, CIO with supermarket chain Asda remarked that the redesign of the office environment will have to be very detailed, in particular in consideration towards the fact that half of the workforce may not be present in the building per day, but will be contributing to outcomes and meetings.  As a people-centric business leader with significant experience in retail, Barsby added that equality is important. The vast majority of the workforce in a retail business don’t work in an office, and throughout the pandemic, they have been at work and therefore at a higher level of risk. 

As the office diversifies, it cannot lose the ability to be a place of work. Many in the workforce do not have a spare room that can be an office, and they are certainly not at the salary level to have the money to invest in the luxury garden offices that web advertising is now awash with.  Going into work is also about more than completing a task, Angela Morrison, a former CIO in retail and financial services at the same Tessiant hosted meeting, voiced her concern that our younger colleagues need to spend time with peers and industry ‘elders’ to learn and develop their careers. Therefore the redesign needs to not only develop something completely new, but also create a campus environment with quiet places to concentrate on difficult tasks, and labs for testing new ideas and collaboration.  And then those colleagues not in the office need to be easily incorporated into this environment in a way that makes them feel connected and included. 

Technology and its leadership will play a vital role. Just as retailers analyse the customer journey, so too must organisations analyse the usage and needs of their employees and ensure both the physical and digital environments reflect this.  Arcadis, a construction industry firm, is looking at ensuring that employees can guarantee that they ‘collide’ with the people they need to on their visits to the office. This in turn, makes sure that the office doesn’t become sterile but has the central role of creating those serendipitous moments of conversation that spark ideas. Such systems already exist; virtual cycling platform Zwift has Zwift Companions to ride with friends online.

None of this is without business risk.  If organisations are unable to come together and really see how processes take place or the way the customer uses a facility then, as Barsby said: “there’s a risk of knocking down some load-bearing walls”. There are risks to society and the economy too, the mental health of many of our colleagues and especially our children is fragile. There will be continuing health risks for those that contracted the virus. In 2020, desperate to see the economy recover, leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson demanded people go back to work - the result, a massive second wave of Coronavirus and deeper damage to the economy.  A cautious approach is sensible, Denmark, which has recorded 2,343 deaths, compared to over 120,000 in Johnson’s UK, is warily opening up again in March, worried that extending the lockdown is as damaging to its people and its economy as the virus. 

Despite the risks, business and technology leaders have an opportunity to reimagine both the physical building of their offices, but also the culture, and usage of this asset and how it will benefit the business and all that work there.