future-office-2
Workforce Planning and Management

Overpriced smart cities vs. the death of the office

I recently did some research into the workplace of 2026. And the feedback was remarkably consistent. In a decade it seems, even more people will work outside the office. While the emptying building itself will become ever-more high-tech.

This is a direct continuation of what is happening now. But also threw up something of a contradiction. Because although increased flexibility is supposedly ending the need for horrible commuting and crammed overpriced cities more people are actually moving into urban areas and many services are becoming centralised.

To get some feedback on this and other apparent contradictions we caught up with Chris Lansbury, Commercial Manager of Crown Workplace Relocations, which offers support on talent management and the global workplace, and Steve Mosser, CEO of UK homeworking outsourcer, Sensée.

The questions and their answers are published below.

 

Most people agree that homeworking will be on the rise over the next decade. This should reduce commuter congestion and mean fewer people have to live in overcrowded, overpriced cities for work purposes. Yet more people are moving to urban centres and services appear to be getting centralised.  How does this square?

Chris Lansbury: It’s not so much homeworking that is the issue – it is flexible or smart working. The new generation of talent expects it; they see the old days of arriving in an office at 9am and leaving at 5pm as something which is dated. What they want is an office which allows them to work from home or on the road when necessary.

Many are still drawn by city living, however, and London remains a magnet for people all over the world. So homeworking doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone working at home is doing so in the middle of the countryside.

The challenge for businesses is to provide space which makes working in the office or working flexible as seamless as possible. It’s something which many businesses are embracing because it has commercial benefits. Reducing the size of offices has huge financial savings in terms of business rates and heating, lighting etc. These days a company with 200 employees doesn’t need 200 desks. Workplace studies have shown that 40% of desk space simply isn’t used.

Steve Mosser: The UK will continue to be a highly desirable place to live and work, however the transport infrastructure and cost of living are real factors in where people and businesses are located. While city life tends to make sense for certain occupations and wage levels – and obviously certain demographics, those who are embarking upon their career for example, it does not with others.

For certain jobs, it simply doesn’t make sense to be based in expensive city centres. Equally, businesses that locate in a confined or more remote region need to make sure that they are not at the mercy of local job market resources and fluctuations. Homeworking overcomes geographic boundaries and provides access to required skills – wherever they may be.

For these reasons homeworking is increasing and spreading to a wider set of business types and functions, and being adopted by large businesses.

 

Even today, although there is a lot of talk about how people can work anywhere, a surprisingly large number still go into the office each day. (It almost feels like that previous myth that future tech would make work redundant.) What do you make of this?

Chris Lansbury: You can’t change human nature. People still have a desire for companionship, to work together and meet colleagues. We’ve seen a kick-back from some of our clients, with companies realising the value of teamwork. They want to create a workspace which tempts people back into the office. Businesses are valuing face to face interaction and team play. They are realising you can’t build a team ethic when people are working at home and not in a team. However they also know that flexible working is key to attracting new talent. There’s a real possibility of missing out on graduate talent if you ask them to sit at the same desk every day from 9am to 5pm. Getting the balance right is so important.

Steve Mosser: Homeworking has been around forever, but it is only recently that it has expanded from an alternative workspace used by sole practitioners, freelancers, maverick entrepreneurs, authors and other niche career choices to more general business functions. Homeworking is rapidly being ‘democratised’ to all levels of the corporate ladder.

We now have virtual HR practices that have been essential to overcoming the biggest barrier to homeworking – trusting employees when they are out of sight of management. We have done this by creating an infrastructure that is not dependent upon trust. We now can easily identify who is working, what they are doing and measure productivity, which means that it’s become a non-issue in the homeworking sphere. All the traditional ‘people’ activities – from recruitment to performance management, are now effectively performed virtually.

As such, homeworking can be extended across a business – including customer service departments, administration and other common operational functions. When implemented correctly, it has been proven to be a viable, effective and highly efficient option – achieving much more than simply saving money on office space.

Technology has played a key part in this evolution. Today, high-speed broadband and home computing are pervasive and key enablers for homeworking. The technology now exists to support every single imaginable business process virtually, while providing employers with the highest levels of visibility, control, security, compliance, scalability and resilience. The big question when addressing any work task: Is there really any add-value in being together in the same physical space?

 

Where do you think the distributed workforce live in the future? Cities/ small towns/ rural areas?

Chris Lansbury: It’s a difficult question to answer because it depends as much on social and economic trends as on workplace trends. Flexible working does mean you can live wherever you like and still work for a city centre business. It also means that employers have a much wider scope when looking for talent. If the person you want lives in rural Wales then why should that stop you employing them? Smart working makes it possible. But does it change where people want to live? I’m not so sure about that.

Steve Mosser: Historically, Brits have gravitated to cities to find the best jobs to match their career ambitions – particularly those who are embarking upon their career.  However this will have to change as city centre rent and housing prices continue to price out small and medium businesses and individuals. And simply because workers will increasingly expect a better work / life balance and choose to live where they want to and demand flexibility from employers. 

To become or remain attractive, businesses will need to adapt. ‘Home and hub’ models (where home-based employees will travel to the hub once in a while for meetings, training, etc.) will become more prevalent – with the hub no more than two to three hours away. Moving forwards, this means a much greater distributed workforce in the future.

 

What do you think this picture will look like globally?

Chris Lansbury: Flexible working will boom most significantly in areas of the world where property prices are high – in Hong Kong or Singapore for instance. The benefits for businesses downsizing office space in these regions are huge.

Steve Mosser: Businesses are already tapping into a global talent marketplace through remote and home working. This will continue to grow as skills become both more specific and talent scarce. Businesses have started to gain confidence and trust in the systems in place to make sure employees out of sight are as fully integrated, motivated and productive as if they were in arm’s reach.

Of course, there are certain countries that will not embrace homeworking yet due to cultural and technological factors.

 

Some people do seem more suited to a regular office environment – it allows them to compartmentalise their work – will they miss out in the future?

Chris Lansbury: There will probably always be traditionalists who want to work 9 to 5, sit at the same desk every day and talk to the same people in their lunch break every day. We’re unlikely to see that die all together. But what flexible working does is provide everyone with an individually tailored option for the way they work. It should work for everyone.

What’s different to the old days is that workers are trusted more to work outside the office now.  There’s no such thing as a job for life so workers are assessed on their productivity, on how they meet deadlines and the volume of work they do – so the suspicion they would sit at home in their pyjamas and doing nothing all day has pretty much gone.

Steve Mosser: There are some people who are more suited to a traditional office environment, however this is often socialisation rather than personal behaviour.

Engagement and cultural alignment of remote workers can be overcome in a number of ways, and we have developed techniques so that people can engage, interact, collaborate, raise questions and all of the other typical interactions in traditional workplaces. To replace the regular office environment, businesses need to ensure they don’t leave their homeworkers to themselves, thereby becoming “lone-workers”.

Ongoing investment in employees is important in a virtual workplace. Our proprietary virtual training capability allows trainees to prepare for courses, undergo training, interact (raise their hands, like, be polled, use role play, webcam, etc.) during training, assess understanding, access a vast course library, and share knowledge between training events. Virtual team rooms allow agents to ‘break out’ in pairs or in teams to role play and/or complete assignments.

 

Further reading:

What will the workplace of 2026 look like?

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