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Work is What You Do, Not Where You Do It

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Written by;

Robert Chapman

Director

RC2 (Robert Chapman & Company)

 


It’s a great phrase and a starting point for my reflection on the ‘accidental experiment’ brought forth by Covid-19. With a degree of normality returning, should one return to the conventional office or work from home (WFH)?

What is clear is that agile working (office and home) will become the norm for most businesses based on a hybrid model (it will not be binary) with health, well-being, happiness and sustainability issues coming to the fore. A company will always need an HQ, but there is likely to be more emphasis on office hubs together with higher levels of home working. This new workplace flexibility will not be about saving money, nor long-term social distancing. In the end, it will be an investment in employee well-being, productivity, and ultimately, profitability.

Gig Economy

In this reflection, I read an article recently suggesting that it is not the office concept that is endangered but rather the conventional, highly inflexible, single use buildings and the contracts and mechanics that govern their use that may well be. An interesting point.

Design is very much under the telescope. The subtle lexicon of comfort, wellbeing, productivity, purpose and happiness is expressed in the places and ways we work. So, design and spaces that create flexibility will be important.

Another matter which is under consideration is the Landlord / Tenant relationship. Many are suggesting that there needs to be a different relationship whereby businesses / organisations are treated as customers. There needs to be a customer service revolution with more collaboration / partnership working. For occupiers, it’s more about flexibility rather than cost. That’s why the coworking phenomenon has been popular. It isn’t a trend. It’s a paradigm shift. It wasn’t long ago when landlords couldn’t quite get their head around the model. But now, they are the first to say it has changed real estate, and the model isn’t going away in this sharing economy. It reflects the new culture of work which chimes with what will be the ‘new normal’ post Covid-19.

I’ve looked at such coworking spaces in London, Bristol and Cardiff. For me, it is the highly curated space that is most successful that amongst other things can address downsides of digital security, company culture and cohesion, and personal privacy.

During this extraordinary time, it is not surprising to learn that various surveys and / or consultations have been conducted.

The British Council for Offices (BCO), the representative body for the UK’s office sector, conducted a survey of over 16,200 professionals. It seems that just one in five (20 percent) of UK adults plans primarily to work from home in the future, while only 16 percent hope that working from home replaces the office. Note the contrast with the other surveys! Further, it found that close to two thirds (61 percent) rated their wellbeing as positive before restrictions were put in place, but only 35 percent said it remained positive since lockdown.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) carried out some research revealing the following headline statistics:

  • There has been a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. More than half of the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58 per cent), shoulder (56 per cent) and back (55 per cent), compared to their normal physical condition.
  • Diet and exercise are on the wane with one fifth (20 per cent) of respondents admitting to an increase in alcohol consumption, while a third (33 per cent) are eating a less healthy diet, and over half (60 per cent) acknowledging that they are exercising less.
  • Poor sleep and increased risk of exhaustion are also cause for concern. Most respondents reported a loss of sleep due to worry (64 per cent); and corresponding increased symptoms of fatigue (60 per cent), possibly because nearly half (48 per cent) reported working patterns that include long and irregular hours.
  • The mental health of survey respondents depicts a workforce with a lot on its mind. Half of all respondents (50 per cent) reported not being happy with their current work-life balance; a third (33 per cent) frequently feel isolated, over a fifth (21 per cent) are worried about job security, while just under half (41 per cent) harbour health concerns for family members.

I suspect that many of the points made by the IES survey relate to the current ‘lockdown’. What about WFH post Covid-19?

spacelab_  conducted a ‘future of work’ survey, with over 1,200 responses:

  • Overall, people are very happy working from home. 47% are happier at home, and 34% are ‘about the same’. Only 19% people are not happier. [Interestingly, an article in The Times suggests that young people are the most desperate to return to office life. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) want to go back immediately, compared with 16 per cent of over-55s].
  • Perceived productivity is up. 83% people are feeling just as productive, or even more productive, working from home.
  • The thing that people are most enjoying about working from home is not having to commute into the office – be that for not having to travel in the car / on public transport, or for the time saved. 81% people spend at least an hour commuting each day and are now benefitting from their extra spare time.
  • 79% feel that their employer will trust them more to work from home or away from the office post-lockdown (17% are still unsure, and only 4% think that they won’t be more trusted in future).
  • Overall, there is a big appetite for increased working from home in future. Pre-lockdown, on average, 59% people ‘never’ or only ‘occasionally’ worked from home. But 72% people would like to work from home at least 2 days per week in future, and 43% at least 3 days.
  • People are most missing not being able to socialise with colleagues or collaborate face-to-face. in future, people will still need a place to go to for collaborative activities, and for the more social side of working life – which is also essential to building and maintaining the culture of an organisation.

In the short term:

  • Currently, 34% people are keen to get back to the workplace once lockdown ends, though 29% wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to the workplace until there is a vaccine.
  • The return to the office in the short-term poses several concerns for people, pointing to the range of issues that businesses will need to consider. There will be concerns about: health and wellbeing; the inability to socially distance whilst commuting or in the workplace itself (requiring material and spatial solutions); cleaning protocols and physical distancing measures in buildings; going into the office or not; and the potential loss of the flexibility and autonomy whilst working from home over recent weeks and months.

Finally, in this reflection, I have synthesized some research by the Head of Marketing of The Instant Group (a Flex operator) who has had conference calls with over 300 operators since lockdown. He has also interviewed more than 50 heads of CRE at large blue-chip companies in the weeks since lock down.

His research detects a palpable sense that cost reduction will play to a more agile approach to real estate post Covid-19, equating to less leased space, and portfolios that adjust to a more flexible commercial rent estate strategy. In other words, firms will recalibrate.

The ‘accidental experiment’ around remote working has shown that the technology stands up, teams can work from multiple locations and commuting is viewed as the waste of time it really is.

Yes, there are challenges for Flex operators. But the flexible nature of their designs means that such challenges can be overcome.

Choice of working environment will be a key component for workers as businesses rebuild after lockdown. And are CFOs really going to sign off the capital expenditure required to self-deliver an office space as required when signing a conventional lease? This contrasts with flex space when a team can be up and running without significant upfront investment in no time at all!

The Flexible workplace industry is well aware of the drivers behind demand for its space – of the need for more business agility, the provision of real customer service, and of a workplace product that appeals to companies of all sizes. None of these have altered over the last several weeks.

I conclude my observing that there are more than 4,000 office leases due to expire over the next 6 months – I wonder how many of these businesses will right now be considering their options and deciding upon a more agile approach? I hope they take advice.