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The future of work & the office beyond the hyperbole

2020: When predictions became reality…

Co-Authored by Chris Lewis & Martin Laws

Even putting much of the hyperbole to one side, 2020 is rightly viewed by many commentators as having seen a decade or more’s acceleration in the debate around the “future of work” and the consequences for the workplace, and specifically the office.

Looking back, the global COVID pandemic lockdowns led to the unprecedented adoption of new working norms and technology-enabled workarounds. And, crucially, we witnessed new levels and dimensions of both employers’ and their employees’ expectations around the how, when and where the critical talent in many organisations can feasibly work. It is difficult to think of any business sector that has not been impacted. As they emerge from the COVID pandemic and cautiously look to the future, every occupier is now facing their own and fundamental “so what…?” moment for their office space.

  • Was that COVID working experience just a reflection of human ingenuity and a stoic willingness to doggedly make the best of a bad situation…? A necessary, but ultimately only temporary, diversion from tried and tested workplace normality…? Or have we just experienced a forced and mass pilot study of an evolving “future of work” revolution, previously the perceived bailiwick of trendy start-ups or uber-cool tech companies, that has now irrevocably changed the debate…?

What is certain is that there has never been such extensive commentary, emerging research and active debate as we are currently seeing around this future of work topic. And cutting through this hyperbole may not be simple.

“The enforced remote working of the COVID pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on how well the modern office delivers what should be its primary purpose.”

Every occupier, irrespective of scale, is trying to work out what it all means, what has worked, what is reversible or irreversible, what is worth keeping and even extending. And, fundamentally, what will be their own version of “new normal” going forward, that is specific and appropriate to their own operation, people, customers and culture.

The Quarterly Survey* of CFO sentiment published by professional services firm Deloitte in December 2020 highlights that the pandemic is set to trigger a fundamental change in the business environment, with an astonishing 98% of the CFOs polled expecting flexible working to increase, with a five-fold increase in home working expected by 2025.

The enforced remote working of the COVID pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on how well the modern office delivers what should be its primary purpose and measure: how well it enables and supports talented individuals to deliver their critical contributions to their organisation’s success.

With the physical workplace ripped out of the traditional work equation by the pandemic, all of the other factors that drive contribution have become more visible: the capability of enabling technologies; the quality of leadership, management and communication; the clarity and robustness of key business processes, collaboration and dependencies; the recognition of each individual’s willing contribution without presenteeism; their personal wellness, drive and commitment when allowed to better balance their personal and working worlds; and an employer’s understanding and acknowledgement of each individual employee as a person, their specific personal circumstances, their flexibility.

So as the business world prepares to re-enter the workplace, after a year in which many will say that the proverbial wheels of business didn’t actually fall off without the office, there will be some very tough questions asked of this expensive business asset (liability..?) as to what was actually missed by its absence and, as such, how should the many lessons learned be critically redefining its future purpose?

Adaptation before innovation

Currently no organisation can reasonably expect to fully understand what their future “steady state” way of working will look like. Many are still just adapting as best they can to their lockdown-induced hybrid workplaces, fire-fighting with limited-occupancy and socially-distanced offices, still with onerous restrictions on any human interactions within. Indeed, the best examples of free-flowing, collaborative workplaces are a bizarre anathema in a world where sealed isolation and physical barriers between souls are currently our welcome security blanket.

And this interim and inevitably inefficient occupancy model will make it hard for many to see what their ideal workplace of the future could potentially be beyond the current nightmare.

But now is absolutely the right time to be starting the debate.

The pandemic experience has torn through the status quo thinking of every element of the workplace. And, for forward-thinking organisations, the lessons learned will prove to be the solid foundations that will define their future talent, workplace technology, location and physical workplace strategies.  Creating spaces and practices that are fit for the future, developed with a level of experience and foresight that this pandemic has unexpectedly allowed.

But there cannot realistically be a “one-size” solution. What is indisputable is that the spectrum of expectations has dramatically extended around the “how, where and when” people would like to work post-COVID. Agility is here to stay, but it isn’t necessarily for everyone, be that through choice or circumstances. It has however become one of the most important aspects of this whole enforced experience and the effects will be long felt. But they are also nuanced.

“The pandemic has also starkly highlighted the practical inequalities of lockdown home working for many.”

Increasing levels of employee agility have been here for some time for many, and so the real implications may be an evolution of already existing policies, rather than a true workplace revolution.  That is perhaps reserved for those who, pre-2020, were not yet fully “bought into” the concept of workplace agility and employee mobility.  For this cohort, the impact of COVID on their businesses and their consequent approach to, need for and expectations of their workplaces could be profound.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently expounding his view that UK urban business districts will swiftly bounce back, as workers will be eager to emerge from their lockdown remote working routines to again enjoy the social interaction and integration of “the office” and of our cities. And commentators seem to agree that, in the short-term at least, we will likely see the needle swing strongly towards our wanting to enjoy “how it used to be”. But then the emerging surveys of many thousands of workers are already beginning to starkly indicate that, notwithstanding any initial desire to get back to the office, the medium-term outlook is strongly erring towards an expectation of a remote / office balance for many. Will that play out as 50/50, 60/40, 80/20? There is much work to be done to get to that answer.

And there are many interesting dimensions to these emerging preferences;

  • Many of the younger workforce demographic appear the most eager to get back into a work environment, for the collaboration, teaming, learning and social aspects. But they are also the least positive about the office as a “factory” and have the highest expectations of what an “effective workplace” should look like.
  • Senior grades appear keen to get their workforces physically back into the office, as they have sensed negative implications of remote working on corporate culture and collaboration. But perhaps also because remote management has been proven as actually quite hard to do, sustain and get right?
  • The pandemic has also starkly highlighted the practical inequalities of lockdown home working for many, emphasising those who have the benefits of dedicated home workspaces, adequate and affordable connectivity and the ability to partition off their home lives and work day responsibilities. And, indeed, the very real issue of isolation and loneliness that the enforced lockdown has highlighted as a challenge for some.
  • But an emerging positive has surely also been the proven success, in the main, of viable remote working for a multitude of roles. This must dramatically open up opportunities for a talent pool that has previously been badly disenfranchised by the need for fixed hours, fixed location, fixed geographies. So what percentage of roles can, irrevocably proven by the pandemic experience, be perfectly delivered by someone living in a non-commutable rural location, or with mobility challenges, or with caring obligations, etc…? Huge – and positive – implications for where to source future talent and, in time, even where to locate businesses.

Predicting the future model…

Not withstanding these new expectations around the “how, where and when” people would like, and indeed now feel fully able, to work post-COVID, the office is alive and well and biding its time ready for its post-COVID revamp. But how the office will be consumed and used going forward has irrevocably evolved with the experiences of the past year. How occupiers will now choose to embrace and apply those lessons feels like a unique moment of opportunity.

So, if we accept the hypothesis that the office is still important but that its primary role is looking different, then it provides for a fascinating and fundamental debate that goes far beyond just property. Indeed, the physical property solution – whatever that may look like – is in many ways likely to be the easiest piece of this “new normal” workplace conundrum.

It will be the breadth, depth and ambition of each organisation’s individual debate, spanning multiple facets of its culture, strategic priorities, leadership styles, talent agenda, operating model, financial priorities, technology ambitions and many others, that will all inform and enrich a collective and integrated strategic vision for its own future of work and “new normal”. Only armed with this vision can any organisation then define the workplaces it really needs, how much it needs, where it should be located and how it will be used.

Let the debates begin.

*Deloitte CFO Survey Q4 2020

About the authors
Chris Lewis
Chris is an Equity Partner & Head of Occupier Advisory, working with a myriad of clients from across sectors in varying stages of growth and development.

Martin Laws
Martin is an independent Executive Coach, specialising in helping Boards to understand the implications and opportunities of the evolving “future of work” debate, building on his 20+ years as a Partner within professional services firm Deloitte.

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