What’s the future of the office?

2020 saw huge changes in the way that we work. The COVID-19 novel coronavirus forced home working for millions of people, and left office blocks empty for weeks or months at a time. As we enter 2021, will that change? And will we ever go back to our previous work patterns?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d have to answer that with a “yes” to the question of change and a “no” to the return to 2019 working patterns.

Unfortunately for commercial landlords (and so for large chunks of our pension funds), the genie is out of the bottle. Remote and flexible working is now normal. Physical distancing requirements mean that offices can’t operate at their previous capacity. We simply cannot go back to a world whether offices squeeze people into banks of hot desks based on a 6 desks for every 10 people model. And as for lifts – pah! You’d better get used to climbing the stairs.

Even my rather poor fortune-telling skills come to the conclusion that we have to find a new way to use office space. And conversation with others more intellectual than I has led me to the conclusion that, rather than offices being the place for people to meet and come together to do work, they will be the places of safety for those who cannot work at home.

Offices as a meeting space

In April 2020, I’d probably have said that we still need somewhere to go and meet. Humans need contact, and some of our best work is done together. I’m itching to go back into an office, grab some pens and write on the walls, as I get increasingly excited by a concept and thrash out the details with my colleagues.

As 2020 continued, we got used to doing everything on a small screen. Whilst I seem to hear nothing but universal hatred for Microsoft Whiteboard (personally, I can’t see the problem) and tools like Miro are lauded as the latest and greatest, we are getting used to working as remote teams.

The problem comes when we have a hybrid approach with groups of people “in the room” and groups outside, as Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) has noted on multiple occasions, including the Twitter thread below:

Offices as a place of security

Some work needs to be performed in a secure environment. Arguably that could still be remote (digitally secure) but if analogue paperwork is involved then that could be a challenge.

And not everyone has a place at home in which to work, securely. For some, a kitchen counter, shared with children for their homework, may not be the best place for work. Similarly those who live with parents or in a shared house with friends may only have a bedroom in which to work. If your work is harrowing (e.g. social work), do you really want to sleep in the same room?

We need to provide a place for people to work who don’t have the option of remote work. Offices will continue to function for that purpose and it’s entirely possible that making these spaces COVID-secure will see “hot desks” return to single-person occupation.

The rise of localism

Many people are concerned about the impact of reduced office working on local businesses. What about the cleaners (if anything, they have more to do)? What about the sandwich shops? What will this mean for the country’s future transport needs?

Whilst I have genuine sympathy for the independents that are no-doubt struggling with reduced footfall and enforced closures, or partial closures, that sympathy does not extend to the Pret a Mangers and Wetherspoons of our identikit town centres. I am concerned for the people that work in these businesses but not for the corporates that own them.

But, for every pound that’s not spent in big towns and cities, there’s another that’s spent in a local economy somewhere else. The small town where I live appears to be thriving – people who previously commuted and simply weren’t in the town during weekdays now use the Thursday market and the local shops. The local coffee shop has even opened new branches.

We’ve also seen banks, for example, starting to bring spaces above branches into use as local touchdown centres, rather than encouraging workers to commute to large offices in major towns and cities.

This rise of the local economy is good for society in general and good for finding a work-life balance.

Helping people to do their best work

Perhaps the real purpose of the office is to help people to do their best work. That may take a variety of forms but it’s also where technology can help. We need to provide the safe working environment. We need to provide the collaboration spaces, whilst remaining physically distanced. We need to keep people communicating.

  • The way we work has changed and we cannot rely on being co-located.
  • “Working out loud” has to be the operating model, supported by flexible technology and processes that encourage collaboration.
  • And services provided across the Internet are now at the heart of this transformation.

Some Business Transformation may be required, to make sure the processes can keep up with new ways of working – but, whatever the future of the office is, we can be sure of continued change over the coming months and years.

Acknowledgements

Large parts of this post are based on conversations with Matt Ballantine and others on the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group. Thanks to Matt and to Chris Weston for the inspiration and for providing this community where we often work out loud, in digital safety.

Featured image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay.

What does it mean to work flexibly?

2020 has brought many things – not all of them welcome – but for many office workers one of the more significant changes has been the acceptance of working from home.

Of course, there are many jobs that can’t be carried out remotely but, for a lot of people, the increased flexibility that comes with home working is a benefit. For others, it may be less welcome – for example those who do not have a regular place to work from, or who share a house with family who are also competing for the same resources. That means that offices continue to have a role but we’re not quite sure what that is yet. One thing does seem certain: it will continue to evolve over the coming months.

Outputs, not inputs

I’ve been fortunate to have worked from home for some of the time for many years. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 but even before then I tried to work from home when I could. What I’ve seen in 2020 is organisations where managers previously wouldn’t allow their teams to work from home being forced to accept change. Very quickly. A culture of “presenteeism” was often rife and sometimes still is. Some organisations have transferred poor office-based culture to a poor online culture but others have embraced the change.

Moving to remote work means providing flexibility. That certainly means flexibility in where work takes place, but it may also mean flexibility in when the work happens.

My own work is contractually 30 hours over a 4 day working week. In reality, it’s not based on hours, it’s based on outputs – and I put in what is needed in order to deliver what is expected of me. That will almost always take more hours – and sometimes there’s a fine balance. Sometimes, I have to say “enough”. I’ve learned that modern work is never “done”, just that priorities change over time. And, as a manager, I have to look for the signs in my own team’s workload and be ready to reassign work or adjust priorities if someone is overloaded whilst a colleague has gaps.

Crucially, I don’t need my team to be in front of me to manage them.

“Working hours”

Similarly, many of us no longer need to be tied to the “9 to 5”. Some roles may require staffing at particular times but, for many office workers, meetings can be scheduled within a set of core hours. For organisations that work across time zones, that challenge of following the sun has been there for a while. Avoiding the temptation to work extended days over multiple time zones can be difficult – but, conversely, working in bursts over an extended period may work for you.

I’m mostly UK-based and nominally work on UK time. For many years, I’ve had an unwritten rule that I don’t arrange meetings first- or last-thing in the day, or over lunch. If that means that all of my meetings are between 09:30 and 12:00 or between 14:00 and 16:30, that’s fine. A solid day meetings is not good. Especially when they are all online!

Before 09:30 people with chlldren may be on the school run. Those with other dependents may have other responsibilities. Everyone is entitled to a lunch break. At the end of the day there may be other commitments, or maybe another meeting is just not going to get the best out of people who have already been in back-to-back Microsoft Teams calls.

Often, I’ll return to work in the evening to catch up on things. That’s not to say I expect others to. I actually have a disclaimer on my email which says:

“My working hours may not be your working hours.  Please do not feel any pressure to reply outside of your normal work schedule. Also, please note that I do not normally work on Fridays. Another member of the risual team will be happy to assist in my absence.”

It’s about setting expectations. In a previous role, I wrote about my email SLA but people shouldn’t feel pressured to respond immediately to email. As a former manager once told me:

“Email is an asynchronous communication mechanism over an unreliable transport.”

[Mark Locke, Fujitsu, approx 2010]

When working across time zones, that’s particularly important but we should also be empowered to work when it works for us.

For me, I’m not great at getting up in the morning. I often get into flow in the late afternoon and work into the evening.

So, whilst I’m sure messages like this one in Microsoft Outlook from My Analytics are well-intentioned, I don’t find them helpful because they are based on the concept of “working hours”. Yes, I could delay send, but what if that person likes to start their day early?

My Anaytics prompt in Microsoft Outlook to consider delaying an email until working hours.

On the basis that email should not be time-sensitive (use a chat-based medium for that – maybe even a phone), it shouldn’t matter when it’s sent, or received. The workplace culture needs to evolve to prevent the “I sent you an email” response from being acceptable. “Ah, thank you. I haven’t seen that yet but I’ll make sure I watch out for it and respond at an appropriate moment.”.

Time to adjust our expectations?

So, in a world of increased flexibility, with colleagues working at a time and place that works for them, we all need to adjust our expectations. I suggest thinking not about when a message is sent but instead about whether email is actually the right medium. And, as for whether we need a meeting or not… that’s a whole blog post in itself…

Featured image by congerdesign from Pixabay.

Working Flexibly…

I’m not saying I’ve reached what one of my Directors once referred to as “career peak” but, as middle age firmly sets in, I can say that work is just one of many priorities I have in my life right now. I’ve probably got at least another 20 years at work, but I needed to strike a better balance between paid work, my roles as a Father and husband, and my health.

For the last few months, I’ve been working flexibly. Specifically, in my case, I’ve been working part-time, 4 days a week. Contractually 30 hours but, given that I’m output-driven, it’s probably more like 40-45. It works well for me.

A few months ago I picked up a new podcast that was being auditioned on the WB-40 podcast feed. I listened to Pauline Yau (@PaulineYau) talking about flexible working and her new venture “The Flexible Movement” and found myself thinking “Yes! Yes, I’ve seen that! And I do that!”.

Shortly afterwards, Pauline and I had a chat and the result is Episode 3 of the Flexible Movement podcast:

In the podcast, Pauline and I chat about many things but I mention how I worked with my current employer to achieve a positive outcome. I also talk about a less favourable experience elsewhere – the key difference being that I didn’t know (or follow) the right process.

Flexible working is not just for parents. My generation increasingly finds ourselves squeezed between raising a family and caring for elderly relatives but there are many reasons why people might want to break away from the “nine to five”. In the UK, employees with at least 26 weeks’ service have the right to request flexible working* once a year but employees don’t have to agree to the request. There are specific grounds though and I’m sure every company with an HR department will have a process.

The video below is produced by ACAS, and looks at some of the benefts for employers as well as some practical implications of the right to request flexible working:

And I found the following links really useful when I was requesting the change in my working practices:

“Employees that feel more in control of their work-life balance are better motivated and focused in the workplace”

Working Families, 2016

Hopefully, one day, flexible working will become “normal”. For now, it relies on a supportive culture (something this BBC article touches on). It may take a generation but I really believe one day we’ll look back office workers attending a fixed place of work for set hours on weekdays the way we look back at working for one employer our whole lives today.

*Flexible working is not “working from home on a Friday”, as some might like to think.

Working from home vs living at work

Before one of my recent business trips to Manchester, my eight-year-old son expressed concerns about my sleeping arrangements. It seems that, until my wife explained that I would be staying in a hotel overnight, he thought that I might have a comfy chair to sleep in, in the office!

Sometimes though, it does feel as though that might be the approach I need to take…

Ten or so years ago, working from home was an occasional event – and I could get done in 5 hours at home what took 8 in the office (no distractions), with the added advantage of no travel. Since 2005, I’ve officially been a “home-based worker” with varying degrees of working on customer sites and, in recent years, typically working from home most days with only a couple of days in the office each week.

This has some significant advantages (both to me and to my employer) – I’ve seen my kids grow up, never missed a school nativity play, or sports day etc. but it also re-calibrates the expectation of working at home. The new normal is to be in my home office for a full day – and then to probably go back again in the evening.  I don’t have a desk at the company office (I barely even use a hot desk), and modern communications mean that I’m contactable almost 24×7, if I choose to be (at least 12×5).

These last few weeks have reached a new level and this week was particularly bad.

On one day this week I had no breaks between dropping the kids at school and wall to wall conference calls.  I had to ask my wife to bring me toast and Marmite when it reached 11:00 and I hadn’t managed to get any breakfast, then to do the same for me with a sandwich at lunchtime (munched on mute whilst taking part in a call). At 15:30 I finally got off the phone (mobile phone battery severely depleted, my ear seriously warm) to deal with the day’s email – and it was the evening before I got around to doing something productive.

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that, on one day, I managed to go straight from bed (after working into the small hours the night before) to work, and back to bed again in the evening without having got dressed. I do feel sometimes as though I live at work, rather than work at home.

So, the next time someone is working at home, and you joke about skiving off, remember that the 9-5 has its advantages too…

This weekend, I’ll be continuing my drive to separate home and work IT (just as I do for telephony) in a quest to be able to switch off the laptop at evenings and weekends…

I can but dream…

Short takes: Flexible working and data protection for mobile devices

It’s been another busy week and I’m still struggling to get a meaningful volume of blog posts online so here are the highlights from a couple of online events I attended recently…

Work smarter, not harder… the art of flexible working

Citrix Online has been running a series of webcasts to promote its Go To Meeting platform and I’ve attended a few of them recently. The others have been oriented towards presenting but, this week, Lynne Copp from the Work Life Company (@worklifecompany) was talking about embracing flexible working. As someone who has worked primarily from home for a number of years now, it would have been great for me to get a bit more advice on how to achieve a better work/life balance (it was touched upon, but most of the session seemed to be targeted how organisations need to change to embrace flexible working practices) but some interesting resources have been made available including:

Extending enterprise data protection to mobile devices

Yesterday, I joined an IDC/Autonomy event looking at the impact of mobile devices on enterprise data protection.

IDC’s Carla Arend (@carla_arend) spoke about how IDC sees four forces of IT industry transformation in cloud, mobility, big data/analytics and social business. I was going to say “they forgot consumerisation” but then it was mentioned as an overarching topic. I was certainly surprised that the term used to describe the ease of use that many consumer services provide was that we have been “spoiled” but the principle that enterprise IT often lags behind is certainly valid!

Critically the “four forces of IT industry transformation” are being driven by business initiatives – and IT departments need to support those requirements. The view put forward was that IT organisations that embrace these initiatives will be able to get funding; whilst those who still take a technology-centric view will be forced to continue down the line of doing more with less (which seems increasingly unsustainable to me…).

This shift has implications for data management and protection – managing data on premise and in the cloud, archiving data generated outside the organisation (e.g. in social media, or other external forums), managing data on mobile devices, and deciding what to do with big data (store it all, or just some of the results?)

Looking at BYOD (which is inevitable for most organisations, with or without the CIO’s blessing!) there are concerns about: who manages the device; who protects it (IDC spoke about backup/archive but I would add encryption too); what happens to data when a device is lost/stolen, or when the device is otherwise replaced; and how can organisations ensure compliance on unmanaged devices?

Meanwhile, organisational application usage is moving outside traditional office applications too, with office apps, enterprise apps, and web apps running on increasing numbers of devices and new machine (sensor) and social media data sets being added to the mix (often originating outside the organisation). Data volumes create challenges too, as well as the variety of locations from which that data originates or resides. This leads to a requirement to carefully consider which data needs to be retained and which may be deleted.

Cloud services can provide some answers and many organisations expect to increasingly adopt cloud services for storage – whether that is to support increasing volumes of application data, or for PC backups. IDC is predicting that the next cloud wave will be around the protection of smart mobile devices.

There’s more detail in IDC’s survey results (European Software Survey 2012, European Storage Survey 2011) but I’ve certainly given the tl;dr view here…

Unfortunately I didn’t stick around for the Autonomy section… it may have been good but the first few minutes were feeling too much like a product pitch to me (and to my colleague who was also online)… sometimes I want the views, opinions and strategic view – thought leadership, rather than sales – and I did say it’s been a busy week!