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.