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The people-less office?

How will offices of the future differ to the traditional workplace, the blueprint of which was designed generations ago and is still widely prevalent? Asks Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive of the British Council of Offices (BCO).

What is the future of the office in terms of the increase in remote and flexible working? What do employers have to consider, when planning their offices for the reality of flexible and remote working now and in the future? With a marked rise in remote and flexible working, many have predicted that the office as we know it will not survive beyond the next decade. It’s true that we are already working anywhere we wish. Working outside the office has now become a fact of life and it is likely that this trend will continue to accelerate as the ‘Facebook generation’ enters the world of work. Will the traditional notion of working in a fixed location be at odds with the connected world that they have become accustomed to? With a recent survey from Microsoft revealing that 68 percent of workers now use social media to communicate with their colleagues, will the rise of ‘anytime, anywhere’ communication remove the need for employees to turn up to the office at all?

It won’t surprise you that I think the office is here to stay. While undoubtedly increased communication through social media and connected technology will ensure that out of office working practices will become increasingly the norm over the coming years, the need for human contact, to discuss and generate ideas will not diminish. The British Council for Offices’ (BCO) report, The challenges for the office sector over the next decade and beyond found that the office still holds considerable value as an environment which fosters social interaction. People are essentially social and tribal in nature, they need an office so they can debate and discuss ideas face-to-face.

Moves from some of the world’s most high-tech businesses over the past year show the importance they place on the office. Yahoo’s Chief Executive Marissa Mayer even placed a limit on home working. Her decision was fuelled by her belief that the physical workplace helps to foster better ‘communication and collaboration’ and therefore ultimately the success of her business. Supporting this decision, the BCO’s research paper What workers want found that Generation Y employees had a much higher preference for working in the office that than their older colleagues (35 +). Yahoo is only one of the many companies beginning to realise that technology is no substitute for human contact and spontaneous, creative interaction. Some of the most innovative organisations in the TMT sector are driving London office demand, with companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype and LinkedIn accounting for 22 percent of overall office take-up in Central London in 2012 (Jones Lang LaSalle, London TMT Digest February 2013).

This blend of an increasingly connected world, combined with the growing emphasis placed by businesses on creating an office which encourages collaborative working, ensures organisations must create a workplace which enables flexible working practices; where employees are given the freedom to work in a way best suited to them as individuals, as oppose to simply facilitating flexible working. The BCO’s research paper Making Flexible Working Work found that by introducing flexible working practices, organisations were able to make changes that met the requirements of their specific business, while also reflecting the preferences of individual employees. This trend towards individual choice and preference may well be facilitated by technology. Intelligent offices are increasingly expected to respond to employee preferences, knowing and adjusting to each individual’s preferred light and temperature level for example, and potentially even notifying employees when one of their contacts enters the building. In the immediate future, tablets, mobile technology and cloud computing are reducing the need for organisations to rely on a space-consuming computer infrastructure, and with a recent study by Manchester Business School finding that ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) is on the rise, offices need to ensure they are simple and flexible enough to match this dynamic working style. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not just the younger generation who are demanding an office which accommodates modern working practices. The BCO’s recent survey What Workers Want found that an office with WiFi was more important to those respondents over the age of 55, compared with only a third of 18-24 year olds.

While social media and mobile technology do not spell the end for the office, they do enable businesses to operate in workplaces very different to those they would have previously considered. Workers are now able to conduct meetings and conference calls from the comfort of the cafe, as opposed to booking out a meeting room or from their desk. The key is developing a workspace that truly suits the needs of the occupier organisation. It is therefore no coincidence that start-ups and SMEs have been increasingly tailoring older, Grade B office space to their specific requirements to create a space which mirrors both their business image and culture. Of course, the adoption of smaller or unconventional spaces will only work for certain organisations. This will not work for the likes of the finance and banking sector who are constrained by a need for larger floorplates for the trading floor.

There will of course be challenges in creating this dynamic, flexible and technology focused workplace. Certain industries such as the creative and TMT sector are naturally much more suited to this kind of work environment, as the younger, more transient workforce that tends to work in such industries will more easily adapt and embrace this unconventional office environment. This is borne out in their preferences. BCO research found that ‘Generation Y’ employees tended to favour a more creative, casual fit-out compared to a standard design, as opposed to older workers who were more accustomed to a conventional fit-out. With offices and workplace culture an increasingly important weapon in the war for talent, it is likely that organisations in these industries will continue to provide offices which are appealing to potential employees. However, ‘funky’ office fit outs are not just the preserve of the young generation, with 69 percent of respondents to the BCO’s survey believing that a bespoke office interior improved their productivity. For example, Virgin Money created a contemporary workspace within a historic, listed building for their HQ in Edinburgh – a huge contrast to the often traditional layouts of the banking sector. This creative office design has resulted in a significant uplift in attendance and satisfaction of both customers and employees. Plus, with the retirement age increasing to 65, it will become ever more important for organisations to ensure their offices can adapt for the ever ageing workforce.

This all boils down to the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the office of the future. Compared to 20 years ago the needs of office workers are ever more diverse, as the technical innovations of the last two centuries break up years of uniformity. Organisations therefore need to ensure that they adopt an office design which is specific to their workforce and business needs. Offices which can be tailored to individual preferences within the same space will ensure that an organisation’s office design works hard for all employees. Therefore it is crucial that organisations engage their workforce when designing a new office space, in order to ensure that the office not only meets the expectations of their employees, but also works hard to ensure the organisation is productive as possible. In a survey of 1,000 office workers by the BCO in 2011, only 32 percent of the 1,000 office workers surveyed had ever been consulted about the design of their office space, yet 77 percent said they would like to be involved. PwC is a good example of an organisation which has done this. Detailed engagement with their employees heavily influenced both the design and location of their new office in the St James Place development in Norwich. By consulting with employees through a staff survey, interviews and steering committee, PwC concluded that the office was tired and not suited to business needs. This example and the aforementioned results show that organisations run a real risk of not only designing an office which does not fit with their employees needs, but also alienating their workforce, if they fail to consider their preferences during the design stage. Despite all this, designing the office of the future does not need to be a daunting task. In the BCO’s What Workers Want report, the top three features which mattered most to employees were surprisingly conventional. Adequate lighting, space and temperature control were seen as the most important features of the office for employees, and therefore getting the basics right has to remain at the heart of any future office development. While office design must adapt and change as time goes on, catering for the ever evolving requirements of the workforce; one thing is certainly clear, the office is here to stay.

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