Accelerating towards the future workplace

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The global pandemic has thrown a spotlight on how and where we work and accelerated the rate of change of workplace transformation. Our most recent webinar looked at how businesses are managing this transformation and shared insights on what the future may bring. The panel included Ben Almond, Global Head of Property at Pearson PLC, Jitesh Sodha, Chief Financial Officer and Executive Director of Spire Healthcare Group plc and Pauline Broadway, Change Leader and the Founder of why flex? This blog summarises the main themes of our discussion.

You can listen to the whole webinar here.

The last few months have been a giant global experiment in remote working and a crash course in new technologies. Pauline shared from Jay Van Bavel, Associate Professor at New York University, the observation that “we have just undergone the largest behavior-change experiment in the history of humanity”. Now, as vaccines offer the prospect of bringing the virus under control, it’s time to focus on what’s next for the workplace.

#WFH – what we’ve learned so far

On the plus side, we’ve learned that:

  • People (even the most sceptical) can be productive at home, given the right tools and support.
  • Roles as diverse as call centre agents and capital market traders can be done remotely.
  • Technologies such as Zoom and MS Teams makes it easy to communicate important information rapidly and consistently with everyone.
  • Virtual get togethers can increase employee engagement. Pauline told us that where an ‘all hands’ meeting in a physical environment might get 60% attendance, the online version can attract 100%. And that individuals who would never have asked a question in the physical meeting are more than willing to speak up in the virtual version.
  • Paradoxically, we’re feeling more connected – when we see each others’ homes, families and pets, we understand more about our colleagues’ lives and experience empathy.
  • In the longer run, more remote working might help us increase workforce diversity and inclusion; by uncoupling the location and role, we can tap into a wider pool of talent.

What’s next? The hybrid workplace

How can we adopt new flexible ways of working so that everyone benefits?  Moreover, when work is something I do, not somewhere I go, then where on earth is my office?

Our panel all agreed that the way forward is a hybrid model of work, and a hybrid workplace. The collective viewpoint is that ‘hybrid’ means providing a choice of physical space and environment. The success of hybrid working will require us to be more intentional about our activities. We used to go to the office, sit at our desk, do a few emails and then decide what we wanted to do that day. We’ll need to swap that around. To ask, ‘what do I need to do today?’ and only then decide where to do it – to take a more focused approach to the working day.

What ‘hybrid’ means in practice will be different for each organisation, its vision, and culture. Ben Almond described the process used to determine what hybrid means for Pearson.

  1. Activity – what do we want to do, which tasks, what roles are in play?
  2. Assets – what buildings, which technologies do we need to carry out those activities?
  3. Access – where should these assets be located to support these activities? How can we make better use of workplace technology (e.g booking and reserving) to manage the efficient utilisation of the assets?

Offices will be redesigned as spaces where people go for purposeful collaboration, or where there is an activity that is best carried out in a managed space. Spire Healthcare, Jitesh told us, has already consolidated its London office onto a single floor with space designed specifically for collaborative use, and where no-one has their own desk anymore.

Of course, not everyone works in an office. Hospitals, for example, are places where physical presence is necessary.  To some extent, the pandemic has increased remote working in such locations also, translating physical encounters into the virtual space, with remote consultations. However, the virus has created the need to ensure that bricks and mortar workplaces are safe environments. This can be achieved through social distancing and testing both staff and patients.

What leaders should think about now

Boards must put workplace transformation at the top of their agenda. Operational and behavioural transformation on this scale needs to be strategically planned – even deciding on the key decisions will be difficult. Consider that:

  • No single team can do this. It will require a collaborative effort from the whole internal ecosystem, involving HR, IT, real estate and facilities management.
  • Leaders should listen to their teams to find out what works well, rather than telling people what to do.
  • Employers have the same duty of care to people working at home. We will need to develop appropriate health and safety policies, as well as take into account employees’ insurance and mortgage/rental commitments.
  • We’ll need fresh leadership models. Organisations will need to learn how to monitor performance and support employees that do not rely on ‘presenteeism’. For some managers, that’s going to be a tricky mindset to adopt.
  • Real estate is central. Estate rationalisation was underway before the crisis, but there are massive implications when every business decides it only needs 50% of its former office space. It’s a complex financial conundrum and boards will need to keep their finance and property partners close.

Don’t look back

Any business leaders who are looking forward to going back to the old days – the busy office, their own desk and team to hand – are going to be disappointed. In the short term, the virus isn’t going away. Social distancing and other public health measures will be with us for a while. The writing is on the wall for traditional corporate offices.

The crisis has given us a tremendous opportunity to accelerate workplace transformation and deliver its benefits for all. Hybrid working, collaborative workspaces are the way forward, and sharing our learnings and experiences is an important part of making it all happen.