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July 2012 edition of CEO’s Digital Workplace

Transport for London (TFL) is asking employers and staff in the capital city to reduce commuter traffic by 30% during the six-week period surrounding the London Olympics. But what will be the long-term impact on the office itself? Is there a danger that this extended pilot is so successful that the office goes into terminal decline?

TFL estimates that there will be an extra 20 million journeys on public transport during the London Olympics and Paralympics — and the only way to handle that spike without a transport meltdown is for work to happen away from the office. On a typical day one million people commute into London to work – most to work in offices.

Offices Face Competition

For the better part of 200 years, traveling to workplaces (including factories, retail, warehouses as well as offices) has been essential to performing work. Until the last five years, there has never been any real “competition” as the tools of your trade sat uniquely in the physical workplace. But under our noses, that advantage has been gradually eroding. With mobile devices, high-speed connectivity and lighter technology, traveling to work has been increasingly a choice rather than a requirement.

During London 2012, half of all London employers say they will allow staff to work from home and 25 per cent will actively encourage staff to do that. O2, the mobile phone company, recently shut down its 12,000 staff office near London for a day to test working without an office and results were positive in terms of business performance.

In a way the Olympics could not have come at a worse time for those managing office real estate. Already under threat from a drive towards agile working and ever more portable work technology, predicting the size, role and design of offices has never been harder. Who will come to the offices we own, how often, what will they do when they are there — and how on earth do we plan for the variations?

A unique experiment

What this London 2012 office exodus is likely to do is provide a unique investigation into work shifting in a major industrialized, technological hub. Six weeks is long enough to change patterns of work forever as people have time to adjust, refine and get to enjoy the flexibility. It is not that after the Games are over, people will just stay at home but they will have a proven, viable choice.

The issue for physical workplaces is that they change slowly by their nature. Yes you can re-design the interiors with break-out area for “collaborative working” with cafes where meetings happen and quiet areas but all that takes time and money — and you still have 30,000 square feet of prime commercial property for 10 years, when maybe you only need 3,000. This shows the need for adaptation not extinction. Offices can remain as the hub of thriving enterprise if they maintain their importance to the working community. If you value the importance of the office space you provide for your employees, take a look at professional office cleaning companies to make sure it is properly looked after. It should capitalise on it’s ability to provide all the tools needed to create a productivity workforce, such as photocopiers, assistance from other workers. The office should reflect the current world we live in not the 1990’s. Thats why it is important office supplies are new and up to date to further entice workers and businesses to avoid the cynical skepticism that the office finds itself imposed with.

Meanwhile “digital workplaces” — virtual worlds of the phone, video, email, HR systems, intranets and the like — change rapidly. What takes years in the physical world happens in days digitally. If travelling to work becomes a choice rather than a mandate, offices are going to have to work much harder and produce compelling reasons for us to make the time-expensive journey in the first place. One motivation can be that your manager insists on your physical presence because that is what they are used to or because that is how the company operates. But this habit based on compulsion is getting diluted. What happens in a company when some managers opt to give their staff a choice, while other managers resist? What about when the company finds recruiting the best staff harder because the inflexible approach to work puts new hires off joining? Eventually this “pressure motivation” to come to the office will decline in its importance.

Is “Face Time” over-rated?

Another rationale for the office is that it supposedly offers a unique service that no amount of home working can match — interaction with colleagues. To share ideas, innovate, understand what others are doing, we need to spend time in each other’s company physically. But while this may be true for technical developers at BT (as they are finding) or Google or in adverting agencies, it is not true for all work. Walk into many offices what you see are people sitting in isolated workstations in silence, having none of the “water cooler” conversations we hear about as happening.

According to property consultants Jones Lang LaSalle, on a typical day only 40% of office space is being used. Space per employee has dropped from 400 square feet in 1985 to 250 in 2010 and expected to be 150 or lower by 2020. Also with social networking tools like Yammer or Jive, the creative exchanges and gossip is happening digitally and across many regions. Is the idea that the office is a hot bed of creative, dynamic exchange a myth?

The issue it seems not so much about the layout and size of the office but more about their location. Currently most major organizations have a small number of offices designed to house large numbers of staff. But what if there were far more, smaller offices — perhaps ones that were shared with other large enterprises but located close to where people live? The commute is avoided but the opportunity for the social connection of work remains.

If the physical workplaces of the modern organization are going to be compelling in the new digital worlds of work, they need transforming, not in terms of their layout but far more radically so they are located much closer to where staff and contractors actually live. As work becomes portable we will most likely find ourselves returning to a more local way of living and working, where it suits us to do so. Offices will need to react to the new competition in innovative, surprising ways.

About the author

Paul Miller is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020 and 2021 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation.

Paul is a business and social entrepreneur. His latest book is ‘Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age’ (co-authored with Shimrit Janes). His previous book, The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the Management Book of the Year 2016 Award. Paul’s first book, The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work, helped to popularize and explain the term “digital workplace”. Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University. He hosts the Digital Workplace Impact podcast.

Paul hosted the pioneering internet radio show Digital Workplace Live and is Executive Producer of the 24-hour global digital experience DWG24.

Prior to founding DWG, Paul was Founder and CEO of communications company The Empowerment Group; Publisher and Editor of social and digital innovation magazine “Wave”; and, in pre-internet days, co-founder of the Ideas Café salon. He lives in the Cotswolds in the UK.

See more about Paul Miller on Wikipedia

Connect with Paul on Twitter: @paulmillersays

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