Offices are not factories
“Offices are not factories” was one of the key takeaways from my recent conversation with Wanda T. Wallace, author of “You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise” and managing partner of the Leadership Forum Inc.
We had a great discussion on her ‘Out of the Comfort Zone’ leadership podcast, as we explored the changing face of office work, how people wish to work differently and how office buildings need to adapt to a new paradigm. It seems that coping with life post-lockdown, both business leaders and the real estate industry are going to be pushed well beyond their comfort zones.
It was interesting to see how everything we discussed was connected. Whilst this is a challenge especially given all the ambiguity around this topic, it might be useful to stand back and focus on three key aspects.
Office Work is Changing
Over the last decade we have seen a steady stream of change in office work. With the advances in digital technology we are entering into the final chapter of the transition from the old analogue ways of working – the long-established paper processing activities are now coming to an end. This means that the factory-like, production-line management thinking which called for rows and rows of desks, seas of cubicles and corner offices are also in the final chapter. Furthermore, I learned from our conversation that we need to consider the concept of, are we confusing digital with automation? Should office workers be challenging themselves to see what aspects of their job could be automated? If that is the case, will we need as many middle management roles as we have today? It is evident that the enforced but successful Work from Home (WFH) experiment of 2020 accelerated changes that were already taking place.
Office Workers are Changing
For the first time ever people who work in offices and who took the daily commute for granted have had time to think and reflect on their lives, their careers, their priorities and concerns. Despite vaccination programmes and finding ways to combat Covid-19, we are living in ‘pandemic times’ for the foreseeable future and this brings into play another new factor – fear – and this is a global phenomenon. When history is written I suspect the Covid-fear factor will be defined as driving massive societal and behavioural changes.
Equally, for the first time ever office workers are recognising that they have some real choices to make in the ways they work and in particular their commuting preferences. On evidence to date, they are exercising this choice and voting with their feet.
Offices Need to Change
The player who is most ‘out of their comfort zone’ is the existing real estate system of providing and operating offices across the globe. Responding to the changing demands of their tenants is unprecedented and the industry has never had to face a challenge like this before. It is certainly pushing property companies, brokers and many others in the sector into uncharted territory.
Office buildings per se may not need to change, but the delivery and operating system needs a major overhaul. We urgently need some fresh thinking and innovation to put all these office buildings to better and more sustainable use.
Connecting the Dots
It was interesting to see Wanda make the connection between a productive work force and a productive workplace. Which is the central argument of my book ‘Where Is My Office?’
Wanda summed up her take as follows:
“Who would have thought that we would need to talk about real estate when we talk about leadership?” If you are leading an enterprise you now need to be thinking about the space you are providing for your people. The kind of atmosphere that is created and what the workspace engenders, fosters and encourages your people to do. Leaders need to be asking questions such as;
- why do you really want your people to come to the office?
- why would people want to come to the office and how do you create an environment that attracts them?
- what do you expect people to do while they are there? What sort of space is actually going to foster and support those activities?
As opposed to spending an hour plus in a commute just to come to a downtown office with all the hassle and huge amount of stress. Just to go into an office to sit at a desk, not talk to anybody, just to send out a bunch of emails. Surely there has to be a more productive use of our time? Let’s hope we can figure out a better way to work”