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The Future of the Office: how companies are reshaping the experience for employees and customers

Joanna Swash, Group CEO of Moneypenny, was a guest presenter on the Nowhere Office podcast recently, along with Michael Creamer, the eminent property expert and Chairman, Global Occupier Services (GOS) EMEA at Cushman & Wakefield who advises corporate occupiers about office and industrial real estate.  The show is presented by regular hosts Julia Hobsbawm, the acclaimed author of The Nowhere Office book, and columnist for Bloomberg’s Work Shift, and Stefan Stern, the distinguished management and business writer.

The recent episode, New Realities in Corporate Real Estate, saw the panel discuss how the office has shifted dramatically over the last 20-30 years, with the hybrid office movement being probably the biggest factor that has altered the way corporates think about their office real estate.

Michael Creamer observed: “The changes are iterative and we’re only just scratching the surface of how the future of work will look, and the modern space that people will need to go to. Leaders would like the certainty of having workers in five days a week, and workers want the certainty that they can do whatever they want, wherever they want. The truth is somewhere between these two desires.”

Julia Hobsbawn has recently written on changes to interior work space which she describes as ‘The Great Refurb,’ and believes there are three areas that will need to be considered in this: sustainability, safety and social lives.  She said: “Building developers now need to think about sustainability and net zero targets and ESG, and these factors are top of the agenda for any corporation and have to be filtered down to the real estate teams.”

Crucial factors office planners now have to consider
Michael Creamer is seeing that there are two essential parts to office planning: firstly there is  health and wellbeing, and what that means in an office environment for the individual employee which is a key concern for workers and bosses.  Secondly there is the building itself and how it fits into the environment in which it is located.  “For example, you might have an office tower in any city in the world: is it there just to service the needs of the people who come in every day, or does it have an impact on its environment? The answer is that  this hasn’t really been considered before.”

What will happen to the office experience, from reception to Teams meetings?
In terms of the visitor experience, Michael has observed companies looking at this in two ways: they are very interested in how the customer experiences coming into the building, but they are also very interested in the employee experience too.  He says: “The latter concern is about how you encourage people to come back into work, and part of this is the fit out of the building, the other part is what impression you have on entering a building.  Is it a frictionless experience coming in, or have you got to go through five levels of security? The industry tends to think about this like a hotel experience, so the buzz is ‘We need a Four Seasons experience’, and a lot of this wasn’t considered in the past.”

Michael commented that some companies are looking at having robots on the front desk, which he doesn’t believe is a trend that’s here to stay, as the important point about getting people back into the office, or for the customers coming to it, is the personal experience.  “Post pandemic no-one is coming into the office nine to five anymore, unless they have to, but we are going to see more on the personal experience – how you’re greeted, what there is in the lobby for you to do. Corporates are thinking about the public space in their buildings – you’re going to have coffee shops and art galleries.  You may have space open to the public who just want to enter the building, and if you are one of the company’s employees you have to think how you get past this without friction from the public space.”

In the old pre-pandemic days, people would have meetings in person, in their office, or they would visit people for a meeting.  Michael comments: “Now, the reality is we may be sitting in the office on a Teams meeting with colleagues sitting just a few rows away, and with someone on the floor below, as well as with people who aren’t in the office, and I think that isn’t working and needs to change.”

How HR and tech will impact the office environment
Michael Creamer observed that corporate real estate teams are working much more closely with HR and technology, and there will need to be some rules about how you function in an office to make the experience productive rather than difficult for everyone.

According to Joanna Swash  we need to ask “How do people want to do their jobs? What resources and tools do we have that we’ve never had before? It’s a big opportunity for change.”  Moneypenny is seeing this across all its clients who are re-imagining change.  Social spaces are proving really important as people going into the office want that opportunity for human contact.

Michael Creamer  reported that Cushman & Wakefield’s proprietary Experience per Square Foot™ data shows that Gen Z workers want to come into the office, to collaborate and socialise. It’s not just about the individual though, it’s about the team too, so there are layers of complexity to work though.

The future of the meeting.
Michael Creamer  commented: “During the pandemic everyone got into the habit of having more meetings online, inviting more people, as that was a way of including everyone during a difficult time.  Secondly we equated the efficiency of our day with productivity, as it was the only way to operate. Post pandemic, now that we have choice, efficiency and productivity are not the same thing.  Too many meetings with too many people is a hangover from the pandemic. If you’re honest you’ll realise some of those meetings are more effective if held in person, and that’s not a question of analogue versus digital, it’s just the way humans are, and we can get a lot a more out of meeting someone in person.  People say they managed eight meetings during a typical pandemic day, but your mental health would suffer if you carried on in that way long term, and if you look at the data you’ll see we have a major mental health issue, and the office has a major part to play in [addressing] that issue by getting people together physically.”

De-industrialising the office
Michael Creamer  believes that pre-pandemic we tried to industrialise work, hence everyone went to the office, or the factory, and they worked from 9am-5pm and then they were allowed to go home.  “That was great for the employer as they knew where everyone was, and they could measure productivity by presenteeism. The fact that work hasn’t gone back to how it was pre-pandemic shows the system was broken. Clients are acting like the tech world and are using data to try to understand what their employees want, which is a big shift, and they are building spaces to see what will works, and they should expect they’ll have to change it in 12 months when they see what works.”

Michael Creamer doesn’t believe things have settled down into two to three days in the office; we’ll see what really works in three to four years time. He thinks that ultimately it means offices will be better places for us to go to when we want to.

The importance of becoming an employer of choice
Some people find all these work practice changes unsettling.  Joanna Swash commented: “A big factor to consider is that it’s not about what employers want, because we are all competing for brilliant staff. We’ve got to be an employer of choice, and create working practices and a working environment where people want to work.”  Joanna explains that this might mean looking at the equipment provided for people working from home, and also what the office space looks and feels like.

Michael Creamer mentioned a recent study by Adobe that asked Gen Z what was important to them in terms of a job, and after salary, the second top choice was a good work/life balance, and also a healthy work environment.  A total of 75% would be prepared to move to be closer to the point of work, which shows they value going to the office, for collaboration and socialisation.

Are we going to work more immersively?
According to Julia Hobsbawm, the commute has become reviled, and we’re going to work more immersively.  Cost and time to commute to London is an issue, and Michael Creamer commented that in contrast, for people living and working in European cities like Milan and Barcelona, this isn’t an issue, as they all live within 10 or 15 minutes of where they work. “We have to be careful that we aren’t London, South East or big city centric. The liveable ‘15 minute city’ is very real.  Law firms have had sleeping pods for many years; it’s not a new concept.”

Julia recently met a company saying that there is greater resistance to people going back into the office in London than there is in Zurich, because there’s a bigger commute in London. Younger people want to be more immersed in office life but also want their freedom.

Michael Creamer  believes it’s not so much about the commute; for example the new King’s Cross hub is accessible.  The issue is the cost of living in major city like London. Companies may therefore decide to locate in mid-sized cities where costs aren’t such an issue.  Some of the restrictions on what companies can and can’t do are down to planning restrictions, so big cities are going to have to think about what they allow.

In San Francisco some of the big tech companies are building housing for their staff, which goes back to the days of Cadbury who did the same thing in creating the Bourneville village in the late 19th /early 20th century.

The biggest emerging trend is people going to a physical place of work less than five days a week, and also the rise in the use of data and tech to allow us to design those spaces to give people the experience they need, and this will be a focus for the businesses in terms of the productivity they get from staff.  Michael Creamer added: “Underlying this, the environmental impact of the built environment on net zero is huge, so we’re seeing massive change in materials – offices are being built from timber.  We’re going to see very different design and use of offices over the next five to 10 years.”

Future of the office visitor experience
Michael Creamer pointed out that the purpose of a business is to make money.  With ESG, companies are thinking about what they are doing other than offering employment and running a profitable business, and one of the first places to think about is the reception.  When you visit a building you get an impression of who the business is, so thinking about front of house as a reflection of how you treat your staff and customers and what is the purpose of the business, is where it should go.

Julia also believes it’s about making the person and the purpose the same.  Does everyone want ultra personalisation?  We want a frictionless experience, which we’ll get with tech used correctly. Michael Creamer says: “Coming into a very large expensive lobby doesn’t tell us a lot about a company other than it spends a lot of money, but coming into a building and saying ‘wow it’s open to the local community, how great is that’ says a lot about the company and its values. People want to work for a company that means something and matters.”

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