The COVID-19 Crisis has meant businesses throughout the world have had to change the way they work. And with the success of working from home culture during the pandemic businesses throughout the world are starting to think about what their offices should be and do in the future. But how will offices change?
When I set up GrowTraffic back in 2009, I was working from home in my spare time. I worked myself ragged for many years to get things off the ground and a couple of years later GT client work was paying for a small office in The Watermark in Preston. It wasn’t a big office, it was about 3.5m x 3.5m. Gary and I used to refer to it as “the cell.” But there was something about having an office that felt important to both of us.
After some setbacks, GrowTraffic returned to a home-based business. I think that was important because it was during this time, and after Rachel and Hannah started working for the business, that we really put in place the processes to facilitate the business to move from just being a freelance side-hustle.
And then it happened again; after GrowTraffic had grown to a certain point, we had yet another employee joining the team and it felt necessary to once again get an office. In many ways though, this time around, we didn’t need an office. We had already spent five years perfecting the systems and processes we needed to work from home – and it worked!
But there is still something about the benefits of having an office that goes beyond the delivery of work and this is something that many businesses are now having to contend with, to contemplate and strategise about.
The week before we went into lockdown we took the decision that we would all hunker down and work from home until the end of lockdown. We were fortunate because this was baked into the business. Even when we worked in the office, we had remote employees and contractors, we never became an office-based business with home workers, we were always a homeworking business with an office.
Many businesses have worked hard to adapt. Many have changed in unprecedented ways and much to the amazement of business owners, managers, employees and media pundits, most businesses have been able to make it work.
It’s not always been easy and some have found it easier than others, but overall one of the most important things to have come out of the pandemic is the knowledge that we can send most of our employees home and still get similar and often higher levels of productivity.
Every sector and industry of the economy has been touched by the coronavirus crisis and what has to be thought of as one of the biggest experiments in how we work and live. It’s also sped up existing work trends by several years.
I’ve been working in marketing for the best part of two decades. When I started working, everyone wore a suit to work in an office – everyone, everywhere. It was still a thing. Slowly but surely that started to decline and by the time the country emerged from the credit crunch and the last recession things were getting that bit less formal. People were even starting to talk about working from home.
Let’s face it, for most office workers, we had the technology to work from home by the early 2000s, but it would take another ten years before people would start to actively look for roles and offer roles that included some form of flexibility.
But many, if not most businesses, were still wedded to the idea that the office was one of the most important parts of the running of a business in the 21st Century. I’ve known a lot of business owners who hate the idea of people working from home. They railed against it.
Businesses believed these offices had to be located in the centre of cities in order to compete for the best talent and increasingly promoted engagement and collaboration in their open-plan, astroturfed office utopias.
I spearheaded a marketing campaign called It Pays To Play for an HR software company I used to work for. Through this sizable campaign, we encouraged businesses to maximise the amount of fun in the workplace in order to get the best employees and to get the best from their employees. It was all very Googleesque and probably a lot of business owners thought we were having some kind of joke on them. They didn’t want their employees to be lounging about playing games and acting juvenile. But guess what, it attracted the best employees who clearly didn’t just want to work in a normal office environment!
And those forward-thinking businesses that had already used software such as Zoom, had already figured out they probably didn’t need the office to work the way it was doing. At GrowTraffic, we are already masters of using Zoom, WhatsApp and Assana to communicate with our fellow co-workers. But many other businesses have quickly caught up.
After only a few weeks in lockdown, it was clear that those fears that people wouldn’t be productive at home – or couldn’t be trusted to work at home – were proved to be baseless. Whatsmore, the people who started working from home by and large found out the huge benefits of working from home and figured out they probably kind of liked it.
When Rachel started working on GrowTraffic, she always said she wanted part of our culture to be a working culture that working women would benefit from working in. Having always worked in fairly male-orientated tech companies, when I came back to working on GrowTraffic fulltime, being able to work on my day-to-day in a more flexible way was a fantastic liberation and something that went a long way to healing some of the damage an almost absentee life had done to some of the relationships in my life. I think a lot of people will have come to the same conclusion and many of them won’t want to go back.
This is also changing the way organisations think about the future of their workforce. Business management teams are increasingly asking themselves if they really need to hire someone near their headquarters and they can probably have all the benefits of the work-from-home ‘new normal’ without all the property expenses they used to have. But is that realistic?
Before I go on offering my thoughts on the future of work and the future of workspaces, I should probably declare an interest. For the last 18 months, we have been in the process of acquiring a fairly special building to develop office space for GrowTraffic and also a to act as a small hub for digital/creative businesses. So I have an interest here and I’m not going to be completely unbiassed.
The old church building we’re in the process of trying to acquire is in Bacup, Rossendale, which is where we live. There are two GrowFos (as we lovingly call GrowTraffic team members) who are based in South Yorkshire. So whilst we’re getting an office, this is never going to be about having one office where everyone lives. Just a big handy hub. Well, handy for us…
Here are some images of what we’re looking to do:
We will always be a work from home business that has an office and not the other way around.
That said, let me explain…
OK, so we need to face facts here. We’re probably not going to get a vaccine for COVID-19 for some time to come. We could be talking years. And society has to change. That means the regular wearing of masks and social distancing are going to become something of a social norm. We can see this is something of a way of life in South East Asia for many people. We’re going to see offices going in that direction too.
The obvious advantage of an office is all those collaborative moments, the gathering together or huddles that spontaneously happen around the kettle, what they call in the US ‘watercooler moments.’
I’ve noticed that whilst working from home, those moments definitely happen less, or at least they happen with fewer people. And we are a business that is used to using technology to facilitate those moments. I can’t imagine what it is like for those businesses where it’s not already part of their culture.
One of the pressing questions we’ve got to ask ourselves when thinking about what the future of the workplace looks like is: “were we able to work from home successfully because we knew it wouldn’t last forever?”
So, if some employees love working from home, some hate it, and if it liberates businesses and makes them more productive, it may also be limiting creativity. We’re very early in this revolution but one thing I am certain about; office workspace isn’t dead yet.
Therefore, there’s not going to be a clear answer that will work for each business. Those forward-thinking organisations and organisations previously perhaps large enough to accommodate home-working are already asking themselves the big questions. Those businesses who have little exposure to the concept will naturally shy away from the topic.
Businesses need to be asking themselves questions like: “what does my business need my employees to do in a workplace?” and “what are my employees looking for?”
If you’ve got a bank of salespeople, you might want to bring them back into the office. Many salespeople thrive off the competitive and highly social environment. However, it depends on the type of salesperson. A lot of salespeople have been working remotely for years. These tend to be salespeople and account managers that rely less on the volume of calls. So they do the same function but require a different personality type and skillset and probably different office environment.
There are also plenty of roles where collaboration is fundamental to delivering high levels of quality output. These roles are likely to require some levels of interactions.
I don’t think it’s always necessarily true that being there in person gets the best results. I’ve sat in a room full of marketers trying for days to come up with a strapline and have got nowhere, and then someone has just thought of it on their own, one weekend or in the evening. The benefits of collaboration can be overvalued and overstated.
Another question is about the skills of the management. It’s often tough enough for business owners and managers to make sure they get the most out of their employees and team members, but working from home adds a complexity to the dynamic that many people will not be ready or skilled enough to deal with.
But you’re really going to have to think hard about how you’re going to work in the future and what the office is going to do for you in this respect.
You’re going to have been doing the same things you always did in the office but from a remote basis. The thing is, there will be some things you won’t be doing and you need to work out whether you need to get those things going again and whether they can be facilitated remotely, and whether they have to be carried out in person, in your main office environment, or whether there is a new way of carrying out the process, such as via a local meeting space, coffee shop or hotdesking space etc.
One thing we’ve missed at GrowTraffic is the regular get-togethers. We normally have on a monthly meetup where we take everyone out for a meal. It’s this kind of corporate culture that can’t easily be replicated remotely.
Of course, we should also be questioning the value of the things we’ve previously thought important. But it’s difficult to get a good feel for where the value is, whether it’s ideation, communication or opportunities for mentorship, these aren’t easily recorded and understood by organisations and it’s too easy to dismiss them.
If we’re going to reinvent the role of offices in the future, it will be essential to get a much deeper understanding of what is actually necessary. Rather than just looking at what’s already there. The key understandings are the requirements of the space, whether that be collaboration, productivity and corporate culture.
Of course, that also means businesses should ask where they should be placing their office or offices. From a talent acquisition perspective, the jury is still out whether businesses will need city centre offices in order to attract the very best of talent, or whether we’re about to start seeing businesses moving out into the suburbs to be where the talent actually lives. I tend to think this is something we’re going to see more and more of.
Whatever happens, it’s anticipated that what we’re going to be faced with is a situation in which many organisations find themselves using a variety of space solutions, ranging from the offices they own themselves, to satellite offices they have on lease to more flexible leases and co-working spaces – no doubt coffee shops, libraries, and other non-standard office environments will have to be used and factored in.
I love working in coffee shops, to be honest. You’ll regularly find me at 1832s and Anna Cafe in Bacup.
I firmly believe that there will be many advantages to the remote working and a more blended approach, which we might think about as working locally or I’ve started to call Work Local.
I expect many businesses will completely remove all property costs but it’s not going to happen with everyone, but because a significant proportion of businesses will reduce their property costs businesses across the board are going to have to assess the overall impact on their pricing. This will inevitably mean many businesses will be forced to reduce their property costs to be competitive. That still doesn’t mean most businesses will be able to become property-free.
I’ve read somewhere that many organisations will have to reduce the costs of their property portfolio by around 30%. To reduce property costs by 30% you’re looking at some radical changes.
We’re still in the middle of the COVID Crisis and it’s likely we’re going to be in the crisis for months. This is the ideal opportunity for businesses to work out what they’re going to do with their property costs. Now is the time to ask their employees what they want. Now is the time to work out what their businesses actually need from their offices and properties. And now is the time to develop a plan about what your business is going to look like in the future.
But it is essential that businesses act. It’s time to set aside the disinclination to act, stop doing what you’ve been doing before because that’s the way you’ve always worked.
It’s a change and change is always scary. Business owners and executives will inevitably be fearful about the consequences of the decisions you’re making and will undoubtedly want to go back to the old ways of working that they’ve known before. But we’ve got to be honest with ourselves, it wasn’t working.
The end game is to achieve what every business wants, new systems and ways of working that make people more likely to enjoy their work, be more productive, more innovative, more collaborative and reduce operating costs.
I foresee a blended approach where businesses have smaller central offices, have more local hub offices, and where employees work from home and use hot desks and smaller local offices on short-term or rolling leases that are paid for by their employer.