UNCENSORED CONFESSIONS of a workplace expert

Featuring: Mark Eltringham, Tim Oldman and Neil Usher.

“Dan you’re on mute. I can’t hear you.”

“…. oops sorry Roger, hey Colin, good morning everyone. Ok I’m going to dive straight in and get down to the brass tacks. We’ve given this concept some serious thought and… well, I’m pretty sure we’ve nailed it.”

“Great, we’re excited to hear what you’ve come up with.”

“Ok, guys. We’re going for an agile flex hybrid pivot collaborative focus zone ideation space, with ergonomic biophilic human centric features, hot desks, perspex cubicles, a flat hierarchy and some slides. This rotating system optimises real estate, allows WFH and third space use. Oh and everyone brings their dog. Any questions?”

Since the arrival of the pandemic, the western world has experienced many of the same emotions simultaneously. Fear, panic buying (Hamsterkauf in German, great word), excessive hand scrubbing followed by excessive purchasing of hand moisturiser, selfies with masks on, Zoom fatigue, the list goes on. Whilst all this played out, those of us in workplace and real estate sectors have watched public interest in our profession reach previously unseen levels. At first it was exciting to see the future of workplace flung into the spotlight. But, akin to hearing your favourite band being played in a car park lift whilst being discussed by its occupants, it can start to grate.

Initially WFH was touted as the answer to all life’s problems, before (quelle surprise) people felt the social and cultural disconnect. Many slated working from home and championed the office, somehow missing the point that it was never supposed to be a choice between the two. Now government ministers supported by teams of ‘new work consultants’ and journalists speak with authority about things they know relatively little about. They even make up new expressions, like ‘Hybrid Model’ for something that has been going on for decades: splitting the working week between office and home. We’ve seen real indecision from business leaders, with the exception of the tech industry, who reacted decisively and early, sending everyone into home office, banning unnecessary travel and providing an equipment expenses budget to help employees set up home office.

But am I the only one frustrated by the lack of vision and know-it-all tabloid views on the future of work during such a pivotal moment? I asked three well known figures in the workplace real estate sector for their thoughts. First up Tim Oldman of Leesman Index:

“What does it say about offices, when our homes are better for work?”

“Over the last 10-years Leesman has amassed the largest dataset available on employee workplace experience. In March, in the face of the COVID-19, we took our investigations into people’s homes. Our new home working survey sample now exceeds 125,000 global workers. Eight months later, with no let-up in the turbulence, business leaders are still unsure, like the rest of us, what lies ahead for the world of work. Organisations must now determine two things: what works better at home and what works better in the office.

An incredible (82%) of employees feel their home environment enables them to work productively. In solemn contrast, just 63% of our 750,000+ office respondents agree the same for their office. What does this say of the offices they left? I do not believe for one second, we are looking at the extinction of the office, but it’s time for some dinosaurs to evolve, with our data shining a bright light on the design community’s dogged determination to ignore the impact of acoustics on employee experience. Every activity that is better supported by good acoustic privacy is better supported at home.

Ensuring these employees can be supported remotely is vital for the coming weeks and months. But recognising the failings of prior corporate workplaces if they can be outperformed by the home is even more vital in the planning of any workplace strategy for the future because employees will return to the office with their home as the new benchmark against which to judge those offices.”

Neil Usher, author of new workplace book Elemental Change and Chief Partnership Officer at GoSpace AI tells us what has been getting his goat about this very public workplace debate:

“This time, there’s no walking away”

“The debate about the future of the workplace is firmly rooted in thinking from present. We see it all in terms of what we know today. While this isn’t an uncommon response, it’s lazy. Whenever an opinion is offered dressed as insight it lurches to one extreme or the other. That’s because we’re good with a workplace that’s designed to be full, even though it never happens, as that’s what we’ve been doing for decades – and can just about get our heads around not having them at all. Anything in between and we’re lost. Scratching around in the fug we’re drawn to romantic notions of a management and consequence-free life of choosing between a beautifully manicured office and a bristling suburban hub, with absolutely no sense of commercial or environmental reality. Anything that means we don’t have to use technology, because it’s scary. And anything that means we can build something and walk away. This time, there’s no walking away.”

Pic: ideation sweeps the nation. credit Nicole England.

One of the last bastions of common sense amongst the chaos of internet workplace chatter is Workplace Insight and its recent offspring IN Magazine. Founder Mark Etringham gives us his honest, uncensored views on the state of play.

“It’s turtles all the way down”

“As Bertrand Russell never quite said, the people most likely to be certain about something are those who know fuck all about it.

“I’ve spent the past six months holding conversations with the best informed people in the world about what is happening to the way we work. All of them are wrestling with the whole damn thing and none feel able to express an opinion without caveats and elaborations. They could dig into each issue and uncover more beneath. It’s turtles all the way down.”

“The public discourse has been poisoned by the endless effluent generated by the plague of recently discovered workplace experts. It’s hard to argue that things are complicated when people read headlines daily about the death of the office or back to work from people who can’t be bothered to learn anything first and often seem to work on the basis that everybody is in the same boat as them.

I feel your pain Mark. If anyone is in any doubt as to the challenges that lie ahead as we surf the second wave, read the quotes from Tim, Neil and Mark through once more. The writing is on the wall. For many, offices were already not working. Bad acoustics, bad planning, stress and distraction, crappy commutes and management lacking in trust and vision. Many business leaders are not listening and most are proving themselves incredibly risk averse. Enter global pandemic and WFH hits the headlines.

Before the pandemic hit, I was being approached by large businesses wanting to transform and modernise their workplaces in order to tempt workers in. In the war for talent (and in recognition of their workplace failings) these businesses had offered employees home office as part of the deal. Offer accepted – and most of them haven’t been seen in the office since.

The businesses that will come through this pandemic on top are those that embrace this defining moment, grab their non-gender specific body parts and jump. It’s not about employees needing an office, it’s about them seeing the benefit in attending one. No benefit, no point. The workplace of the future must heed the audible grumbles of the workforce of the present.

Thanks to all contributors – Mark Eltringham, Tim Oldman and Neil Usher. Be sure to check out Neil’s new book ‘Elemental Change’, the follow up to the hugely successful ‘Elemental Workplace’.

Below: ‘new work consultant’ for UK Gov (aka. Bob Mortimer as ‘The Train Guy’)

Bob Mortimer aka. Train Guy: Government New Work consultant…?