Numerous forces are at work in reimagining the environments in which people work, transforming the function of the office as we know it.
Technology developments have transformed almost every aspect of personal and professional life in the past two decades, but one thing that has remained surprisingly static is the role of the office.
Sure, the technologies within offices – personal computers, printers, telephones – have faced consistent change, and the introduction of new technologies, from the internet to new forms of collaboration, have drastically disrupted the way people work within the office. Office designs have even gone through periods of change, as psychologists have debated the benefits of open plan over cubicles.
But the core idea of an office – a physical building to which employees must travel in order to complete their fixed working hours and carry out their duties – has remained broadly the same.
In 2014, the government introduced legislation that allows all employees with 26 weeks or more service to request flexible working. The new rules, however, require employers to do little more than respond to requests in ‘a reasonable manner’ – which can simply mean a meeting or phone call in which they turn down the request due to ‘business reasons’.
This change in the law appears to have done little to change the views of employers. An annual study conducted by job site Timewise found this year that just 8.7% of job vacancies with a salary over £20,000 mentioned a degree of flexibility. This was only a small increase on the 6.2% in its 2015 study.
With cloud computing and powerful mobile devices, including laptops and smartphones, now underpinning the workflows and communications of the majority of companies in the UK, flexible working is easily achievable by any business today. It also has numerous business benefits, including cost savings and higher productivity.
Since IBM began supporting remote working in 1995, the company has saved approximately $100 million per year. Employees are encouraged to meet online instead of in person, and less office space is required.
Worker absences have become less costly, as workers are more willing to pitch in from home. And it has also helped IBM retain talent, with skilled workers enjoying the freedom and flexibility that remote working provides.
‘Whether workers are at home or travelling, they can connect with one another whenever needed and wherever they are,’ says Paul Clarke, UK and Ireland manager at 3CX. ‘The rapid exchange of information that unified communications brings to the workplace moves projects ahead faster, and workers see the benefit of doing a better job, helping the company to succeed.’
If employees have the flexible to work remotely, they save money and time on commuting. ‘At least some of that lost commuting time is likely to be invested back into work,’ says Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos. ‘Employees who have the flexibility to work when and where they want are able to better balance their work and personal lives.’
Despite this, an overwhelming majority of companies remain stuck in a backwards mentality that employees are only working if they are seen to be sitting at their desk in the company’s central office.
This stubbornness, however, could now affect their ability to attract the best talent from a new generation of employees entering the workforce.
‘Clearly, if employee expectations are to be met, a dramatic shift needs to take place,’ says Chris Merrick, business development director at Capita Resourcing. ‘A cultural change is needed to facilitate more remote working, and this should be employee-led.’
This does not necessarily mean that the communal workplace will disappear. ‘People’s relationship with the traditional workplace will change,’ Merrick adds, ‘requiring a shift in how teams are assembled and managed.’
While younger professionals are willing to be connected at all times, they demand the tools that allow them to perform to the best of their abilities – but the costs of this are no longer obstructive.
In the past few years, the evolution of cloud technology has opened the market for more companies to offer collaboration tools, such as video conferencing, with considerably less investment required for equipment and facilities.
‘The days when financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies were the only ones able to implement it are long gone,’ says Todd Carothers, EVP of sales and marketing at CounterPath. ‘Today, even the smallest of organisations can use video communications at a next-to-nothing cost.’
Rufus Grig, group strategy director at Maintel, adds, ‘The real trailblazers are the employers that think creatively about the people first and then use technology as a means to back that up. They judge employees by outcomes rather than attendance, and ensure they give them the tools that they’re happy to work with.’
A study by office design firm Knoll found that 47% of productive work now takes place outside the primary workplace.
The same study, however, shows that workers would not be comfortable if there were no offices whatsoever. Workers do more remotely, but require the office as a stable centre for organisation.
Millennials, who will fill 50% of the workforce by 2020, like to go to an office where communication is facilitated by open spaces. They also like to communicate with chat, messaging and video conferencing, so they will work increasingly out of the office.
Ultimately, this means that the office will play less of a role as a productivity and information centre, but more as a place of discussion.
‘Remote working will not kill the office,’ says Clarke, ‘it will change its function. The office will, however, retain its function as a nerve centre for businesses. It will still be the focal point for workers, even as they spend more and more time away from it.’
The future office will be based around productive relationships and driven through demand, rather than working in offices and segments based on teams and skill sets.
Co-location offices – which are not fixed to one location and can vary depending on demand – will begin to become a working norm, and teams will orientate around projects or accounts they are working on.
Working in harmony
The rise of flexible working will not kill the office completely – as the demand for face-to-face contact and relationship development will still give it an important role – but businesses will find a harmonious, demand-based balance.
‘For an office ten years from now to viably offer this approach to working, it is vital that the technology can support that offering, allowing seamless communication between devices, systems and solutions,’ says Steve Rayner, group service innovation director at Computacenter.
The biggest changes will be to working culture. New technology and attitudes to work – particularly as millennials and Generation Z become the bulk of the workforce – will reinforce flexibility as the norm.
As a result of organisational, structural and technological change, and the widening skills gap, the UK workforce will also become increasingly ‘dumbbell-shaped’, with growing demand for highly skilled and low-skilled workers.
However, the number of semi-skilled roles is predicted to decline. Workforces are also expected to become more transient – a job for life is a thing of the past.
It’s therefore going to be essential for organisations to develop highly targeted, relevant and authentic employee-value propositions that resonate with individuals, helping to bind them to the organisation. Methods of recruitment will also see important changes.
‘Many businesses believe that social and online media, branded mobile apps and talent communities will become more important for future employee engagement over the next ten years,’ says Merrick. ‘And almost one in four see specialist recruitment agencies becoming more integral in this time frame.
‘All these factors underline the critical importance for businesses to re-engineer their talent pipelines now to ensure that they are prepared for the offices of the future. Without action, vacancies for highly skilled roles will become increasingly harder to fill and the skills imbalance will intensify.’