The workplace has always been a place where we become inspired, make friends with colleagues, create and innovate. It’s where we leave our mark on societies and on our communities. For as long as we’ve had to work, the places we’ve worked in have formed a very central part of our lives. But over the last few years, a quiet revolution has taken place. And emerging from one of the most brutal recessions in living memory, we can see that the “office” as we once knew it has become largely unsuited to an increasingly mobile and virtual way of working. This new nomadic working lifestyle we are all beginning to lead calls for a new working environment.
How Work Has Shifted
In the past, work tended to be a place I go to, and there was a commonly held belief that we’d be more efficient if we were all working in one place, centrally managed by a hierarchical army of managers, directors and senior vice-presidents. We’d spend our entire working lives aspiring to climb that ubiquitous corporate ladder. But today, a combination of factors has transformed “work” from a place I go to, to something we can all carry out, anytime, anyplace and anywhere. And for many of us, that long climb to corporate seniority and power is no longer an aspiration, but a burden as we seek to forge our own professional destiny as entrepreneurs, freelancers, contractors, and independent consultants, weaving our personal lives into our professional lives to suit our own destiny.
As a result of this more mobile and freelancer workforce, average utilisation rates of the modern day office lie at a paltry 47% occupancy rate. And with corporate real estate being a company’s second largest expense after people, that’s a heavy burden on a company’s balance sheet. So what’s led to this?
Forces for Change
First off the post is globalisation. In today’s hyper-connected global economy, organisations have had to become flatter, leaner and increasingly more specialised to survive and prosper. This means that the line between traditional “employee” and freelancer is becoming increasingly blurred. As work gets distributed around the world, the nature of work is shifting away from long-term employment to specialised short-term “gigs” where a team will come together for the life of a project, then disband once the project is completed.
Technology has also accelerated this process to such an extent that there are now 5 billion people connected; people and skills can now be ordered online in the same way that we can order books.
Demographic change is also contribution to this shift. Not only are we seeing more women in positions of power, but it is estimated that by the year 2020, more than 50% of the workforce will be made up of the digitally-weaned Millennial generation with entirely different working values – far more collaborative, creative and connected through technology. Mainly as a result of these two demographic shifts, working environments are becoming flat, open, bright, inspiring – no longer the austere cubicle-infested, hamster-holes of yesteryear.
And there’s one other factor that really stands out as a driving force for a radical change in the workplace – it’s the birth of the collaborative economy. With the years of austerity very much fresh in our minds, we’ve seen a groundswell of revolutionary business models, all designed to weed out the waste and inefficiency of some traditional ways of doing business. My all-time favourite statistic has to be the one of the power drill: 50% of all US households own a power-drill, yet on average, each drill will only get used for between 5-7 minutes in its entire lifetime. That’s a lot of idle capacity that can easily be put to use by somebody else who is happy to pay for it for the time they need it. Hence the enormous success of revolutionary businesses likes AirBnB, ZipCar and Car2Go.
Work Is Social
Now put all this in the context of traditional working patterns: half-empty offices, wasted time (and energy) spent commuting, not to mention the erosion of work-life balance. For a while companies encouraged “home-working”, until they began to see people back in the office again. Huh? Wasn’t home-working regarded as a major corporate benefit? Well, not entirely.
The truth is – we’re all social animals, and there’s so much to be said for the water-cooler conversations, the networking and banter that takes place at the photocopy machine, and the simple comfort of being in the presence of like-minded intelligent people – all that surely beats having to put up with the constant barking of the neighbour’s *&^%^& poodle and constantly trying to avoid the next round of the Jehovah’s Witness?
So if the traditional office is dying a death and people don’t like working from home, what then is the solution? The answer lies in how we are all working today. These days, each of us works on average across 3.5 locations in a single week, because that’s what the technology allows us to do – whether it be a coffee shop, home, the office, the client site, the gym, airport lounge, or even beach. And the range of tasks has become much broader due to the increasingly collaborative, connected and often more creative side of our work. There is already a large but fragmented network of co-working places out there – but many simply do not allow occasional access, so something even more radical is called for.
Time For Transformation
The modern day office is certainly not dead as some would like to claim. But it is in dire need of transformation. As the Millennial generation becomes a more dominant force in the gig economy, we’ll need to design fluid workplaces that allow people to connect, socialise, collaborate, create, hack, disband, re-connect, deliver – and all for a short amount of time, and all creating a hospitable feel about the place. It happens in hotels, so why not in the mobile workplace?
That’s not just about delivering good coffee or good design (although that’s a good start). It’s about allowing greater access to a network of workspaces, opening up the traditional 9-5 “office hours” and allowing a merging of work-life and social life. It’s about encouraging mix-used property development, so people can work in the same building they live in – or at least pop down the street, it’s about designing work environments that are less austere and corporate in feel.
It is said that very soon, “fixed line” telephony will be relegated to the annals of history, as our mobile devices become the very centre of both our professional and social lives – all mixed and all on one device. It is conceivable then that the office will follow the same trajectory. That world is already on the horizon – as Richard Branson recently pointed out in his blog: “One day, offices will be a thing of the past”.
Trevor O’Hara – Founder/CEO of One-City International – A new company that aims to transform the traditional workspace market by by providing a global network of work spheres that people can use anywhere in the world, paying only for what they use
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