Get real!

While the demise of the workplace desk may be more than rumour, the way forward isn’t a totally virtual one, argues Philip Tidd

The office is striking back. After years of unprecedented technological, economic and societal change, companies are re-establishing the physical workplace as the first-choice place to work for a liberated and mobile workforce. The next decade will see even more change in the world of work, and I believe it will have even greater impact on office design than what has happened in the past decade.

As my colleagues and I consider the future of the workplace, here are several ways that I believe fundamental change within the workplace will take place over the next two decades.

Effectiveness will trump efficiency. The desk as a unit of measure will become less important to organisations. I may have to whisper this, but I firmly believe the focus on driving efficiency of our working environments through reductive space strategies will no longer be as important in the near future.

While we have mastered sophisticated space measurement techniques to help corporate real estate/property teams do more with less, one could argue we have been barking up the wrong tree for too long by relentlessly focusing our attention on the smaller proportion of the two highest costs of our clients' businesses: space and people. The latter is much larger and more impactful cost to organisations.

People generally constitute 85 per cent of businesses' operating costs. This is what really keeps CEOs awake at night, and the c-suite will increasingly be less focused on real-estate cost savings and more worried about organizational effectiveness, productivity, and satisfaction of their employees.

Rumours of the death of the desktop computer are not greatly exaggerated. Within three years 82 per cent of all computers sold will be mobile devices. So within 10 years it is more than likely the desktop computer will be defunct and viewed as arcane as the typewriter is now. So one could argue that the death of the desktop computer is the harbinger of the death of the desk.

Equipping people to be mobile within and outside of the office is now the default strategy of most businesses. This is a clear response to the pervasive, enabling technologies we all now use, and it re ects employees' expectations of being empowered to work exibly.

But the one-size-firts-all strategy seldom works and more attention will be needed to the unintended consequences - what I call mobility's dark side. Implementing mobility solutions without due care and attention to its overall impact on the general health and well being of people can have negative consequences for a workforce.

Virtual doesn't work without the reality. Take for instance the numbers of new Tescos and John Lewises being built. You can buy from both companies online and they make more money online than in store, and yet the store is the physical space of the brand. But people's electronic presence is just as important as their real presence, so you have to manage the electronic presence as well.

Virtual meetings through conference calls or audio can work well., but it usually works better if you already know the other people from an actual experience; virtual works after a real presence is established. Building a network is key and this can't be done virtually. It is part of human nature to socialise and network. We could never do a virtual meeting and get as much interesting dialogue going as a face-to-face.

Yet there is a paradox... it's not about either virtual OR reality, it isn't one or the other, it is 'both and'. When thinking about the future, we need to consider the dreamscape and reality, and somewhere in between is the answer.

We talk about the death of the desk, but what about the death of the corporate environment? What about the notion that borders between organisations will begin to dissolve more as some of the co-working principles of 'sharing' and 'openness' begin to enter the mainstream? What about the idea of complementary companies - two companies that are in a similar industry but providing different services to the same industry? Could they share office space?

Can this be a concept for the future? How could this work in reality - perhaps we will devise electronic 'follow me' branding in these generic, shared spaces that change the brand, colours, and configuration of the space to suit the organisation that is using it?

Technology will enable the next generation to live their lives for gaining experiences. It is not about a career at one location but about movement and a life of living experiences. People will become less generalist and more specialist in their fields (which will not be seen as limiting but as an enabler), having specialist strengths in a given area that will be transferable from one company to another.

Brand and culture is the glue that will continue to justify the building.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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