In the future of work the office will survive. But not as we know it.
It’s a busy Thursday morning on London’s South Bank. Through the windows of the HQ of a big corporation, you can spot a small handful of employees. They’re hunched over their laptops at desks bordered by partitions in an open-plan workspace. Apart from water bottles and coffee cups, the desks are otherwise empty. It’s clearly a hot-desking space. From where I’m standing it looks pretty soulless.
Walk a few metres along the river to the building’s neighbour and there’s a completely different vibe inside. Nearly every seat is taken at the cluster of long tables. People are busy on their laptop or phone, or chatting to others. Many are focused on the task in hand, plugged into their headphones. But this isn’t an office. This is all happening in the foyer of one of London’s main cultural venues, The National Theatre. The lobby takes centre stage, buzzing at the heart of what could be easily mistaken as a coworking space.
Is this the sort of vibrant, bustling area we’ll be seeing more of in offices of the future?
I’ve not had a desk in a traditional office since the last millennium, when I quit my job working for an organisation. Since then I’ve worked in a variety of spaces including hotel lobbies, coworking spaces, cafés and private members’ clubs. When I took the leap to work for myself in 2000 there was no WiFi. Few places accommodated those working remotely. At my local coffee shop in southwest London the pushchairs always outnumbered the laptops. Now pushchairs sit alongside laptops as all of us, new parents included, are finding their own new ways of working.
After the cafés and coffee shops, hotel lobbies started attracting freelancers and entrepreneurs. In 2012 I stayed at New York’s Ace Hotel. I remember taking my laptop and heading down to the lobby to do some work. The lobby was so full with non-guests running their startups I struggled to find a seat. These days, remote working has taken hold of every public space. Getting connected everywhere means work can be done anywhere.
And of course it’s not just freelancers. Nowadays, having time out of the traditional office is desirable, whatever role people do, whether they work for themselves or are employed at an organisation. A recent report by serviced office provider IWG found that 70 percent of professionals work remotely at least one day a week. Email marketing company Mailchimp has nicknamed such workers “Wi-Finders”. It recently made a series of films about Wi-Findersin cities that include Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Tallinn, uncovering the stories of the people behind their MacBooks.
But whilst coffee shops and theatre lobbies might prove productive for a few hours at a time, they’re not environments where people — whether nomadic freelancers, startup founders or curious executives — can stay all day, every day. The rise in popularity of coworking spaces is not therefore surprising: providing residents with a shared space to work, in an environment which tends to be more creatively energising than a conventional office.
Top of the coworking tree is WeWork with spaces in most major cities worldwide. In 2018 WeWork was the second biggest owner of office space in central London (measured by ‘largest volume of space commitments’) which is ahead of Google and Amazon, and behind only the UK government.
WeWork’s core constituents are startups, fast-growing small businesses and solo workers. It’s also started to attract departments from larger organisations who want to foster an entrepreneurial and agile culture. Last year the Japanese multinational corporation Kawasaki Heavy moved its innovation department into a WeWork space in Tokyo. “When I first saw this WeWork office, I had a gut feeling that something new might be born out of this environment,” Eiichiro Miyazoe, the department’s deputy senior manager told the FT.
Last year I ran a workshop for a bank’s senior management team. I wanted to reconnect the team with the spirit of its entrepreneurial customer base, so I chose a coworking space in Cardiff called Rabble Studios as a the venue for my workshop. It opened the senior managers’ eyes to what working life is like for startups and micro businesses.
A large organisation or a startup that can afford to invest in workspaces is one thing. For freelancers who have uncertain revenues, the commitment of a permanent space comes at a much larger price. So how do coworking spaces woo those with less stable occupations? Jess is a copywriter who works out of a WeWork space in London Fields. Jess told me that while it comes at a significant investment, she finds working at home too solitary. She benefits from the camaraderie and likes it that she can bring her dog to work.
Designed to inspire, to encourage collaboration and help innovation, many coworking spaces are light and airy. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to work out of the east London outpost of Second Home for a few days. Hands down, it was the best space I’ve ever worked in. Why? It supercharged my working day. I could choose different zones for different tasks, from a device-free zone for reading to a buzzy café for bumping into interesting people. Second Home is a group of coworking spaces of which there are four in London and one in Lisbon, each designed by Madrid-based architecture studio SelgasCano. There’s an abundance of plants and greenery. Internal walls are glass which allow natural light to flood the space and feed the soul even on the dreariest of days.
A few years ago I spoke to Maria Popova, curator and editor of the popular Brain Pickings blog, for an article I was writing for The Financial Times. Maria had chosen an independent coworking space in Brooklyn. “There’s something to be said for sharing a space — both physically and intellectually — with like-minded people. There’s an energy about it that’s very special,” she told me. Coworking spaces enable the cross-pollination of ideas, the exchange of knowledge and serendipitous watercooler moments. And it seems smaller operators can provide a more intimate offering than the homogeneity of WeWork’s Ping-Pong tables and juice bars, as this recent New York Times article sets out (‘Boutique’ Co-Working Spaces Find a Niche Nurturing Small Businesses’).
The Harvard Business Review reported that in 2018 2.3 million people worked globally in shared coworking spaces. But are workers more engaged, better motivated and happier in coworking spaces? According to research cited by The Economist, the answer is yes. The research reported 89% of coworkers were happier in a coworking space than in a conventional work space, and 84% were more engaged and motivated.
It’s no surprise perhaps that a well-designed space, a sense of camaraderie, easy networking and a supportive environment are luring those who previously worked solo at their kitchen table with only their cat for company.
But the evidence suggests it’s not enough to have just one type of office set-up. What’s important is variety of the spaces available. A recent article published in HBR reveals the findings of research conducted into the efficacy of workspaces in organisations. The article’s authors Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn and Melanie Redman at Steelcase have found that the most successful work environments are those that provide a range of spaces — an ecosystem — where people are allowed to choose where and how they get their work done. “The key to successful workspaces is to empower individuals by giving them choices that allow control over their work environment. When they can choose where and how they work, they have more capacity to draw energy and ideas from others and be re-energized by moments of solitude,” they explain. This reflects my own experience, where I’ve always had a pick ‘n mix approach to where I work, tuning in to where I am most productive. Having the right space for the right task has always been crucial: the buzz of an open plan office might be suitable for one task, it will be too noisy for another. Place and space matters, and a variety of environments keep you fresh.
So it’s not that the office is dead, it’s taking on a new shape. Many employers are now switched on to the need for a fresh way of working, offering their employees a mix of spaces to get the job done. I visited the Jamie Oliver Company HQ last year. Banks of desks provide a conventional office setting in an open plan area upstairs, yet the ground floor area was dotted with clusters of chairs, tables and sofas where people could have some quiet time or gather for a meeting. Microsoft’s newish London HQ offers a variety of spaces, from a lounge to quiet pods, a canteen and a conservatory with views over north London. Simon works for Microsoft and told me he changes where he works all the time. Sometimes it’s at the London HQ, sometimes at his home in Bath, sometimes the company’s campus outside Reading, and quite often the train in between.
Many of these new company HQs are designed around the fact that not every employee needs a desk all of the time. After all, if you’re going to work from three or four different spaces every week, you can’t expect to retain a fixed desk in one of them. WeCompany — the parent of WeWork — recently redesigned its HQ in New York. Its design team applied the knowledge they had gained from operating hundreds of buildings around the world. One of the team’s first realisations was that many of the desks in the old HQ were often empty. In the words of WeWork’s Corinne Murray, “Everyone needs a home, but not everyone needs a desk.”
So what does all this mean for the the future of the office? Is it coworking spaces? Is it remote working? Is it shiny new company HQs? Without wanting to sit on the office partition wall, I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Conventional offices aren’t about to die out, but culture and working practices will evolve further. Organisational culture and the move towards agile working have already started to mirror my own experiences over the last two decades as a remote worker without a fixed office. Working in a coffee shop in 2019 I’m as likely to be sitting next to someone from a large organisation who fancies a morning out of the office as I am a freelancer. That was rare fifteen years ago.
In the future, although workers — whether employees or freelancers — will still need a physical space to rock up at and have a sense of belonging (even if it’s just a day or two a week) they’ll have more flexibility as to when, how and where they work.
What individuals and organisations are waking up to is this: you can’t just stick a human being anywhere and expect them to do their best work. To be more productive, engaged, energised and yes, happier, at work we all need to pay attention and choose the right space for the right task. We need to tune into the places and spaces that fuel our best work. The future of the office is plural, where employees will have the freedom to roam around inside — but also outside — the office building and not be restricted to a fixed desk. It’s a much more human approach. And that can only be a good thing.