WIG CEO Blog May 2020: Do you remember office work? A view from 2022
Our CEO, Simon Ancona, imagines the office of the future with this blog post looking at the possibilities that lie ahead.
There was a lively debate back in 2020 about how the future might look after what was then called the ‘lockdown’. Two years later the population is safer due to the vaccines introduced in mid-2021 but the office has changed forever. We shouldn’t be surprised. Flexible working had been talked about for years and for a few the coffee shop and laptop combination was common practice. However, it wasn’t embedded, it was an occasional supplement and working from home or elsewhere was still the exception, not the rule. COVID-19 changed that for three reasons: first, it provided reassurance for organisations that it could actually work at scale; second, individuals realised that there was a way of addressing work/life balance and third, the thought of mass commuting and rush hour, having experienced the benefits of not doing so, was too unbearable for people to contemplate.
So, where did that leave the office? Well, it became a hub, a sort of nexus. It was a central point for support functions and a place to interact. Most organisations downsized their offices and split them up regionally to allow easier access to a more dispersed workforce. Each provided excellent facilities and connectivity and enough provision for face-to-face contact when it was required. Larger ‘pay for use’ facilities popped up more centrally for bigger gatherings when they were required, but few companies saw the continued value in unnecessary and expensive downtown real estate. Some sectors, such as insurance, law and some banks, have kept centralised headquarters for reasons of either prestige or connectivity, but generally people have become used to their ‘hubs’. Nevertheless, contact across teams was recognised as vital and there has been a surge in group activities, many of them social, to maintain cohesion and group spirit. Hotels, conference centres and even universities are doing a roaring trade in carefully designed away-days that are way more interesting and productive than sitting around a whiteboard.
The biggest changes have been in the home and in the organisation of work. Making the right space at home has become an industry in itself. Designers have been quick to respond to demand. The home-based office has become an art form. Countless firms are available to come and design something that turns a spare room, or even a bedroom, into a well-appointed work space and back again in seconds (even at the flip of a switch), garden offices are common place, modular and designed to fit almost anywhere and competition has driven the costs down. Organisations provide funds and loans to employees to replicate health, safety and wellbeing criteria. The accelerated 5G programme will provide a level of connectivity only dreamed of in the past.
The days of good old ‘Outlook’ have also gone. It has been updated and, in some cases, replaced with a package which coordinates interaction between employees as well as office booking in a very different way. Regular catch-ups, group meetings, international calls and face–to-face meetings (including groups) are cleverly fused and planned to maximise time and increase productivity while maintaining pre-set levels of contact. My software tells me there are 4 opportunities to face-to-face with a colleague over the next two weeks, given our mutual plans for visiting ‘the hub’. When I go, my time will be maximised with other face-to-face meetings. It tells me I haven’t physically met a member of my team for three weeks. Ahead of a contact, physical or otherwise, it offers me a preview of our last video chat which it stored securely and accessible only to us. It has even transcribed a short recorded summary of the conversation that I dictated after the call. Surprisingly, voice calls have come back, although the headphones allow me to differentiate between speakers as if they are in different parts of my room. A bit disconcerting at first but brilliant. Not sure I can remember a packed office anymore although none of us will ever give up a group evening drink at the pub. My software tells me it’s next Thursday.
Simon Ancona CBE
Simon Ancona enjoyed a full career in the Royal Navy including service in the Fleet Air Arm and appointments abroad in both Hong Kong and Bahrain. He commanded 4 warships, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group and UK maritime forces in the Middle East but also spent about 10 years in Whitehall including time in Ministerial outer office. His final appointment was as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff in charge of world-wide defence diplomacy and engagement. On leaving the military he worked as the Chief Operating Officer responsible for Network Rail’s North East London and Anglia region, which provided experience of commercial delivery and the challenges of operating at the seam of both the public and private sector. Married to Lisa he lives in South London and has two university aged children. Interests include cycling, walking, theatre, cooking, books and playing the blues Harmonica (normally when the house is empty).
Simon writes a CEO Blog for WIG on topics that he identifies as relevant to and impacting on our members.