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Let’s be Frank – the workplace is changing

I’ve been in and around the world of property, real estate, facilities and workplaces for almost a decade now. When I first experienced ‘the scene’ I could barely believe the scale of the operations and industries that were, until that moment, hidden from me. Up until then I was simply an employee that arrived every morning in my office, sat at my desk and cracked on with my work.

But I wasn’t alone. In fact, in my work at the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) I often heard those in FM, and the wider built environment, explain how they were left frustrated at the lack of awareness that their work received. Often citing other professional disciplines, like HR or finance, and lamenting their apparent prominence (although if you speak to them they’d to confess to feeling underappreciated). In order to combat that a number of studies were pulled together to look at impacts, often financial, that were aimed at making us difficult to ignore.

In recent years though the approach to reframing the work that this professional community does was to talk in ‘workplace’ terms. An effort to encourage organisations to see beyond the janitorial mindset that many outside of the community held and instead think about how our work impacts experiences, outcomes, business results. Led, often, by tech start-ups who took a ‘who cares’ approach to office convention and created workplaces that their people loved, slowly but surely workplaces have become a key point of difference in the much-cited war for talent.

But that was pre-pandemic.

As I’ve said, I’ve been around this for a long time, but the last 18 months represents the most consistent and intense conversation about the future of workplaces that I’ve ever seen. It’s become a point of national interest with politicians, business leaders, media outlets and your average employees all talking through what the future looks like for work and, more crucially, where that will take place.

Now, I’m not a massive fan of the ‘hybrid’ label (I think it dumbs things down slightly) but no one can argue that it hasn’t managed to put workplace strategy right at the top of the organisational agenda. Some may see the opportunity to downsize, some might insist on bringing everyone back into the office, but needless to say that things are unlikely to be the same. Even if workplaces don’t change, the expectations of the workforce have.

And that’s a huge opportunity for our professional family to really show what they’re made of.

My fear, though, is we’ll revert to type. If we focus on the building, its fabric, then we are missing the point. This isn’t just about making spaces COVID safe (although that is important), this isn’t even about rationalisation. This is about designing experiences for employees and shaping a workplace strategy (that incorporates property, facilities etc.) that brings it life.

This is not a new idea in the public sector. In fact, the Cabinet Office’s ‘working beyond walls’ is almost prophetic when you consider it was written in 2014. In it, Frank Duffy (considered by many as the ‘Godfather’ of modern workplace thinking) says:

The unit of analysis is no longer the shorthand of office buildings and departmental boundaries – how anachronistic the term ‘headquarters’ already seems – but the sum total of all the many and varied spaces and places within which and between which highly mobile, electronically networked, knowledge workers are already operating successfully.

Typical of Duffy, this is spot on. But you cannot say that this was ubiquitous in December 2019. In fact, ONS figures from the time suggest that around 75% of the UK workforce had only ever worked in their corporate office. When you analyse the figures you see that c.55% haven’t got a choice given the nature of their role but that still means that around half of those that can work from home have ever taken up the option. In fact, the ONS survey suggests that only 12% of employees had worked from home the week before the survey. Now consider the same figures today? The amount of people that haven’t done some work from home this week, last week, is going to be very small. Some estimates suggest that around 85% of the workforce, when presented with a choice, will work from home at least once a week.

It’s been said that the pandemic didn’t create trends but accelerated ones that were already in motion. Perhaps that is true. But I think what has shifted in all of this is expectation. Employees aren’t going to be like the wide-eyed, naïve me that entered the workforce 20 years ago. Taking everything for granted, including where I do my work. They’re going to question why they’ve made the trip in. Why do they need to be there. And we need to have an answer and that will take a new approach because if we simply think about the HQ then we’re missing a trick. The time is now to consider all the spaces that our employees might carry out their work and stitch them together as part of a workplace experience like Duffy outlined. That will require new skills, new ideas, new innovations and new collaborations across various teams.

Do that and this profession will be difficult to ignore. In fact, it could be that we shape the future of work for a generation. And that’s an exciting idea to get behind.

Join us for this year’s Smart Asset & Estate Management Conference on December 8th 2022 at the QEII Centre in London.  Smart 2022 is the ideal place for all public sector property professionals to get the latest policy updates and discover new initiatives around estate management, sustainable buildings, smarter working and the technology that enables them.

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