There are few things that reveal the progress a business is making in their transformation more vividly than in their approach to office space. Office philosophy, including your thinking on Working From Home and office design philosophy is fast becoming key to the success of businesses.

We should all know by now that business transformation isn’t about digital (although the term “digital transformation” perpetuated in some quarters is confusing a few people). Sure, technology drives transformation, but the real transformation is always in mindset. This manifests in innumerable ways and every area of a business, but one of the most obvious demonstrations of business maturity is in the way office space is designed and used. Get this wrong and it could see the demise of your business, but get it right and, as some of the businesses I mention here have shown, it could be your key to success.

Lock-down didn’t create WFH

There’s a tendency for us to point to lock-down as the trigger to the work from home trend, but in fact, this was emerging before Covid and, as with a number of other aspects of digital disruption, the pandemic and our confinement served only to accelerate progress in this direction. 

Many businesses were already considering the future of their workplace and were able to speed their programme up to keep pace. Others, though have been left behind. The thing is, this could have a significant impact on their future.

The last major transformation programme I ran prior to the Covid crisis was with a business where, despite their pleas, senior management didn’t really understand how employee welfare and office design influenced their success. Their approach was to line employees of every level in regimented rows of desk space, like battery hens, while their IT policy tied every employee to a single PC at their allocated desk space. 

These two fundamental mistakes of office philosophy are common, but in the digital economy, definitely not good practice. This kind of utilitarian approach to office design has always restricted innovation, which we now know is critical to success in the digital economy. It’s also a barrier to employee engagement and will therefore limit efficiency. Most importantly it reveals where business leaders’ priorities lie when it comes to employee welfare and profit. These days it isn’t necessary to pack as many people as possible into limited office space, so there’s no excuse for offices like these.

The Covid lock-down accelerated the shift to new working models that was already underway, to such an extent that many businesses have been left behind. In fact, if they don’t adapt quickly, it will definitely limit their competitivity and could ultimately lead to their demise.

A head-in-the-sand office philosophy will cause the decline of many businesses

It’s a struggle to recruit the people a digital business needs. In the competitive world of digital-era recruitment, no business can afford to appear to treat employees as commodities. It’s a fact that many business need to re-think their relationship with employees and office design is, quite rightly, taken to be an indicator of business culture. Research makes this clear — 81% of candidates say they will turn down a job offer if they don’t like the office environment. That job candidate you have desperately been courting is likely to turn down your job offer if your office gives the wrong impression.

It concerns me that large sections of the business community are in denial about WFH. Developers are still building office space and businesses continue to pay rent on unused space. Sometimes this is driven by the belief some business leaders have that things will return to how they were before Covid and their staff will descend on the office again. I can only say one thing to these people — “Get over it! It’s not going to happen”.

Remember, the tables turned in the recruitment marketplace some time ago and employees now hold the cards. If they want to work from home employers have to facilitate that or they’ll find recruitment tough. Meanwhile, at the other end of the construction cycle, a survey by Cielo tells us 73% of businesses are reducing their office space and landlords are converting buildings to residential or other uses. It’s a mess.

So, let’s get one thing straight — WFH is here to stay. A recent PwC survey showed 85% of office workers prefer to work from home and that number will continue to grow. This isn’t entirely driven by employee demand for work-life balance though. 

WFH has many benefits and side issues that are often important to employees. For instance it cuts commuting time, effectively shortening the working day. The balance is further enhanced by the flexibility WFH provides employees in managing their working hours, not to mention the cost-saving. Less commuting also means lower carbon emission, which is a major concern of the emerging workforce. And before you pull out the productivity excuse I hear from business leaders all the time, that chestnut has already been put firmly to rest by numerous surveys that have revealed, if anything, WFH increases productivity by on average 12%.

The productivity issue does come with a caveat though and again it falls to business leaders to manage this. WFH only delivers it’s best if the business is fully committed to it. This means redesigning your business around it and putting in place the right management, networks, processes and systems, modifying practices and a new management philosophy is introduced. If WFH doesn’t work for your business, the likelihood it’s it’s the fault of management.

WFH is critical to the operation of a digital-era business

Successful digital businesses need a fluid workforce that enables them to access the different skills of a wide range of specialists, occasionally or for a limited period. This is driving the gig economy, flexible working and a new workforce comprising specialists who serve a number of companies in a part-time or free-lance manner. This means office space has a different purpose.

It’s hard to think of a sector where firms are as reliant on office working as they were pre-pandemic. Sure there are roles that require facilities that it would be impossible to install in someone’s home, but pretty well every business I encounter is carrying the burden of unneeded office space and restrictive office-dependent models.

Of course, business leaders will offer excuses for not having the technology to enable WFH, but rarely are the issues they quote real. There is a solution available for all of them and really, all it takes is true commitment to enabling your work force. 

Office philosophy is also an issue for investors

When 90% of employers say WFH increases productivity, it reduces overhead and we know it’s an option employees want for all kinds of reasons, it would be foolish to ignore the facts. However, if that doesn’t change your opinion consider that 70% of firms say it also increases employee retention. A major drain on the resources of traditional businesses.

With well over 50% of employees coosing to work from home already, this and flexible working are important both to them and the success of your business. Organisations that aren’t facilitating WFH are only advertising their incompatibility on a number of levels with today’s world. That damages your reputation among all audiences and especially has a negative influence on investors.

Despite the head-in-the-sand optimism of developers who continue to build office space that nobody will need the demand pretty well every business has for office space will continue to decline. Already, many businesses don’t need an office at all and those that do will require only limited space with a different function.

Is your office philosophy hindering your business?

So, how will businesses use office space in future? The finer details are dependent on the individual business, but one thing is for certain, they will need to accommodate a lower employee to revenue ratio, either because generally head-counts will decline as automation accelerates (and it must) or just because not every employee will want to be in the office at the same time. This presents both challenges and new opportunities.

Employee office needs include the usual broadband connections, desk-space and printing facilities, plus dedicated meeting rooms with presentation and video conferencing facilities, possibly a studio for making videos, maybe with an on-site expert to help with shooting and editing and perhaps some level of catering. 

Trainers tell us there’s nothing that can’t be taught online and it’s certainly true that on-line training, where it’s done well, is more effective, quicker (particularly for on-boarding) and cheaper. However, there may be a need for a physical training facility and even in a largely remote business it might be useful to bring groups of employees together for updates every now and then.

The opportunities are more significant. When businesses rely on a remote work-force they have to pay particular attention to the management of their community. The feeling of belonging is set to become more important to businesses. This means they should pay particular attention to the definition and development of their brand, but for businesses that are, at least in part, office-bound, one thing they should do is make the office environment welcoming and embracing.

People should want to spend time there and that means catering to the aesthetic of different employees within the general personality of your brand. Remember, they have joined you because they feel compatibility with your brand. Once they are part of your brand community you have to nurture that relationship. If you behave in any way incompatible with your brand character you will weaken that bond.

There’s no doubt some employees will appreciate the formal desk set-up others would rather relax on a sofa. Many offices already use café-type tables and chairs while out-door areas hold appeal where the climate permits. Attention needs to be paid to colours and quality of furnishings, plants, ornaments and especially lighting.

I have always encouraged my clients to see their offices as a medium in which to promote their brand. Offices always provide a great insight into business culture, good and bad, but incorporating messaging into décor is a great way to build your brand community and I’m surprised so few businesses miss this opportunity.

How will office space be used

The probability is the work model of the future will be a hybrid affair. We’ve established most employees will want to work from home most of the time and a small number might prefer never to come into the office. Some will value the separation from home-life that office working provides and want to be in the office every day. Whatever the breakdown in your organisation it’s pretty certain you’ll not see the numbers of bodies in your office at one time as you did with old working models. This gives you the opportunity to cut down on your office overhead — rent, lighting, consumables etc. and make better use of what space you do have.

Employees may want to visit the office to produce proposals, find a quiet space to study or present to customers, teams or suppliers, so you will need small rooms or soundproof booths.

Some businesses are getting rid of their own premises entirely, turning instead to providers of shared office space like WeWork or Regus. Here they can have a corporate membership that allows their employees use of common areas or pre-book on-demand spaces. It’s not unusual for firms to take permanent areas within facilities like these and have the opportunity for their employees to use common areas or book additional rooms as they need them. 

Shared working spaces normally offer all the resources employees need, but employers that don’t go down this route will still need to provide the things their staff need like printing and AV equipment. 

It’s likely you’ll want to manage incoming mail and phone calls to your corporate number. These days switchboards will connect to employees’ mobile phones and can be set to do so only during office hours with voicemail when the employee isn’t available. There’s no way that a caller would distinguish a remote network like this from one confined to an office building. As for mail, you may need a central sorting facility and that could operate a forwarding system (there are a number of physical and virtual ways of doing this) or you could employ a mailbox or forwarding service.

So, who is getting office philosophy right?

There are many great examples of businesses that understand how this all works. The file-sharing platform Wetransfer (or “We, as they now prefer to be called) have been used as an example, of how things should be done, but they are certainly not alone. AccuRX, Rekki, Pladis all offer great examples of different aspects of office design. However, the business that I believe have nailed it not only provide examples of pretty much everything I’ve mentioned here, have created a guided tour of their great new international headquarters in Birmingham, so you can see for yourself.

It’s no coincidence that GymShark are perhaps Britain’s most successful business at this moment. They have risen from nowhere to become challengers for the position of world leaders in their sector previously vied for by Adidas and Nike, in no more than six years, very much because of their understanding of brand, community and how it all works. 

I’ll leave you to travel with their founder and CEO Ben Francis, through their offices, but I urge you to take note of the way they have combined formal and causal areas, as well as specialist facilities like video studios and editing facilities, which most businesses should be considering creating these days. In particular take note of their use of messaging, all designed as part of their broader internal marketing strategy to strengthen community and focus all it’s members on the business objective.

One thing is for sure. It’s beyond the capability of most businesses to design the spaces they really need. This is a job for experts. More importantly though, designers and architects need to work from a brief composed around the business’ brand model, so it is essential for every business contemplating an office design project to start with that.

The bottom line

If nothing else, I hope I have drawn attention to the crucial role brand plays in the success of a modern business and how office design is a critical component of any brand development strategy. However, if you still have doubts or questions I’ll be happy to hear from you and provide the advice you need, so get in touch.

Phil Darby
October 27, 2021

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