2022 and all that: a year in Workplace
It’s been an inauspicious year for Workplace. Amid the bluster, little has been resolved. There’s been a gradual return to the office for many, but for most of those only partial. Levels of occupancy are still around half of pre-pandemic levels by most measures, which (as has been increasingly understood) were even themselves well below those planned, designed and built for. Inevitably there have been a small number of high profile, much-maligned and seemingly ignored mandates, but less open declarations of location agnosticism than the pandemic initially prompted.
While property vacancy rates have gradually increased, with commercial property value predicted to fall by around a third, the office has, nonetheless, survived. Fit-out companies are at full stretch and desks are rolling out of the mills. Most analyses, despite grasping for something new, return to a position we would now understand as ‘hybrid’. Even as some parts of the property and workplace sector continue to act as if Covid never happened. Trying to make sense of it all has been exhausting and intriguing in equal measure.
Not therefore being even remotely courageous/ridiculous* enough (delete as applicable) to attempt a set of predictions for 2023, what follows are what we might consider to be struggles from 2022 we’re likely to be wrestling with well into next year, along with a number of opportunities, too.
First, occupancy. Naturally. Overall the office in most individual instances remains either under-utilised (demand) or over-provided (supply), depending on your perspective on the same thing. It’s a nailed on conclusion that with a degree of working from (usually) home that there will be less need for physical office space overall. But the problem word here is overall. Just as nothing and no-one is average, overall means little. We’re seeing midweek occupancy peaks, often greater than pre-Covid, that put workspace under pressure. Particularly when the balance between desks and other settings has been shifted in favour of the latter in the belief that we’re coming in to spend all day whiteboarding. And somewhat embarrassing troughs that have us questioning its viability and hoping no-one notices, which they’re unlikely to because they’re not there either.
So, smaller offices, most commentators conclude. Yet what does ‘smaller’ mean? If an organisation consolidates two offices of 30,000 sq ft into one more optimally positioned and designed of 40,000 sq ft, it’s a smaller footprint but might on the face of it to the uninitiated be considered an expansion. What they mean is less, overall. That word ‘overall’ again.
The situation remains one of limbo. Longer term it isn’t sustainable socially (we may not see or be able to work with who we need to, in which case it’s a crap experience), organisationally (too great a cost and of too little identifiable contributory benefit), and environmentally (needless emissions and minimal support for local communities). Short of another seismic global event, akin to that which got us here, occupancy levels are unlikely to change much in 2023, whatever mainstream media inexplicably proclaims.
Resolving the limbo relies on much of the below. And so the limbo is likely to limp on for most until lease events require a decision. And even then they might just become another slightly re-negotiated, re-stated limbo awaiting that elusive ‘right time’ to make the decision. Which, of course, never arrives.
Second, evidence. We’re desperately short of it. Other than within a few corners of academia, the Workplace industry continues to pursue what it’s always known and gather data on the performance of physical workspace itself, in the form of utilisation and satisfaction. Neither of which tell us what we need to know: what contribution the office is making over and above not having an office.
Meanwhile, the remote-first lobby has been assembling plenty of data with which to debunk anecdotal claims to the office enabling collaboration, creativity, connectivity and a sense of belonging and culture-building. There’s no question that in the continuing polarised debate, the remote lobby has the best evidence. Perhaps even the only evidence.
An answer to the simple question of why? is not that it’s 37% utilised on average 62% peak and 48% of people are happy with it. It’s like stating that you need a car because it can do 0–60mph in 8.3 seconds, 32 miles per gallon and you like the heated seats. Albeit heated seats are a must-have. For the 100 or so years of the modern office we didn’t gather this type of data and develop the insight necessary to justify the need for the office because we refused to believe it would be anything other than the primary place of work. Even though we were warned.
Without a robust contribution-oriented evidence base to answer the question of why?, the limbo referred to above is looking conspicuously like it may one day be considered a golden age. The situation entirely negates any of the renewed focus on the workplace experience, too, unless the experience itself can be demonstrated to be part of the contribution. Expect the remote lobby to continue its high press in 2023. For the office lobby, it has to face facts: 100 years wasted. And get its act together.
Third, relationships. This is where an answer to the above may lie. Think of our relationships as five concentric circles — ourselves at the centre, our team, the teams our team works with, the organisation and the wider environment in which the organisation exists. During the pandemic we honed our ability to work alone and within our teams. That is, to do our known job and work with our known colleagues. We focussed on coordination and co-operation, the activities that drive productivity. Hence the remote lobby being able to point at increased productivity from working at home.
Yet where the gap opened, which it can be argued hasn’t been effectively bridged, it was at the next layer — inter-team relationships. The reason this is problematic is because collaboration, free as it is of compulsion, most often occurs between individuals from different teams: where problems need solving, things need creating, opportunities are identified that can be pursued. The sort of activity that’s much more difficult (but by no means impossible) remotely, because it often begins socially. Not in the enforced tequila-shots-out-of-plastic-cows kind of social, but informal conversation without agenda that is allowed to wander, to explore in that middle ground between our work and personal lives. So if we create the conditions for this to happen, and we capture what happens and can express it’s outcome, we have our evidence. Or at least the beginnings of it.
Fourth, technology. Often misunderstood and consequently over-hyped, ‘workplace technology’ has been the silver bullet that for some time hasn’t quite fit the barrel. In 2023 and beyond the need will be for technology that can simultaneously manage both occupant experience — effortlessly enabling us to work with the right people in the right place at the right time (demand) — and capacity management, autonomously understanding and forecasting the need for workspace (supply).
Workplace technology to date has focussed on one or the other, and done little to nothing autonomously. It’s no surprise, as an app that takes 3 months to develop is never going to. Covid-convenient apps such as desk booking systems have revealed themselves in the post-pandemic world to be unable to do either and as a result are often not used even when requested to be. They’re seen by office occupants as all faff for no benefit when there’s always somewhere to sit and it takes days’ worth of messaging to get everyone to the same place at the same time.
Smart technology of this nature enables us to instantly address the as-yet unsolved problem at the heart of hybrid working — having both personal freedom of choice and ensuring that when office presence is preferred, it’s simultaneously preferred by those we need to work with and may benefit from seeing.
There has also been a recognition since Covid that acquiring and implementing a new workplace technology is rarely about the cost, but far more about the time, effort and reputational investment to implement and tailor. Such that once a commitment is made, it’s so much easier and safer to stick and muddle through with what’s live than twist; like clinging on to the first friends you make at college even though after two weeks you realise they annoy the hell out of you.
So we’ll see the growth of the intelligent simulation: modelling outcomes using simple-to-acquire data as though the technology were running but without the investment associated with full implementation or even that staple of the tech industry, the pilot. The simulation also enables the same data to be modelled on a new design, so not just inputting to the brief but testing and proving the solution, too. As scary as that may initially sound to the workplace design community, a workplace design that’s proven in advance is a fascinating opportunity. Workspace that works. No more punt and hope. And when the technology is implemented, everyone will know in advance that it works, too. All of which is genuinely game changing.
In every respect, a certain conclusion is that during 2022 we moved beyond the capability of the human to manually manage both workspace supply and demand. Given a natural lag, some in 2023 will still try. But we’re never going back.
Fifth, learning. Much of the emotive case for the office has been made on the grounds of ‘learning by osmosis’: newbies listening, watching and asking questions of the seasoned and grizzled. Most organisations base their learning approach on 70% while performing the role, 20% mentoring and 10% formal instruction. In performing the role remotely, the argument runs, much of the anticipated benefit of being present may be missed. Even though ‘on the job’ learning was always a lazy and inefficient solution, devoid of objectives or structure, and (here’s another elephant in the room) as open to negative influence as to positive. I was once taken under the wing of a manager whose nickname was ‘Eric the Bastard’. The name, as I found out, wasn’t undeserved. It may even have been his actual name.
I’ve long argued for learning and development to be front, centre and obvious in the physical workplace, not just to provide the particular space needed but to outwardly demonstrate its importance. Which requires a far greater organisational investment and commitment to making it happen than a reliance on the accidental.
As a benefit for individuals, to answer the question of worth when considering the cost, time and comfort (or lack of) of the commute to the office — to come away knowing or being aware of more than they arrived with — and as a benefit for organisations, a workforce growing its competence and experience, it’s a second stream of evidence-in-waiting. Its time is very much now. The sum of which: relationships and learning, enabled by smart technology, unable to be offered or enabled in any other environment. For the office, there is a pathway if we want to see it.
Sixth, change. We’re even more leaders of change than ever before, and increasingly need the skills, tools and resources to harness the opportunities inherent in uncertainty. But it’s not, as you’ll often read, about ‘change management’, the downstream plug-in deployed to belatedly make try to something work, from which the best to hope for is Professor Piehead’s ‘partial success’.
It’s about recognising that change begins before we think it has and continues long after we think we’re done — because its perpetual. It’s the primary discipline, to which our technical contributions are the interventions, the plug-ins. A complete inversion, in other words, of still all-too-common thinking and practice. This was made clear in The Elemental Workplace (LID, 2018) and is a consideration exacerbated, rather than diminished by, the pandemic. Which is also a driver behind Elemental Change (LID, 2020). Perhaps I didn’t think I’d made the point clearly enough first time around. I find I’m still making the point.
Yet even more relevant for 2023 will be the increasing breadth of change, in pursuit of what we might call ‘total workplace’. The need for traditional silos to work together rather than it being one team’s job. As described in the previous post. One source of truth, one resource, one voice.
Seventh, toxicity. In a cracking post, Amy Kean observes that we live in a ‘post-perspective era’. Now that’s a phrase worth remembering. “Where people are happy to scream at soup [being thrown at a glass-covered painting] and yell at everything Piers Morgan says but, apparently, need a playbook to intervene when someone in the vicinity is being intimidated or abused.” I cover this in my 2022 book Unf*cking Work, which has revealed itself to be a little too uncomfortable for many. I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the silent denial; you write stuff in the hope that you might galvanise positive change, you take a risk with putting it out there, to find very few especially bothered. A similar conclusion to Amy’s post. Our loss of perspective is hugely concerning.
While 2022 has seen more openly expressed honesty about the toxicity of many workplaces than perhaps ever before, together with a reminder that we often associate a bitter experience with the physical place in which it occurred, it’s still not been anywhere near enough honesty. Fear has naturally fed the intent of many not to return. If we want the office to be a place worthy of our investment in being there, we have to make it a safe place. Not just a ‘psychologically safe’ place, an idea that’s important but that has sucked up far too much space in its attempts to be explained and understood, but an actual safe place in every respect. This isn’t optional, a nice to have. It’s absolutely and unequivocally fundamental. The repair of the brand of the office needs to begin with each of us. We all have to give a f*ck and start actively showing we do.
Lastly, a reflection on diversity. There comes a point where we all have to look at our own role in it all. Quite simply, Workplace in the broadest sense has a significant diversity problem. The industry occasionally talks about it, but only in the context of design. As has been the case of late, when prefixed by ‘neuro’, important a consideration as it is alongside the many other areas of diversity when design is undertaken, but one comparatively easily solved.
Yet the industry’s narrative — in conferences, media and social channels — is almost entirely dominated by a cohort of middle-aged white men. Including myself, I admit. I may post, comment and talk less than I once did, so can’t claim as much influence as I perhaps once might have, I’m still very much part of the cohort. The brotherhood often even has its members openly calling one another ‘brother’ to reinforce the point. Check out any workplace conference or LinkedIn thread on the subject for living, breathing and oft-bearded evidence.
Many of the cohort have a valid contribution to make, but the industry simply has to do more to identify, recognise and give diverse talent its platform, allowing and encouraging it to find its voice. Not just when the subject of diversity is there to be addressed, but as thinkers and practitioners in the industry in all its guises. Which means us middle-aged white men have to be far more aware of what we sign up to, how we sound and appear, and be far more prepared to step aside.
To this end, the pop-up conference-within-a-conference ‘Workstock’ is being re-born in 2023 for just this purpose, to give such a voice. Its last incarnation was in 2015, when diversity was barely a mentioned thing and the roster was incredibly talented, keen and yet predominantly male and white. It’ll be a small contribution, but a contribution nonetheless.
All of which adds up to a huge amount still to do. I used to conclude similar in previous years, but somehow as this year slips out of the stage door, it’s at its most pronounced. Yet there’s plenty of cause for optimism. Inauspicious it may have been, but perhaps it needed to be, so we could gather our thoughts. We potentially have quite a year ahead. But not before a desperately needed rest.