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New Office Paradigms @ Ecobuild 2014 – the Consumer Perspective

Yesterday, I contributed to a debate hosted byEcobuild 2014 on the topic of – “Is back to basics the office of the future?” The panel consisted of:  a developer, Derwent; an architect, AHMM and an academic,Royal College of Art.  I had the privilege of joining this panel to present the views of the occupier. The organisers asked us to share our views on the impact of the booming Technology Media Telephony (TMT) sector and to consider if this is driving a new paradigm for office space in London.

I see the TMT sector as the vanguard of a new approach to how business users and consumers of commercial real estate think about space. I foresee that a seismic shift is about to take place in the way organisations seek to occupy workplaces of the future. It will, in my view, set a new paradigm not only for the TMT sector but for everyone. Many would say that there is currently little evidence of workplace transformation – while this may be the case – one cannot ignore the fact that work (and the way it is performed) is changing before our eyes. This means that business must adjust. One way of looking at this is that businesses are on a steep learning curve to transform to the digital world.

Most organisations are trying to craft a meaningful response to this tidal wave of change; they are all searching for new and better ways of making a margin and driving productivity.  They’re trying hard to become lean and agile. Yet they are hampered by the changing nature of the world and indeed of the workforce: as talented people are hard to find and to retain.  For those of us in the business of enabling and supporting work, we will need to grasp these fundamental principles of change, as the implications are significant.  We need to adjust from a purely building-centric focus to a wider one which centres on people and enabling them to work anywhere and anytime.  I think the key word for the future will be “productivity.”

Some commentators viewed 2013 as a tipping point when things digital really took hold. Take the following examples from the 2013 yearbook:

·         For the first time Financial Times digital subscribers outnumbered print subscribers.

·         The BBC IPlayer saw more downloads to mobile devices than to the desktop.

·         Christmas 2013 has been widely recognised as the tipping point for online shopping in the UK: the moment that history will look back on, when UK consumer habits changed forever from traditional to digital shopping.

So, if business is changing: what will be the response of the property/construction sector? Many will say that people will always need offices and that is true. However, the nature, shape and location of that space may be different.  I see three areas where the massive changes in the external environment may well prove to be game-changing for those involved in the supply and servicing of commercial real estate:

1.       The digital age has enabled a huge shift in power from the producer to the consumer.

2.       Organisations will seek smart workplaces which enable them to attract/retain talent while really connecting with their community.

3.       The ability to manipulate, share and store (at modest cost) huge quantities of data.

As consumers become more powerful in the wider business world, what could this mean for property and construction?  UK property markets have relied on shortages of supply and the “location, location, location” principle for many decades. From a consumer perspective, we have spent the last 20 years looking at how we can make the most efficient use of offices. The long-awaited arrival of reliable, enabling technology has really started to make a difference as to how we think about space utilisation. In a nutshell, most organisations will be using less space. If the experience of the BBC is anything to go by; where the Corporation was able to take out 30% of its entire portfolio – then the entire demand/supply equation could alter significantly. This means that consumers could have a real voice in how space is provided, specified, and we can engage in a much deeper discussion about life-cycle costs and the sustainability agenda.  Maybe we can revisit the mediaeval landlord and tenant relationship whilst we are at it?  Surely there is now a case for the development of a new range of post-feudal solutions? 

As organisations of all types try to make sense of this rapidly changing world, the key focus is on people.  The collision of multiple generations for the first time in the workplace is driving many leaders to accept that we need to re-think the concept of work.   No longer, a place you visit, work is now something you do.  We’re also seeing some new forms of work emerging such as Distributed working and Co-Working – it will be interesting to see what impact they have.

We now live in an always-connected world where the rules of the game have been re-written, over a very short period of time. While I believe the nature of work itself is changing, I also see shifts within the context for the office of the future. How might the following scenarios play out?

·         Most occupiers would empower the majority of their people to work anywhere/any time.

·         A proportion of an occupier’s office portfolio will be on a plug and play basis.

·         Company branding would be a critical component of leasing discussions.

·         Rather than being an anonymous and disconnected occupier of an office block, organisations will seek ways to engage and connect with their adjoining community.

Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of the phenomenon, known to many as: “big data.” This  booming technology innovation must be embraced by the property/construction industry.  I see huge opportunities to harness these developments to:

·         Minimise/reduce waste in the construction process.

·         Manage in a more integrated manner the systems and equipment that comprise contemporary office buildings.

·         Enable better sharing of information and intelligence across an industry that is fragmented and siloed.

I believe that we are truly standing on the crossroads of time, facing a future in which “change,” is the one, common thread; a shift in focus from delivering building-centric to people-centric solutions.  We have an opportunity to redefine the industry to improve our contribution to our enterprises.  In doing so, we will make better use of the built environment.  As stewards of these valuable assets, we have a responsibility to the generations that follow us, to leave a richer legacy for them to enjoy.

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