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The future of work: Are you being served?

How can we make better use of our workspaces? And what impact does current and emerging technology have on the places that we call ‘the office’?

Mark Wilding
15 November 2017

When it comes to workplace design, Google has a lot to answer for. The tech firm responsible for organising the world’s information has generated countless articles about its zany offices – featuring micro-scooters, bean bags and slides. “It’s a huge bugbear of mine,” complains Chris Moriarty, managing director of UK & Ireland at workplace analyst Leesman.

The work carried out by Leesman involves surveying staff about the quality of their office environment. One of the questions asked is whether the office allows people to work productively. “Nearly half of the people we survey say no,” says Moriarty. “We’ve got a problem. Forget slides, forget bean bags.”

Slides might be a distraction, but this fascination with offbeat workspaces does at least reflect a shift in our perception of the modern office.

“We have started to see a change in organisations recognising the role of the workplace in their performance, and not just being an overhead to manage at the lowest possible cost.” -  Chris Moriarty, Leesman

Technology and the changing nature of work

The story about the changing nature of the workplace is a story about technology, but also about the changing nature of work. We are constantly connected via email and through our smartphones. Desks are optional. For a while, some predicted this could spell the end for the office. But that prediction failed to play out in practice.

“We had a big eye-opener a few years ago when we thought the millennials were the ones that liked to be alone,” says Linda Osgood, managing director at US-based asset and facility manager the Building People. “We found the opposite. They are used to being in a collaborative environment. They need that interaction. They just don’t need it five days a week.” So how many days is optimum? And how can they use their time productively when they are in the office?

Early workplace technologies focused on improving the performance of the building itself. Sensors and the data they provide have made it possible to constantly monitor and adjust all kinds of environmental factors such as temperature, ventilation and lighting. But attention is now also turning to the way in which technology can optimise productivity in people.

The power of data

Many occupiers may suspect their use of space is sub-optimal. But, according to Philip Ross, founder and chief executive at UK workplace consultant Unwork, it is only through analysing data that the full extent of the problem becomes clear. “You find that about 52% of the desks or rooms are empty at any one point in time,” he says. “And yet people can never find a meeting room or a project space.

There’s a big mismatch.” In the past, says Ross, employers have assigned far too much space to desks. Data is helping us to understand that people need a diverse range of spaces which, depending on the nature of the business, may include project rooms, informal meeting areas, and spaces dedicated to specialised activities. “The entire workplace becomes a collection of activity-based settings,” he adds.

By using sensors and mobile apps, occupiers can see not just how many people are in a building at any one time, but who people are connecting with, and where they are choosing to carry out their work. From this data, they can start to make changes that optimise the workplace for productivity. Trevor Miles MRICS, smarter buildings consulting lead at IBM in London, says: “It’s now very easy to put keys into smartphone applications that enable people to make their location discoverable, particularly if it’s opt-in technology that overcomes concerns about privacy.”

Concierge apps can harvest all this data, while simultaneously providing employees with access to a wealth of information and services. At the New Lab start-up space in Brooklyn, tenants now use a smartphone app designed by Polish firm SpaceOS to access the building, book meeting rooms, order food, and even find other occupiers with specific skills. Maciej Markowski, head of workplace strategy for central and eastern Europe at Cushman & Wakefield in Warsaw, sees plenty more potential.

“Suddenly we have amazing data on how we use the space. We can completely re-think how we should organise our companies.” - Maciej Markowski, Cushman & Wakefield

What's the response?

So how does the real estate business respond to this rapidly changing world? First, developers must ensure their buildings offer the best in terms of connectivity. “Certain things are obviously a given, like providing very-high-capacity data networks and high redundancy in terms of power,” says Miles. Occupiers now look to benchmarking firms such as WiredScore, which rates buildings based on their digital connectivity, to help inform their choices when looking for new sites.

The good news for landlords is that the changing nature of the workplace does not necessarily mean occupiers will need less space. The rise of the activity-based working described by Ross simply means the space will be used differently. “We have seen a reduction in desk space per employee in offices,” confirms Gemma Kendall, director of EMEA office capital markets at JLL in London. “However, we have also seen an increased appetite for innovative spaces – such as community space, collaborative space, incubators and creative space – which are increasingly important to employees.”

Occupiers will, however, demand much more flexibility. In the last few years, co-working spaces have sprung up to offer this flexibility (co-working, opposite). At first, these spaces were aimed firmly at the entrepreneurs and start-up sector, but the corporate world has begun to take note. Market leader WeWork counts HSBC, Bank of America and KPMG among its clients.

The appetite among corporate occupiers for co-working-style spaces reflects the fact that, in the rapidly shifting world of business, companies must be responsive, and so must their buildings. “We’re finding that organisations’ planning cycles are becoming much shorter,” says Moriarty. “They are looking for more flexibility and more frequent change. There was a tendency before that your workplace was something you looked at every five to 10 years. We’re finding that organisations are now coming back to us on a yearly basis to keep on top of their requirements.”

A fluid workspace

Occupiers are now starting to recognise that the workplace no longer needs to be contained within a single building. That realisation has seen the emergence of a new range of services providing office functions on a pay-per-use basis. That process can work both ways – offering occupiers a way to expand or shrink their footprint as necessary. “Office on demand is very much aligned with the sharing economy,” says Ross. “If you have spare space, why not let people use it?”

Start-up operators such as LiquidSpace and Breather provide a platform for organisations to list excess office space for rent, in much the same way that residential tenants list spare bedrooms on Airbnb, allowing businesses looking for meeting rooms, desks or event spaces to hire them by the hour. US telecoms giant Verizon has turned its vacant office space in cities such as London and New York into co-working spaces. Businesses such as Convene, backed by Brookfield Property Partners, offer tenants flexible office space alongside shared amenities and access to a range of support services.

The lines between corporate real estate, serviced offices and co-working spaces are becoming increasingly blurred. Peter Andrew, Singapore-based senior director of workplace strategies, Asia-Pacific, at CBRE, says: “It is a shift from workplace as something you lease by the metre. You have this push-back against the idea that the whole way you value buildings is by traditional long-term leases.” The new breed of workplace start-ups offering offices on demand represent a radical change in the traditional landlord and tenant relationship. Andrew says this is just the beginning: “Everything is up for grabs.”

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