How Technology and the Rise of the Agile Workforce Are Reducing Office Space Requirements


Article by Ziona Strelitz

Not even the most entrenched Luddite can deny that technology dissemination has made our work patterns more agile. Wherever we go, whatever the reason — holiday, conference, meeting, romantic assignation — people around us will be using an iPad, PC, Blackberry or iPhone; and some of these will almost certainly be working. Agile work is very much here and on the increase — work is where you are.

The evidence is all around us and will tally with readers' own experiences. Indeed, the assumed connection between work and a fixed location is increasingly less entrenched. In UK office culture today, the need to campaign against a management insistence on presenteeism is diminishing.

Many organisations have now introduced activity-based working as a way to define workplace provision, using various models to conceptualise the range of modes in which people work — from high autonomy with low interaction to low autonomy with high interaction.

An important strand of this thinking is that work that is done on a solo basis and not based on essential interaction with colleagues does not need to be done in the office. From this perspective, the physical collective workplace is conceptualised as a nexus for 'exchange', harking back to the agora or forum — the office as a market for information.

As organisations adopt this approach, considerable opportunity has opened up in the numerous supply streams involved in workplace provision. For CRE and FM executives in the UK, the advent of agile work has been a catalyst for countless workplace transformation projects, based on the view that space for people doing work on a solo basis, need not be provided as a matter of course. On the contrary, as utilisation studies indicate that individual workspace is often under-used, efficient CRE and FM strategies typically reduce such provision, and property professionals have encouraged colleagues in operations to embrace the view that where people do individual work is a matter of their own choice, rather than a business responsibility.

This thinking dovetails with business and political drivers in both the private and public sectors, affording measurable benefits that are now widely familiar in transformation business cases. If space for people who don't 'need' to be in the office is not provided, the overall amount of workspace can be reduced. The contingent savings in capital and building running costs have paved the way for innumerable projects to replace larger quantities of poorer workspace with less, but more up-to-date, accommodation — a move that usually pays for itself in just a few years through associated property disposal.

This approach makes perfect sense! Like many in our industry, I've been proud to help shape such win-win initiatives. They offer major potential for supplier involvement across a wide range of services — from briefing, business case formulation and design, through change management and construction, to FM.

Technology is another crucial part of the picture — requiring input on specification, procurement, commissioning, maintenance and training. This is the key that enables remote working — ICT facilitates communication, file access and document sharing wherever people may be working.

And technology's already-vital significance is increasing, as continual advancements facilitate remote collaboration and offer more competitive alternatives to the physical office as a place for exchange. Change is constant, and workplace transformation in response to agile working is now a business stream.

But there's the rub. While this aligns with the assumption that workers will jump at the chance to work at home or wherever they choose, a different picture emerges if you really engage with people and listen. Yes, people value choice and welcome knowing that they can work at home, especially in contingencies, but many want to work in a collective setting, even when they're undertaking activities on an entirely solo basis, or when their collaboration is virtual.

ZZA's research and data from workplace strategy assignments highlights numerous reasons that people give as to why they value working in a shared physical setting. There are 'work-related' reasons, such as being spotted for a task that may be career defining, picking up leads and information, the opportunity to show what you know, mentoring and being mentored, the scope for chance encounters and spontaneous collaboration, the motivation of being in a business milieu, and the resources on hand.

And there are the personal or 'human need' reasons that in turn influence peoples' productivity and effectiveness: being in a professional and social environment, having the benefit of structure and a degree of formality, and enjoying a sense of belonging. Collective workplaces are not just about transacting information and knowledge; they are also marketplaces for labour and settings for social interaction.

Meanwhile, workplace transformation is resulting in office rationalisation. Organisations are reshaping their portfolios across the UK and across sectors, consolidating into fewer buildings of better quality, typically in just one building or a campus on single sites. While this frequently results in a bigger presence that can support a higher level of staff amenities and project a stronger occupier image, the negative impact for staff is longer travel to work, and often, more awkward and onerous journeys.

This would matter less were it not for the fact that many people value working face-to-face in a collective place of work. Having to traverse a large city or part of a conurbation to achieve this is an impediment to productive work and sustainable living.

With recognition of related societal change in demographics, gender relationships and house prices, the implications are even more notable. The days of working dads and stay-at-home mums are largely over, with women now participating fully in economic activity alongside men. This means that many families struggle with the interface between parents' work commitments and the responsibilities and realities of childcare.

Meeting both sets of expectations and requirements often involves considerable tension and stress, and the high costs of entering the housing market and then maintaining the financial burden that this entails means that parents don't have the choice of quitting work to mitigate the constant challenge of juggling work and family.

And as the ageing population expands and lives beyond the capacity of traditional fiscal structures to maintain the senior sector in the manner many think appropriate, people are increasingly drawn into a role in their ageing parents' care. This will affect increasing numbers, resulting in many workers being impinged by three sets of active responsibilities — to work, to children and to parents.

Is it this a precisely the problem for which remote work can be the saviour, liberating people from the impossible demands of being in two different places across large cities with narrow margins of time to move between them? ZZA's research shows why this is not a neat and tidy universal solution. Apart from demonstrating that many people still want to work in a collective setting for much of their work time at least, the data evidences that many are constrained from working at home by a variety of reasons that makes this infeasible.

And while there's recognition of the forces that impinge on working parents, contemporary diversity policies are propelling companies to recognise that workers who are not parents also have personal needs, rights, aspirations and pressures to reconcile with their work lives.

There are numerous scenarios that consistently arise where people are reluctant or unable to work at home or in other informal settings like coffee bars, libraries and places like trains and airports that they pass through when they are on the move. When this is combined with the fact that many people actively want to work in a predictable, collective, professional milieu, these scenarios become recognisable as predicaments of 21st century dysfunction.

At their core is the specific challenge of working in company buildings that require crossing large metropolitan areas, and then getting back to relieve nannies or fetch children from nurseries, be home to provide a presence for older children in contingencies and after school, or to tender to infirm spouses or elderly parents. ZZA's data also suggests that long commutes can be debilitating when people are trying to start a family, and for those without dependants but with significant involvements outside of work — like participation in a music group.

According to current reasoning, these are exactly the situations where technology-enabled knowledge workers could spare themselves the stresses described, and work from home. But besides the many reasons already set out as to why people value working in a collective workspace, there are factors that can challenge the ability to work at home. These include lack of suitable space, other household members such as children, partners and housemates, whose presence can be disturbing, a partner running a business at home, as well as the myriad of competing claims on time and attention in the domestic setting — from dealing with the laundry to planting daffodil bulbs.

People widely report an inability to discipline themselves to ignore these alternative activities when they try to work at home. At the same time, many find working in informal spaces too unpredictable in terms of available space and IT connectivity, too distracting, too anonymous and too risky in respect of confidentiality.

The report 'Liveable lives: addressing dysfunction in 21st century work' describes a range of typical predicaments that pull people to professional workplaces and push them from home. Resolving the inherent tensions is especially hard in major cities where physical scale necessitates long commutes, straining workers' ability to dovetail their responsibilities and aspirations in both work and personal life. But there is a relevant strategic response — it's one that requires FM, CRE and HR to engage with, rather than overlooking the conflicts, and leaving the requirements for workers to juggle.

The facilitative approach is centred on spatially distributed professional workplace hubs close to residential areas, in which companies can buy capacity for their people to use in accordance with their work and personal requirements, and in association with their use of the organisation's centralised office or offices when those are the optimal venue.

This way all parties benefit. Companies still provide fewer workplaces in their own buildings, but provide workspace for their people's use elsewhere through venues like business centres that obviate the need for capital investment, long lease terms or duplication of FM. Employees have a collective professional place to work outside of home, without the need to endure onerous commuting all the time. They can use such hubs on an as-and-when basis, working in different locations or at the corporate office as their activities, schedules and specific responsibilities require.

Technology enablement is at the heart of the approach, but it affords a real option for work still to be the socially connected, face-to-face experience that so many people want, in settings that afford concentration, motivation and professionalism.

The wealth of ZZA's empirical research points to this as a key ingredient in responsive workplace provision, mediating the worlds of work and home, and mediating physical scale by bridging travel distance. Distributed workplace hubs offer strategic scope for employers to sustain their people's energy, enthusiasm and productivity.

Ziona Strelitz, social anthropologist, town planner and designer, directs ZZA Responsive User Environments, providing research and strategy for occupier and developer clients. Strelitz is a visiting professor at University of Reading, author of Buildings that Feel Good, and will be a keynote speaker at Th!nk FM 2011 taking place 5-6 April in Nottingham. Visit www.thinkfm.com for more details.

on May 5, 2011