It was as you would expect, abandoned workstations, forlorn mugs, deflated helium birthday balloons and plants that needed a good talking to. Luckily someone had thrown out the milk.
It also felt gloriously retro and prompted me to ask myself so many questions about the future of our workplace.
I am not alone.
“The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past” – Jes Staley, CEO, Barclays.
“Maybe we do not need all those offices all over the world” – Dirk Van de Put, CEO, Mondelez.
“In six weeks we’ve taken almost the entirety of the back offices of corporate America and moved them to kitchens and living rooms and it’s been pretty seamless. People are getting used to it. The stray dog or the kid wandering into the conference call is now accepted” – Tom Stringer, Managing Director, BDO.
“We’re already cutting our leases, not just because we want to reduce those costs but because we see a distinctive change in the pattern of working, and our people are saying that they prefer working from home,” – Martin Sorrell, CEO, S4 Capital.
A major US bank and one of the global big four both told us last week that they are only planning on 20-25% of their staff returning to an office initially, with longer term declines in office use being part of the COVID-19 legacy.
For all of those suggesting the end of the office is nigh, there are an equally vocal group who see large numbers coming back to the office as soon as they can, to collaborate, to benefit from social interactions or more particularly in the younger generation, to learn and develop their careers and because several weeks of flat sharing has its obvious challenges.
I was on a call with a competitor in Hong Kong ten days or so ago who reported that their offices were back up to 85% occupancy. A conversation with Kirsten Johnson of JWDK in Shanghai last week revealed that everyone was back working in the office with no social distancing.
In the buildings we manage in the UK we are working on a maximum of 50% occupancy levels in the short term, but short term only kicks in when there is a green light for office workers to use public transport and return to the office. We will know more when Boris Johnson makes his statement on Sunday.
I am with the bulls though. The office has a future – it is just going to look different and needs to do something different than it has been over the last few years.
The response to MAPP’s return to work questionnaire landed in my inbox on Wednesday. It provided a fascinating insight and a valuable glimpse into what our 350 people are thinking, and it reinforced my thoughts on the direction of travel.
Here are the headlines:
- Two thirds are looking forward to having the choice of coming into the office or working from home when the lockdown measures are relaxed;
- Only 25% want to work in the office for more than three days a week;
- Collaboration is seen as the biggest reason for coming into the office. Improved productivity languished at the bottom of the reasons for returning;
- 87% rely on public transport; and
- 84% of our people would have reservations or be very uneasy about using public transport in the short term.
We will rethink the purpose of our offices and are likely to divert long term budgets from footprint to infrastructure as a result of this and our conviction that things were changing anyway.
People want choice and flexibility. To recruit and retain the best talent, who now know they have the tools to work remotely and genuinely thrive and do great work this way, we need to embrace a new way of working. If we can keep productivity at previous levels, reduce the environmental impact that less travel brings, deliver the potential it provides for increased diversity across our teams, trim total occupancy costs and deliver on that I am struggling to see the net downside.
Offices need to rediscover their purpose and learn from the retail experience that is now on offer from Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others just a few minutes walk from our abandoned offices in Great Portland Street. They exist to deliver something that is very different to the retail of previous years and offices will follow.
UK lease terms will delay this paradigm shift, but a flight to quality, flexibility and smaller footprints is going to come.
Supporting this is what MAPP have been calling V2.0 PM – a recognition that great management is so much more than keeping a building safe, clean and secure. V2.0 is about a highly serviced environment which is relevant, has personality, is exciting and experiential and which will help support and complement the changes in the workplace that will be fast forwarded by this unfolding tragedy.
Have a good week and don’t forget to learn the words to all those Vera Lynn songs.