By Mike Sayre - 10th February, 2020
Since early 2020, PLASTARC has been hosting virtual events inspired by PLASTARC’s 10-step roadmap to navigating the future office. Intended to guide people and organizations through the challenges facing workplaces, these sessions have covered a range of topics relating to wellness and performance in an evolving workplace landscape. We concluded the year with a forward-looking session on emerging developments in the serviced office ecosystem.
PLASTARC Sociospatial Designer Amy Rosen moderated a conversation featuring Greg Lindsay, Director of Applied Research at NewCities Foundation; Mark Gilbreath, Founder of LiquidSpace; and Ryan Anderson, VP of Global Research & Insights at Herman Miller.
Gilbreath opened by tracing the decade-long arc toward flexibility. Low utilization numbers that have been the norm in many office environments for years were evidence that the quantity and types of spaces provided by employers were out of step with the needs of their people. Coworking and flexible work strategies purported to address these shortfalls, but there still had not been a significant impact on occupancy levels at many organizations.
Anderson posited that the first wave of coworking at the enterprise level was more about flexibility for the employer than the employee—for example, allowing employers to avoid being locked into long leases. The stage is now set for a second wave that is more centered on the workplace experience.
Hybrid workplaces that combine telework and coworking to empower employees have long been championed by a small but vocal group of thought leaders, including PLASTARC. In part because of the events of 2020, this is rapidly becoming mainstream thinking, even in enterprise settings. Illustrating the point, Gilbreath recalled that just a few weeks into lockdown in 2020, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said that 90% of their employees were working from home with no major issues, adding that after the pandemic, “clearly, we will need much less real estate.” The rapid transition to seeing real estate as a service business is merely an acceleration of the coworking-led consumerization of the office that has been happening for years.
For many organizations, workplace will now be a continuum of spaces that includes home and a near-home location like a coworking space, as well as some form of the traditional office that is optimized to complement both. Real estate professionals now face the challenge of solving for all of these locations as well as the expectation that they will be available on demand. Coworking organized at the corporate level offers one way to meet these needs.
Lindsay cited a precedent for corporate coworking in the GRid70 project in Grand Rapids, MI. This put professionals from several regional companies like Amway and Steelcase together under one roof, giving their people a chance to spend time with peers at other firms. In such an environment, it’s possible to have frank exchanges and learn from each other without having to worry about the politics of one’s own organization.
Whether companies and individuals do well under these new models may come down to mutual trust. In 2020, Gilbreath notes, employers had to drop presenteeism as a proxy for productivity and trust their people to work on their own. Under more flexible models that are around the corner, which include more autonomy and choice of place, employees will be co-participants in workplace planning. They will shape site selection and provide post-occupancy insights.
An important corollary is that employees might be waiting for the other shoe to drop—fearing that once employers have gotten rid of the workplace, they can get rid of the organization as well and rely on contractors. The recent passage of Proposition 22 in California, which created exceptions to state labor law for gig-work companies, is a possible step along that path that may be causing some concern.
Many of the issues that arise from shifts in the workplace landscape can be addressed by investing in community management, a role that has been emerging in coworking environments. This has not historically been very common in corporate environments, but could be. This is a professional whose job is to connect dots and enable work to succeed.
In the past, one compelling argument for the retention of physical spaces has been the need to nurture weak ties. In a traditional office, there are usually plenty of opportunities to bump into people other than one’s closest colleagues, creating opportunities to generate new innovations and evolve one’s career.
In a sense, the opposite has happened during the pandemic as people have mostly hunkered down with their existing networks. As they seek to rebuild those weak ties going forward, the support of community management professionals may provide a new way of doing so, especially when paired with corporate coworking.
The panel agreed that real estate professionals need to learn from marketers and to get better at conceiving of the office as a place to generate value rather than a cost center. Lindsay pointed out that before the pandemic, corporate culture was forced on people from above, in part through their space. In order to make spaces desirable and useful, real estate professionals need to shift their thinking to embrace the culture that already exists. A corporate approach to coworking can be part of the mix, empowering people with the spaces that enable them to excel.