Work, The Workplace and Covid-19

2 Apr 2020

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” 
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin 

There are going to be history books written with titles like ‘The Calamitous 3rd Week of March 2020’. For that was most certainly a week that fitted Lenin’s aphorism. When, at least for us here in the UK, Coronavirus, or more correctly Covid-19, launched a tsunami of change across society. In many ways, it is not hyperbole to say the world will never be the same again. For real estate, the implications are intense, profound and epochal. There was real estate BC, and there will be real estate AC. Before and after Covid-19. 

The future of Work, and therefore the workplace, is however perhaps not such a mystery. For in reality what the current circumstances are doing is compressing the time it will take for trends that were already underway to become mainstream, and the norm.  

One of the interesting things to watch about this crisis is how hard most people have found it to understand the implications of exponential change. When things double in short order, very small, seemingly insignificant things suddenly become very significant indeed. It’s how we have gone from a single infection to hundreds of thousands in no time at all. Without understanding the power of exponential, it is hard to grasp the underlying speed of change. Now the tech industry (based as it is on Moore’s Law) is hard wired to understand exponential change. Which maybe explains why Silicon Valley companies were amongst the first to institute remote work for all their staff; they knew what was coming. They also were ‘prepared for the future’ with their data in the cloud, fast broadband de rigueur and high spec, up to date laptops. Working anywhere is not hard when you are tooled up for it. 

The lack of technological infrastructure in so many companies is leading to a mistaken belief that remote work will be jettisoned as soon as we can all return to the office. True, working with young children around, or in homes with insufficient space is no long term solution, but the answer to this is by no means a return to commuting one to three hours a day to an office. More importantly, though, bad decisions are going to be made because we are doing the equivalent of asking people who cannot drive what the future of the car is. Your company may not be comfortable with, or capable of, allowing work to become more flexible, but your strongest competitors will be. 

Furthermore, your strongest competitors will be acutely aware that the purpose of an office has changed. Much of what we do today is being automated away. Leaving us humans with a need to become better at what humans are good at: design, imagination, empathy, abstract & critical thinking, judgement and innovation. The only point of an office will be as places that catalyse these human skills, in collaboration with our peers. Not only will such places take a different form factor, we will only need them 50-60% of the time. The rest will be taken up with solitary, focused tasks. 

On top of this, the Covid-19 crisis is showing us the value of sustainable, resilient business models, the importance of environmental conditions, and the necessity of agility and flexibility. We are not going to forget this quickly. 

Work is changing, because it can, and it must. Our offices, and workplaces, likewise. 

This is a time where innovative thinking is imperative. We need to reset, to re-assess, and to innovate our way to a better industry. The office and remote work are friends, not foes. Each needs the other. Our customers want and need great real estate to work in; we need to rethink what that means. And now is our chance.  

Antony Slumbers, speaker, advisor, writer: future of work, workplace, tech & real estate