I’m sure there were other experts sharing the same message in 2015 and earlier, but hearing it from one of the men who shaped our world makes you sit up and listen. Whilst I don’t know Bill Gates personally, I get a sense he’s a pretty shrewd guy with a decent ability to understand data and draw insightful conclusions. He also has a proven track record in predicting how we’re going to behave and what we need to enable that behaviour. Just eight weeks ago, ‘Teams’ was a piece of software lurking on my laptop, now it’s the front door to my office.
Can someone who knows Bill please have a word and ask him to give us his predictions on the future of the office?
While we wait for him to get back to us, here are a few of my own thoughts looking ahead to 2025. Bear in mind, people didn’t really pay Bill enough attention five years out, so don’t scoff too soon…
1. Commuting has changed forever
My 2020 commute saw me using packed passenger trains to get into London before jumping on the Tube to get across town to the office. Well that’s not happening anymore. Even if we all wear a mask, why would I expose myself to this on a daily basis? I’m relatively young and fit, but what if I bring a virus home to my family? What if they pass it on with fatal consequences to older or vulnerable loved ones? Stand by for rotations where office workers limit their commuting exposure through local/home working and by leaving 5-10 day gaps between commuting periods to ensure contamination hasn’t occurred.
2. The office just moved
Not everyone can work from home for a multitude of practical, cultural and economic reasons. Those that cannot will need facilities close to where they live, where they can work safely in an appropriate environment. This is likely to lead to a proliferation of local serviced offices, or ‘spokes’ catering to their immediate neighbourhood. These will need to offer social distancing, privacy, and enhanced levels of cleaning and service, whilst also offering suitable IT connectivity and facilities. This won’t be cheap.
3. Hello ‘office allowance’
In the old days, we used to get a ‘car allowance’ to subsidise our main business transport. That’s largely died away but in the future, expect to see companies offering a taxable allowance that staff can use to either take membership of a local serviced office or to equip their home office with ergonomic equipment and upgraded IT. Corporates won’t want the administrative burden of doing this, so the responsibility will be delegated.
4. Rise of rural
Largely removing the commute and providing the ability to work locally will tip economic norms upside down. For many in the West, often those with families, the desire to be out of a heavily urban setting is strong and houses with an option to create a home office in a rural setting are likely to become increasingly attractive. The bucolic idyll of country living won’t suddenly come true, but a move to a more distributed workforce will change how we live, how we get about and the local services we will need.
5. This feels very different
For the main HQ and ‘hub’ offices, their role has changed. These are no longer places to come and work, they are places to collaborate and create. Small teams will congregate in spokes to come together on projects, but the hubs will be needed when bigger groupings are required. However, look longer term and will we really need these hubs at all? How often do big groups really need to come together physically? Couldn’t we use a hotel or conference facility instead?
6. The power of food
This may just be me, but I find ‘breaking bread’ with people helps remove barriers and develop relationships. In the future office, where collaboration will be key, expect to find the Scandinavian ‘fika’, involving a team coffee and often a small piece of cake. This could be a delicious by-product! Teams will also lunch more as a unit, away from their desks, something the Nordic countries still do very well and are consistently ranked amongst the happiest places in the world to live. Coincidence? Expect Facilities Management provision to go up and the spend on catering and services to increase markedly.
7. Take the stairs
Anybody fancy crowding into the elevator right now? Expect a premium on low rise buildings with stairs set to ‘up’ or ‘down’ only. Corporates won’t want to expose themselves to the unnecessary risk of making their staff go up and down high rise buildings, when they can simply go up one or two flights of stairs. It’s a wellness win, an environmental win and it reduces risk – a no brainer in other words. As for the high rise blocks? They’re going to get a lot cheaper…
8. Welcome to Ikea
Whilst many of us love a trip to Ikea, if only for the Marketplace and meatballs, we tend to find the ‘running track’ flow system frustrating. Well, expect to see one-way pathways in the office of the future. With corridors and stairs needing to be one-way, access to your desk or meeting room is likely to involve a circular route around the building to get you there, and no shortcuts through soft furnishings will be allowed.
9. Where did HR go?
As we change how we work, the services we need to support us must also adapt. Expect to see HR, IT and Real Estate teams coming together as a combined services function that integrates to ensure you can work anywhere, at any time and have a supportive career path to match. Keeping these as separate entities allows the blame game to continue. How often do I see real estate projects delayed where the blame is laid at IT’s door? In future, business continuity will be the normal operating model with the human, virtual and physical being viewed holistically.
In discussions over the last four weeks, some industry colleagues have told me to relax. “It will all return to normal”, they say. “Everybody predicted a massive change after 2008, but that never happened”. Maybe they are right. But I don’t think so. No client is telling me to relax. No client is talking about a return to normal, they are all gearing up for change. As I’ve shared before, a footprint reduction of 60-70% is seen as a fairly typical target for many.
The vast majority of offices around the world are held on traditional leases. When I look at the portfolio data that we hold for some of the biggest companies in the world, the leases on over 80% of their office footprint will expire, or be able to be ripped up, before the end of 2025. That’s a massive slice of the global office market that is going to want to get a whole lot smaller and work in a very different way, and all within 60 months.
Let’s see what Bill gets back to us with. I suspect he’s going to tell me I’m being too optimistic…