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Change for the better

The Workplace Trends annual conference included some innovative ideas for the long-term future of the workplace which facilities managers could be well advised to consider says Sara Bean

Workplace Trend’s flagship October conference should have taken place at the National Gallery, but due to the pandemic switched to an online platform, chaired by Mark Catchlove of Herman Miller Insight Group. The theme of the day, “Success in Uncertain Times” was certainly very apt and although the agenda comprised a broad mix of topics, including home and agile working, the future of real estate and understanding change management; as the final speaker of the day, Neil Usher remarked, we really spent the whole day thinking about change in all its fascinating ways.

In an inspired bit of programme planning, for the opening session, Tim Oldman, founder and CEO of Leesman presented data from Leesman’s working from home survey and how it related to the rest of the day’s topics. His revelation that the majority (82 per cent) of staff agreed that their home working setting allows them to work productively compared to 62 per cent in the office suggests there are some serious long-term decisions to be made about the state of the workplace.

Oldman warned that FM has some massive challenges. Over the last 10 years the sector had distanced itself from the services side of the job, for example cleaning, but now more than ever is embracing these operational aspects. He concluded that employers need to cultivate a much deeper understanding of how employees are coping with home and hybrid working, or risk ‘sentiment drift’.

Delving deeper into the Leesman research shows that the satisfaction rates of home workers is dependent on a wide range of factors. In his examination of long term WFH, Guy Osmond of Osmond Ergonomics outlined why it’s important to examine the individual needs of workers, from their personal circumstances to their personality type.

He explained there is an enormous variation in home working. It’s very pleasant for those working in a study with a view across a field but not so great if you’re sharing with flatmates or in a bedsit and can’t get away from your work area. Worryingly he also reported seeing a marked increase in the number of people with musculoskeletal disorders who never had any issues prior to the pandemic. He advised that rather than organisations providing loans to staff to source their own ergonomic desks and chairs that it’s left to the experts in FM to manage.

HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Employers’ legal responsibility for health and safety was considered in an eye-opening session by Simon Joyston-Bechal of Turnstone Law who looked at working from home and how far employers’ duties extend. There was so much to process in this session that Joyston-Bechal will produce a full report on the legal aspects of COVID-19 in the Workplace in the December issue of FMJ.

While for some of those WFH, the absence of office noise is a blessing, for others it’s something they badly miss. In his presentation on open plan offices and advances in acoustics, Jack Harvie-Clark of Apex Acoustics acknowledged that individuals have a wide range of tolerances for noise and disclosed that those who are missing the soundtrack to the workplace can now download playlists to imitate office noises.

In a session which went to the heart of growing concerns about mental health, Sarwat Tasneem, the founder of 14-Consulting, focused on maintaining a healthy workforce. Tasneem, a trained architect and an expert in Behavioural Change, advised that mental wellbeing must be driven by leadership. Currently we’re all being informed by external powers that we have to adjust our way of life, she said. But while workers may be reporting they’re being more efficient, is enforced WFH helping their wellbeing? It’s more important than ever she advised for managers to foster a sense of belonging by building collaboration and making people feel part of a team.

STAYING CONNECTED
A discussion session between workplace strategist and thinkers, Nigel Oseland of Workplace Unlimited and Marie Puybaraud of JLL Corporate Solutions on the future of the office unearthed some particularly thought-provoking concepts.

Work is in the cloud, which has resulted in a liquid workforce, said Puybaraud who noted that CRE is following two distinctive paths, defensive and offensive. The short-term defensive path is by watching and waiting to see what will happen, with a plan to return to office by the end of 2021 without envisaging a massive level of dispersal. By contrast, those favouring the offensive approach take a longer view, by “deconstructing the notion of the workplace, bringing in elasticity, and actively listening to the workforce to plan for a more hybrid model of working from anywhere.” However, for the present, as Oseland observed, “the issue is that we’ve been plunged into a new way of working but we need some management and training on how to deal with it.”

Wrapping up the day, author, blogger & GoSpace Chief Workplace Officer Neil Usher explored seven key areas in which the dominant notion of the 21st Century workplace has been entirely flipped during the turbulent year of 2020.

He noted that every aspect of the workplace industry has been geared around the idea of static environments which is in complete opposition to the element of change. We sense change all around us now he said, which is better as “normal is boring”.

It’s the first time in history we’re able to work together without being in the same physical space, affording us one amongst a series of places where we can work. Excitingly, this gives us the potential to untether ourselves from the notion of “normal old money”. For example, instead of looking at the working week in a sculpted way, with mid-week being collaboration days and Friday’s being working from home days, why don’t we style it depending on what we need to do each day?

With so many of us now working from home and dodging the long commute there is an opportunity to really focus on the communities we live in and instead of designing our offices for full occupancy, wake up to the impossibility of every worker being in the workplace all at once, for they never are. From a sustainability point of view alone the traditional office behemoth is not environmentally responsible which is why “going forward this means we should design only what we need and release the rest.”

Given that the pandemic isn’t going away soon, workplace managers, FMs and CRE have got some breathing space to consider the longer term, strategic view. As Puybaraud concluded,

“Offensive is a long path but the best in my opinion as I’m a long-time advocate of the transformation of the workplace. Like Neil, I think that normal is boring.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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