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Commuting for community: providing a social space for your employees

by jcp

By James Goldsmith, Head of Leasing at AXA IM Alts – developer and manager of 22 Bishopsgate

The last 18 months havedramatically challengedthe corporate landscape. While the tug-of-war between home and office-based working is hardly new, the relationships between business leaders and employees are certainlybeing scrutinised as workplaces attempt to redefine’normality’.

But normality isn’t the answer. Working remotely for so long has made people rethink about how and where they perform their job. Trying to resume the work-life balance as it looked at the beginning of 2020(maybewith some‘flex hours’ and WFH days thrown in around mandatory attendance),isn’t necessarilythat appealing to the majority of employees.Therefore, when thinking about new workspaces, we have to offer the work-life choices that may be available at home, together with the social Interaction of the office. Which is what inspires new building cultures such as that within 22 Bishopsgate. It’s the office spaces that champion the wellbeing of those who occupy them,deliver spaces that allow for idea sharing and support workers’ social valuesthatwill thrive.

The challenge: how to support people back into offices

The reaction to the pandemic was a remarkable demonstration of flexibility. Businesses of all kinds had to relearn how to conduct their day-to-day work overnight.Instead of travelling toin-person meetings, we adapted to virtual ones.Westopped hitting print because weshared everything digitally.And our convenience food and plastic wastage decreased as we drank from the tap instead of the ‘water-cooler’.

Crucially, business didn’t completely grind to a halt or collapse just because people stopped coming into the office. So, now we face this Truman Show finale moment, where employees have weathered the storm of employer-dictated workplaces and reached a hard stop. The “need” to commute into an office everyday has been exposed, and employees are trying to break past theconstructed world of work, asking what’s else?

The answer is simple; just like Truman, people are craving real, natural human connection. Spontaneous conversations, idleinteractions and stimulating off-topic thought – the one thing that has not been properly replicated at home. It’s the human element that glues everything at work together and is the key to rebuilding the workplace.

Community, not collaboration

The office is a place for networking and connectionsand it’s the critical element that’s been lacking from the employee experience for the last year and a half.However, we should be sure not to confuse this with the idea that offices need to exist for the purposes of collaboration.

It may be one of the buzzwordsused to support the purpose of the office, but collaborationisn’t exactly what people have been missing out on. In fact, the average employee spends most of their time working individually – something which they have had 18 months to accommodate quite comfortably at home, ironing out the kinks of poor internet and finding space for some quiet time. The reality is that people often feel well-supported to work at home, collaborative work isn’t a priority, and it therefore shouldn’t be the sole focuswhen we look to bring employees back, or design new workspaces.

What teams do need is community – socialisation and shared culture. Opportunities to widen their social network, hear stories from each other and interact in a way that’s energising.The office should become a place that facilitates stimulating discussion and reminds us that there are ways of thinking and working beyond the dining room table.We’ve dismissed watercooler gossip, but this is coffee-machine conversation: revitalising, refreshing, recharging.

At 22 Bishopsgate, we’ve built a space that’s intended for people to come together, to share their experiences, that challenge and motivate each other. The amenities – the social spaces, dining options, leisure facilities – are providing the added value for employers to get their staff back in the office, at least some of the time. Ultimately, the lure is an engaging environment that provides an alternative to the routine of working from home, with places to have fresh, unexpected and motivating conversations that won’t always happen within the confines of a Zoom call.

The bottom line is that offices should be the sort of place people want to go to because of the reminder that they’re part of a community– something that’s not easily replicated with remote working. To the employee, your company brand isn’t the logo stamped on your pens: it’s the shared values and objectives that attracted them in the first place. In this sense, your office needs to become your clubhouse; a meeting point for teams to connect with the attitudes and vision that unites them.

The office space of the future:achieving more with less 

A social workspace: what does that look like?This is what everyone wants to know, but the truth is that that the physical manifestation of offices is unlikely to change all that radically – it’s the way that we manage them that will need to adapt.

For example, at 22 Bishopsgate, we’re seeing that occupiersare looking to maximise the value of their floorspace – not necessarily by downsizing, but by rethinking fit-outs. After all, unused desk spaces cost money, so if you reliably know that a higher percentage of your staff will be working from home on any given day, why not prioritise shared seating and flexible workspaces that will benefit people when they do come in?

Of course, just like hybrid working, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, if the office of the future looks like anything, it’s an adaptable shell that’s digitally sophisticated but mechanically simple. Expect to see more infrastructure that can be adapted to suit the needs of team meetings, creative brainstorming, video calls and individual working. These fit-outs will be much easier to reconfigure and use again as business cycles inevitably change and employee demands fluctuate.

Like a theatre stage, the most attractive workspaces from a real estate and management perspective will be the ones with good floors, high ceilings, plenty of light. The desks, seating, devices… all just props that can be updated and transformed overnight, if need be.

Change is incremental, not radical

In summary, the office of the future isn’t going to be a collaboration-centred zone that’s the product of a radical transformation. Change will happen incrementally, building on itself as each employee establishes their hybrid working routine. The workplaces that successfully navigate this transition period will be the ones that are prepared to physically adapt and accommodate the essential human socialisation that many have been missing for the last 18 months – that’s what people will commute for.

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