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“A growing number of firms consume offices as a service”, Mark Eltringham, Workplace Insight

by | Mar 1, 2016 | Business, Design, Real Estate | 0 comments

Workplace Insight is one of the most widely read magazines concerning “the built environment”. We spoke with Insight’s publisher, Mark Eltringham, to get an idea of what the future of work looks like from the perspective of one of the biggest magazines covering the movement today.

You have been working as a writer, editor and marketing professional for over twenty years, what are some of the major changes you have witnesses in the workplace from this perspective?

One of the interesting things about the sector is about how much it has changed and yet also how little. Many of the debates that rage now about things like flexible working, wellbeing, inclusive design, collaborative work and making the business case for office design have been with us for decades. At the same time, we have seen the office’s role shift dramatically, not least in becoming just one of the spaces in which work gets done The workplace now is both physical and technological.

In terms of the physical design of spaces, the most important change has been the growing irrelevance of the desk. Just as people now work increasingly at home, in cafes and wherever, so offices now look more and more like those spaces. People still work at desks, but not as much as they did and they certainly don’t work on vast workstations with tons of paper and huge desktop computers. That is why it’s interesting to see sit-stand desks gain such relevance.      

As a publisher, why is it so important for us to have written commentary and regular discussion about the workplace?

The important thing is to be part of a community. Traditional journals still have a role to play but they’re different beasts to what happens online. That is where the dialogue happens and it is where you discover the dynamics of a sector. One thing that I think goes underappreciated is just how influential this world is, because when we carry out our analyses of where people go to for information, we always discover that there are key individuals who command a bigger audience than the traditional trade media. It is these communities that shape the world.

Workplace Insight has published numerous case studies outlining developments from space design to the role that real estate plays in the future of work. Based on these studies, and your own experience, how has the role of the real estate industry transformed in relation to the contemporary workplace?

Mark Eltringham

Mark Eltringham

Up until recently, I don’t think it has. It has always had difficulty adjusting its business model to a rapidly changing world. In my view, the dead giveaway is its continuing adherence to the idea of space standards which are a relic of the days of one person and one desk. They are still useful, but increasingly irrelevant as offices become more about the utilisation of space and less about occupation.

I know the issue of lease lengths continues to be a challenge but I think it is the idea of space standards that suggests they are at odds with the realities of what firms – especially startups and TMT firms – want from offices.

I know the issue of lease lengths continues to be a challenge, but I think it is the idea of space standards that suggests they are still at odds with the realities of what firms, especially startups and TMT firms, want from offices.

This is the gap now filled by firms like WeWork who understand that a growing number of firms consume offices as a service.      

From the perspective of Workplace Insight, what are some of the needs of today’s workers? Are people becoming more satisfied with the way that they work, or are there still changes that need to be made? If so, what are they?

If anything, people appear to be less satisfied. You can speculate as to why that might be, but my guess would be the incursion of work into their once free time and the fact they often do this willingly and sometimes don’t acknowledge it. There is also a growing uncertainty about jobs and pay, alongside mundane working environments, an inability to escape the noise and intrusions of their coworkers, lack of opportunities, lack of flexible working in addition to the physical and psychological impact of modern working life.

We have come a long way from the days of workers holed up in their cubicles, and more and more offices are choosing the open space plan. What do you think was the catalyst for this change? Do you think the coworking movement has played a major role in how office space is designed today? If so, why is that?

Open plan is popular because it makes good business sense. I know firms like to sell it on the basis of collaborative work which is probably true in many cases, but their main drivers are clearly that it is cheap and easy.

I think coworking’s day is yet to come in terms of its influence on mainstream office design, although that will change very soon.

In addition to coworking becoming increasingly popular, many major corporations are adopting the coworking model as well. Do you consider these changes in the corporate workplace as effective, or do you think that larger enterprises still have a long way to go when it comes to changing company culture for the better?

I think I would have to challenge what is meant by “better”. I don’t think there is a continuum of evolution towards an idealised working environment and culture. What is exciting is the fact that firms have the choice of more forms of working and workplaces, even though many still may not acknowledge the fact and may not know how to match that up to their culture and ambitions.

Workplace Insight often covers design and the role it plays in workplace wellbeing. Can you tell us a bit about some of the trends you are currently seeing in workplace architecture? How does design encourage wellness in the workplace? And on the same note, in what ways does design improve productivity?

Design doesn’t improve productivity on its own. People can be happy and productive in badly designed offices and unhappy and ineffective in well-designed offices. The important thing is to create a working culture that meets peoples’ needs and then design a workspace that expresses that culture and fosters productivity and happiness.

I would make a similar point about wellness. Designed solutions are often important but secondary to managed and cultural solutions. The perfect example is sit-stand desking, which is a great product but only effective when people are encouraged to stand and move in the first place.

Many workplaces now have their own “third spaces” such as cafes, relaxation rooms. Do you think that this a positive change? Or do you think it blurs the line between work/life balance?

It’s been around for some time, and it’s undoubtedly positive as it allows people to shift their focus, work in a different way and even take time out. Whether this affects their work/life balance I have less of an idea. I think that it is something that we have to choose.

We are hearing rumors that the workplace of the future will be “office-less”. Do you think that we will one day be without a physical workplace? If so, do you think that this would benefit workers, or is having a meeting point essential to creating company culture and productive employees.

I’ve been hearing about the death of the office for as long as I’ve worked in the sector and it’s as much nonsense now as it was twenty years ago. The proof is in the lack of Grade A office space in major cities and also in the decision by companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to invest in huge new office complexes.

The reasons are both practical and linked to human nature. A lot of research has been done into what makes people happy, productive and collaborative, and a lot of it is linked to being around other people and feeling part of something. That is not to say that the role and emphasis of the physical workplace haven’t changed, but offices will be with us in one form or other while we remain human.

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