A Pandemic of Possibility

For this week’s blog we are delighted to collaborate with Richard Tinto, Founder and visionary behind leading architectural practice Tinto Architecture. Richard recently posted a vlog about the future of the office which prompted a great deal of discussion online. Today’s blog examines this further, harnessing Richard’s views as someone at the forefront of his industry, coupled with Andrew’s daily experience of speaking to people who ultimately use these spaces.

What would you do?

If I could give you an extra five hours per week how would you use the time? What about if I gave you ten, fifteen even? Please take a moment to really consider this, as we’ll revisit the question later.

I know what you are thinking though.

“Sounds great Andrew but it simply isn’t possible”!

I know, this would have been my stock answer too until very recently. Think about this, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed your time is accounted for. Be that family, commute, work, a taxi service for the kids. The apparent progress that we’ve all made during the past 40 years has left most of us financially better off, but extremely time poor.

Then came 23rd March 2020

Boris Johnston put the UK into lockdown to halt the spread of Coronavirus. Overnight, 50% of people in the UK started working from home (WFH). For most, it was their first experience of working from outside a formal office setting. Employers who had previously resisted WFH had to implement new procedures almost overnight to make it happen.

In my role working in the recruitment industry, I am fortunate to spend my days speaking to people about how they feel about their jobs. This invariably goes deeper and becomes a lengthy and sometimes cathartic discussion about life in general. Zoom and Teams calls have taken the place of face to face meetings and coffee catch ups. I’ve spoken to at least 200 people since March, most of whom are working from home, and almost without exception people have enjoyed many of the aspects of being away from their office.

A focus on the good stuff

So, let’s start with some of the positive’s that I’m consistently hearing. Firstly, the autonomy to manage your day without the constant supervision (or sometimes micromanagement) that comes with an office environment. To varying degrees, we can all feel ‘owned’ in an office – monitored, scrutinised, watched. Remove the physical barriers and people feel more free to manage their own diaries. This freedom is not to be underestimated.

Secondly, most of us have experienced far more time with our family. Notwithstanding the difficulties and frustrations of having to homeschool kids or looking after a boisterous toddler, people are enjoying getting to spend far more time with their loved ones. From eating meals together to a regular walk after lunch – surely this is real progress.

In his book “Remote”, author Jason Fried labels the modern office a “distraction factory”. Studies are now repeatedly showing that we only achieve between two to three hours of productive work per day in the modern office environment. I think we should let this sink in and let me reiterate - in a typical work-day of eight hours, the average employee is only really productive for around a quarter of the time, with one of the biggest culprits being time spent chatting to colleagues.

That brings us on nicely to my third point – if we are only productive for two to three hours per day, shouldn’t we significantly reduce our standard workday anyway to make better use of our time? Working from home can be a catalyst for this.

My fourth point relates to the environmental impact. Within a couple of weeks of lockdown coming into effect, global pollution levels had receded to levels not seen in decades. Overnight, skies became clearer and the smog that typically engulfs major cities simply disappeared. In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass net zero emission laws with a date set for 2050. The world’s most formidable brains are developing new technologies to meet this target, but all it took was for everyone to stay at home for the levels to plummet overnight. I’m aware that this is not the solution, but surely a significant reduction in carbon has to be a good thing.

Staying on the same theme, congestion levels on our roads had been increasing since the proliferation of the motor car. It’s our ubiquitous mode of transport in the modern world. With most of us working from home, traffic simply disappeared overnight. Noise levels also reduced which allowed towns, villages, and cities to breath again. I heard someone say that they heard the dawn chorus for the first time on an early morning run.

It's not all plain sailing

I’ve spoken to several people who simply feel that working from home is not for them. They miss the routine of going into an office, the small chats around the water cooler, the ability to engage face to face with their colleagues. Others have found tasks far more laborious. For example, instead of asking someone across a desk what a number means on a spreadsheet, they now have to either call, email, Teams/Zoom someone. The spark of creativity has also been missing for many; those lightbulb moments that can only happen when human beings are in flow and bouncing ideas off one another.

Creative spaces

This week marks the first week of July and many workers in Scotland will be back to their offices for the first time in nearly four months. So where do we go from here? Will we all flock back to our old routines or will there be lasting change?

As you would expect, Richard has heard every view imaginable, from “this signals the end of offices” to “we’ll actually need more offices and more space”.

Richard states:

“In my view, the office is an ideal opportunity to deliver a physical manifestation of your brand. I believe that people will spend less of their time in their offices with a great deal of focused, deep work being carried out at home. However, I strongly believe in the human aspects of work and that the magic happens when people get together face to face”.

Richard and I have discussed this at length. A new, blended model is emerging that will provide employees (and mangers) the best of both worlds. Perhaps two or three days a week working from home with a couple of days in the office. This appears to be the favoured scenario by most.

The way we use our office is also set to change.

Richard believes:

“The office will evolve to be a creative hub for your team. It will also be a place to entertain and to host clients, showcasing your brand, who you are and what you stand for. Your office will form part of your marketing mix alongside your social media strategy to portray your company’s values”

I believe Richard makes a critical point here. Please don’t be mistaken - as an advocate of working from home, I am far from anti-office. Quite the contrary in fact. It’s their use that has to change.

If this really is the tipping point and how we use offices is set to change forever, what will this mean and what conclusions can we draw?

Re-imagining the home

House builders may have to rethink the design of our homes to accommodate home offices into every new build. It’s not unfeasible to think that all new homes will be built with a separate space for work given the problems many of us have faced crouched around the kitchen table with a laptop. The proliferation of new technologies is also likely to increase. The use of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and even holograms can allow home workers to feel that they are actually in the same room as their colleagues by simply putting on a headset. It sounds like science fiction but it’s already here.

Richard comments:

“As we become more aware of how we can manage our time through technology, as well as perhaps to deliver our best and most meaningful work away from distractions, the home working environment will require serious thought.

I don’t think it’s just a spare bedroom, I think it needs to be given prominence in the home where the balance between working at home and in another place is met. Living a life of purpose places deep and meaningful work, and therefore contribution to a better world, at the heart of our beings. To detach and undervalue the home workspace may be counter intuitive; thinking creatively, there are many opportunities to blend work and life, with the ability to separate when the need arises by allowing working space to be flexible and for multiple uses.

A good example are modern garden rooms which are just that; garden rooms, offices, gyms, and play areas depending on the need but ultimately flexible to them all”

The biggest change of all

The biggest change is likely to be in our cities and town centres as the use of space changes. Again, Richard shares his views:

“Town and city centres are on a slow but gradual change and recent events are a great chance to accelerate some of these changes, where life becomes far more mixed. We need redevelopment of urban centres that allow us to live, work, relax and keep ourselves healthy, without huge commutes or expanding our carbon footprints. These are a real chance for long term legacy thinking and planning, to try and create that utopian green, relaxed and all providing space at the heart of our towns and cities.

Offices will exist, it’s just a missed opportunity to have them as separate, costly and often rather depressing places where people go to “waste” huge parts of their life. It’s now well established that anyone achieving three productive hours a day in such an environment is actually ahead of the productivity curve”

So what would you do with all that extra time?

At the beginning of this article I challenged you to consider what you would do with an extra 5, 10, or 15 hours a week of ‘free time’.

Since the middle of March, we’ve been able to redesign how we deliver our services at Vero and this has resulted in savings of nearly 15 hours a week of previous work time. Working from home several days a week is likely to save most people several hours of commuting time alone, and with the lack of distractions of being away from a noisy office setting, if we all use this opportunity to become more efficient we should all (theoretically at least) have more spare time. Not to mention saving approximately 6 tonnes on our carbon footprint (according to Bulb.co.uk).

A word of warning though

The advent of the mobile phone and ‘email on the go’ was supposed to save us all time and there was much talk at the time that we would all struggle to fill our days. Yes, really!

Unfortunately, the exact opposite occurred, and we humans filled this extra time with more work, leading to the previous delineation between home and work becoming eroded for the first time.

To conclude, the possibilities and opportunities for us all are endless – however it’s up to all of us to decide what direction we take.

Andrew & Richard

p.s I would love to take credit for the title of this piece, “A Pandemic of Possibility”. However, I must attribute it to my favourite podcast host Rich Roll. If you haven’t checked him out I’d thoroughly recommend you do.