The Tomorrow People

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We recently hosted our 11th MixInspired event, and our third in London, at Milliken’s fantastic Clerkenwell showroom. Titled ‘The People Shaping Tomorrow’s Workplace’, we gathered together an expert panel to discuss, going forward, exactly how the workplace will look, feel and operate – and also who will be leading the ever-changing working landscape.

We had a packed house of leading A&D, D&B and property professionals for the discussion, who were keen to learn the opinions of our panel members, who were: Samantha Addison, Property Director at Colliers International; Nick Brook, Former Head of Facilities at Mills & Reeve LLP; Rohit Talwar, CEO at Fast Future; and Neil Usher, author, columnist and Consultant at Unispace and workessence.

We started by asking whether we’re currently in the middle of a workplace revolution or evolution. Neil was quick to pick up the gauntlet. ‘I think it’s been a revolution for 25+ years,’ he considered. ‘I think what’s happening at the moment is that businesses are finally realising that the workplace can be a beneficial tool – at last. I remember going to a number of projects over that time, which were run by some pretty fascinating people, and being blown away by what were pretty agile workplaces. They might not have had the technology 25 years ago – but they were still pretty agile. They had concierge desks, they had flexible space and they essentially worked in the same way that a lot of our workplaces work today. I think the revolution, if you want to call it that, started a long time ago.’

“I think what’s happening at the moment is that businesses are finally realising that the workplace can be a beneficial tool – at last”

‘I would say that the stereotype of a law firm is still offices and Chesterfields in reception,’ Nick reasoned. ‘When I joined Mills & Reeve 11 years ago, they were pretty much completely open plan. One of the reasons they went open plan in one office was that a sub-tenant moved out and the air conditioning system broke. Water poured everywhere and they had to do something – so they decided they weren’t going to replace the walls, they’d go open plan instead! It wasn’t out of a desire to revolutionise how they worked.

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‘After you propose something like going open plan to a law firm, the first thing they’ll ask is’ ‘How much does it cost?’ – and the very next question is normally, ‘What are other law firms doing?’ They are very hesitant to be the first ones to do it – but they also don’t want to be the last ones to do it.’

Sam felt that they’d been more of an evolution – but with step changes. ‘Over the past 25 years I’ve seen change generally happening all the time – but then you’ll see a technology change or a cultural change that will really shift things. For me, the real change came about 10-12 years ago when corporate occupiers wouldn’t have anyone from γ property on board. They felt that this was only 10-15% of their costs and therefore weren’t particularly interested. For me, the big step change we’ve seen over the past five years is understanding that the 80% businesses are spending on staff is actually impacted by that ’small’ thing called property. This is now increasing all the time. People are finally starting to understand the impact.’

Rohit agreed with much of what was said by his fellow panel members, but also felt that, whether we’re experiencing a workplace evolution or revolution, it is not something that has been or is being experienced by everyone. ‘I would say that maybe only 30% of the working population has seen these changes. If you go around the country, 70% of people are still working in boxes that look just as ugly as they did 20 years ago! They still haven’t experienced enormous change.

‘Technology has, of course, dramatically changed the way we can work and what we can do with the workplace – and working elsewhere. I guess it’s the next five years that are going to be incredibly interesting, as we start to see some of these potentially game-changing technologies being introduced.’

“I guess it’s the next five years that are going to be incredibly interesting, as we start to see some of these potentially game-changing technologies being introduced”

One of the many great questions to come from the audience, was whether, what with the continual push to accommodate millennials and younger generations, older generations are being left behind? ‘I think the ageing workplace is a far more pressing issue than the needs of millennials,’ Neil told us. ‘I think older people are far more adaptable than most commentators give credit for. This will become more of an issue and we will become more conscious of it as we move forward though – and the thing that we really do struggle with are these slow burning issues rather than the more immediate issues of millennials in the workplace.’

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So how has Nick dealt with this issue? ‘The best time to implement change is if you are doing a γ relocation or a refurbishment. That brings with it a sense of ‘This is happening’ – it’s not a choice for the individual, it is a decision that the business has made. The best practice would be to bring those people along on that journey. One thing that you can do to help bring those people along with you is to get them to test the chairs. We did this with one of our fit-outs recently, where we got three of our chair suppliers to bring in chairs – and there was a queue out of the door and almost down the stairs to try them. It’s a really simple thing to do – but it really did make people feel like they were part of it and helped bring them on the journey with us.

‘When it comes to the older generation, a number of older people told me that, when they first came to work, they were using typewriters – whatever they are! Now they are using computers. I think this is about how you manage those changes. When it comes to things such as open plan working or agile working, you need to identify people’s needs – and respond to them.’

We would, of course, like to say a huge thank you to our panel members and also sponsors – Colebrook Bosson Saunders and Milliken. We are extremely grateful for all their support and encouragement. Also, a further thank you to Milliken for their fantastic hospitality and for allowing us to host the event in their amazing showroom!