Traditional Real Estate Is Not Designed To Support “New Work”

During his presentation at GCUC UK, Antony Slumbers argued that we need to think of the workplace as a software that’s constantly changing and developing
  • Speaking at GCUC UK, Antony Slumbers discussed new ways of working, including the notion that repetitive work is ‘old work’. 
  • Slumbers argues that ‘new work’ is more human; it will require that we use our creative strengths and judgement – something machines can’t do.
  • The challenge is that traditional real estate is not designed to support this new work; this is where space-as-a-service comes in.

There’s a popular idea that the future of work will be dominated by machines and robots.

While the scale of AI involvement is difficult to predict, the idea itself isn’t fantasy or science fiction; it’s a very real part of our working future.

Think about how quickly artificial intelligence has permeated our lives. It’s taken little more than a decade to switch from clicking buttons on cell phones, to tapping and swiping touchscreens, to dictating instructions to electronic devices. We’re already using AI in the home and the office, and this is expected to ramp up dramatically over the next few years.

“We are turning into an AI-everywhere world. AI is becoming the most important general-purpose technology of our era. It pervades everything that everybody does.”

So says Antony Slumbers, software development and technology strategist for the commercial real estate industry, speaking at GCUC UK in London this week.

During his keynote presentation, Slumbers referred to research by McKinsey (2017) which claims that 49% of all jobs carried out by people around the world have the potential to be automated. In other words, “AI algorithms will be to white collar workers what tractors are to farm hands.”

But machines won’t simply waltz into the workplace and take over all of our jobs.

They can’t do it.

Sure, machines can learn to waltz. But they can only carry out tasks that are repetitive, predictable and structured – not creative or empathic. So they may learn the steps of a waltz, but they lack the human artistry and flair that makes it beautiful.

As Slumbers puts it, repetitive work is ‘old work’ – “like life before a washing machine.”

If we allow machines to carry out ‘old work’, that frees up the human workforce to concentrate on tasks that utilise our creative strengths and ability to make judgements. This so-called ‘new work’ is more human – it utilises our ability to design, to use our imagination, to be abstract, to collaborate, and to have empathy.

Those skills have always been there, but they’re often suppressed by other demands. “It’s not the way we work that’s changing, it’s the work we do.”

The challenge, however, is that traditional real estate is not designed to support creative ‘new work’.

“Old work was solo work,” says Slumbers. “New work is more collaborative.”

As ‘new work’ grows, it creates more demand for workplaces that foster the type of activities and skills required to help people achieve it: collaboration, learning, and exchange of information. This doesn’t mean we need more open shared space; it means we need agile workspace that can accommodate multiple activities throughout the working day.

Workspace design is evolving to accommodate these needs – you only need to look at the spread of coworking and the permeation of collaborative space throughout corporate offices and headquarters to see that the workplace is changing. But we’re not there yet.

According to the Leesman Index, only 57% of workers globally say their workplace enables them to be productive.

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Part of the problem is that companies are resistant to change. Or they appreciate that change is required but they don’t know in what capacity it needs to happen.

“Companies don’t want an office, they want a productive workforce.”

So if companies don’t want an office, but they need a place in which to engage and enable their teams to work together more productively, paradoxically, it makes the office more important.

Where people work has a huge impact on their ability to work well. According to Slumbers, the success factor lies in operators “moving away from being a rent collector to becoming a service provider”, and delivering the services and amenities that help people work more efficiently and productively. That’s where space-as-a-service comes in.

At GCUC UK, Slumbers outlined 7 key points that illustrate this shift in mindset:

  • Space-as-a-service is the redocusing of the industry around people
  • Improving the productivity of people is the core value proposition
  • People are much more valuable than real estate
  • A great user experience in a great building enables greater productivity
  • Space-as-a-service unbundles income from £ or $ per sq ft
  • Higher utilisation and satisfaction trumps security of long leases
  • Focusing on people will increase value – focusing on real estate won’t

“Own the relationship and think long-term,” urged Slumbers. “We’re brand building, we’re moving from B2B to B2B2C. Your brand is your user experience, and the brand is where the value is.”

A positive experience includes getting the fundamentals absolutely right: temperature, air quality, lighting, and noise. On a higher level, it requires a shift in focus, and analysing how the space can help its occupants be more productive.

This requires a new set of KPIs that includes:

  • Connectivity – physical, digital, intellectual
  • Modernity requires density
  • Flexibility
  • Productivity / pleasure
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Sustainability

Making sure those elements work well relies on data that tell operators how the space is being used. Crucially, Slumbers notes that building owners and workspace operators should adopt a tech-style cycle: Build, Measure, Learn.

“Traditional real estate stops at Build – we don’t measure or learn from it. We need to think of the workplace as a software that’s constantly changing and developing.”

In the same way that developers build, measure and learn from their creations; flexible workspace operators have an opportunity to utilise data to measure their performance, learn from it, and build better spaces for happier, more productive people. This is even more important as we usher in ‘new work’ and the significant demands that come with creative thinking.

“Great user experience in a great building enables greater productivity,” added Slumbers. And to the owners and operators of coworking and flexible workspace, he made the message loud and clear: “Real estate is not well placed to provide the services and experience that people are looking for – but you are.”

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