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First priorities for the third workplace

Almost 18 months since Covid-19 caused an almost overnight pivot to home working for many firms, hybrid working seems here to stay for knowledge workers. But the role of the 'third workspace' is not yet entirely clear

What “fully formed” hybrid working will actually look like in the UK is still not entirely clear as it is currently very much in the planning and experimentation phase.

Most medium-to-large employers are not expecting to roll out their new hybrid working models much before the fourth quarter of this year, once vaccination has peaked among the population – even if they have already partially opened their offices up for staff who have struggled with working from home, which in many cases is younger workers.

But the fact that this is new and uncharted territory means they are taking a range of approaches, not just in terms of introducing more flexible working models but also regarding what to do with their physical space.

Nick Iovoacchini, co-founder and chief executive of KettleSpace, which provides co-working services, says: “Once you start peeling back the onion, you realise it’s a very complex set of problems that you’re trying to solve. It’s part real estate, part facilities management and part HR and tech as hybrid working has implications for talent, culture and productivity.”

On top of this, there are the personal views of both leaders and employees to contend with, based on whether they enjoy, or benefit from, working from home. There is also the fact that different teams within the business perform different functions, which has an impact on how much time they need to work together or independently.

“It’s not as easy as it seems,” says Iovoacchini. “There are a lot of decisions going into hybrid working, and it can be very loaded.”

Some patterns are starting to emerge here, though. For example, says Alexia Cambon, research director at research and advisory firm Gartner, most organisations are currently determining “flexibility” on a “number of days working from home” basis, with the most popular option being two to three.

Unfortunately, though, she believes this kind of approach amounts to “inflexible flexibility”, which is mainly being introduced to make activities more “manageable” for employers. A key concern is that “if people aren’t in the office, it’ll damage the company culture” – even though, in Cambon’s view, it is a “bit of a false assumption” because “culture is about behaviour and norms”, which are mutable.

So in order to ensure that teams are cohesive and employees remain aligned with company purpose, she recommends that employers become “more intentional in bringing people together at particular moments on projects – but that doesn’t mean they have to be in the office three days a week; t could be one week out of 10”.

The office is dead, long live the office

As to the real estate side of the equation, the tone now seems to have shifted from “the office is dead” to “the office is being repurposed”.

Kate Smith, head of the workplace and portfolio strategy team at real estate services firm CBRE, says: “At the height of the pandemic, we saw a lot of sub-let space coming onto the market, but it’s now being taken off at a faster rate than it’s being put on. People want destination workplaces to attract talent, ensure staff wellbeing, sustainability etc, but there’s also a lot of surplus, not very good-quality space around too, so what we’re seeing is the emergence of a two-tier market.”

There are a number of reasons for this increase in demand, she says, which range from de-densification because of social distancing requirements to a need for accommodating peak occupancy levels when staff are in the office.

As to what a “destination workplace” will look like, Smith says this depends on each organisation’s individual culture, structure and location. Another important factor is how the space will be used, for example for client meetings, collaboration, innovation, training or all of the above.

With such considerations in mind, management consultancy Deloitte has taken the approach of creating a “hybrid meeting floor” in its Amsterdam office. The goal here is to understand the best options for providing employees with a seamless experience no matter where they work, before making any final real estate or technology investment decisions.

To this end, designer Factorr was brought in to temporarily transform the physical environment, in the process introducing 10 high-tech experiments, including green rooms, remote controller robots and virtual reality.

“There’s a sense of the changing workspace, but it’s currently a ‘test and learn’ approach and most organisations don’t want to fully commit yet,” says Smith. “They know what they as leaders want and what their employees think they want, but they’re keen to see what works in practice in an office setting.”

This means that building flexibility into office-based strategies is key. “You can’t plan for all eventualities as it’s about planning for human behaviour, so it’s vital to be flexible in how spaces are fitted out,” says Smith.

Introducing flexibility with third workplaces

One such means of introducing flexibility is via so-called “third workplaces”, which come in various shapes and forms and can be used by individual workers or teams for a range of activities (see below). Although adoption may not be common at the moment and usage tends to be ad hoc, limited to individuals or at the pilot stage, Gartner’s Cambon does expect it to become a more popular option for businesses over time.

She even points to “progressive organisations” that have already set up flexible allowances with the aim of encouraging staff at all levels to use such facilities as an alternative to the office or home.

But there are a number of downsides to the third workplace approach. Security and privacy can be a concern if employees are using public spaces while undertaking client work or making sensitive calls. Even in private, longer-term rental spaces, some organisations prefer to introduce their own dedicated, secure lines, although the expense of doing so can raise questions about whether it makes more sense to simply use their own facilities.

“If funding a third space, employers need to consider whether it’s bringing a return on investment,” says Cambon. “So, it’s about asking questions like ‘what will it give us?’, ‘which staff will use it?’ and ‘would we be better off investing in home offices?’ as there are definite cost implications.”

Read more about the new normal of work

A further consideration for IT leaders is trying to understand which tools and technologies are important for different modes of working in different spaces, or whether it is more practical to adopt a mobility-first approach for everything. Possibilities here include universal docking stations, cloud-based storage and virtual whiteboards – along with plenty of training for the less tech-savvy.

As Euan Davis, head of Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, points out: “Hybrid working is a real challenge for IT departments, but those organisations that were ahead of the game in bring-your-own-device terms are now reaping the benefits in many instances.”

Ultimately, though, it seems that hybrid working, in whatever form it takes, is here to stay as the primary modus operandi for knowledge workers – into the foreseeable future at least. But the role that third spaces will play in this new normal is not yet entirely clear.

“It’ll really depend on how office space evolves and what organisations consider to be their office ethos and purpose,” says Cambon. “If the office is primarily going to be used for client-facing interactions, having a third space could make sense, but if it’s used mainly for people who aren’t able to work from home, it may not – there are lots of variables.”

Third workplace options

One third workplace model that can prove useful in testing out new designs is renting a dedicated suite of offices with shared amenities from a specialist third party which innovates with new layouts as part of the service.

Co-working spaces are another option that, pre-pandemic, tended to be the domain of individuals or digital startups, but are now becoming popular among larger companies.

Billy Hodges, senior director of CBRE’s flexibility team, says many employers, including Standard Chartered bank, are realising that the idea of dedicated “neighbourhood hubs” in urban centres, such as London, is unlikely to work because people are too dispersed. So they are now piloting “near-home” alternatives to see whether it is possible to maintain regulatory compliance, health and safety, data privacy, productivity, and so on.

These alternatives make it possible to book a desk for a day or more, or rent a business lounge, which can be used as a drop-in venue for client or team meetings or simply to pick up emails. Hourly rental, membership and pay-as-you-go options are now being made available from big operators, such as Regus and WeWork.

Providers such as KettleSpace offer a slightly different approach. It partners with hotels, restaurants and retail spaces and rents out excess capacity to members via an app, which offers “experiences” ranging from a place to sit and work to a private office or floor.

UK startup Flown, meanwhile, provides an Airbnb-style service. Individuals or teams can book time at one of its remote work-ready properties in the UK, Spain or Portugal in order to get away and work from somewhere more beautiful.

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