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Chris Kane: Office as we know it will never be same


MediaCityUK in Salford, home to the BBC, ITV and other media firms

MediaCityUK in Salford, home to the BBC, ITV and other media firms

MediaCityUK in Salford, home to the BBC, ITV and other media firms

Do many people miss the daily gridlock of the Westlink, the drudgery of the clogged Ormeau Road or the battle to get a seat on the Bangor train before trudging from Lanyon Place Station into Belfast offices?

Many thousands of workers used to spend their day in an office building, amounting to a monumental total of hours spent commuting every day.

The dreadful events of the pandemic has thrown the spotlight on this aspect of our lives. Something we have accepted as a given for years has been interrupted for many of us.

Maybe the time has arrived for a fresh look.

A reservoir of printer's ink has already been expended on the debate about working from home, returning to work and getting back to a new normal. One consequence of the lockdown was that it gave us all time to think and reflect on life and work.

On this basis, is there a case to ask ourselves some really searching questions such as why, how, when and where do we do office work?

It may no longer be a case of where you go to do office work or where is your office, but something else. Pre-pandemic, most employers and employees alike accepted the inevitability of office working despite the costs and inconvenience. Now we all know that we have a choice. This has never happened before. Could we be about to experience a major shift in work culture, not seen since the industrial revolution?

Changing the way we work is never easy but is not impossible. I am reminded of the big changes the BBC had to come to terms with, as it faced up to the change from analogue to digital. This gave rise to a massive move to Salford in Manchester, an upheaval I witnessed at first-hand. It involved five divisions and over 2,000 people moving to new buildings, new technology and a completely different way of working at Media CityUK.

This transformation caused an enormous amount of disruption and it was not without its detractors.

The BBC divisions that are now based in Salford are very different to their old London set-ups. In the old world the TV studios were used exclusively by the BBC in their own buildings. In Media City the TV studios are shared with ITV and other producers in a completely stand-alone facility. This would have never been acceptable in London. But necessity - like our current pandemic accelerator - proved to be the mother of all invention and a novel solution came to pass. If a big, unwieldy and complex organisation such as the BBC could change, then anything is possible. Telling the Salford story forms part of the book Where Is My Office? It discusses how the BBC really did ask itself what it needed to do in its offices, and where they needed to be located. It provoked lots of debate and discussion but ultimately it led to a much better solution.

Covid-19 marks the end of an era for the old ways of office working and how we use an office building. We are witnessing the shift from fixed to fluid in terms of how we can do office work, how people think about office work and how we use office buildings. This is a shift to something more flexible, more people-friendly and more focused on the individual. One where there is much more focus on the working experience like never before. What this will look like is still evolving, as nobody has prepared for the situation we find ourselves in today.

One thing for certain is that this emerging new model, compared to the old one, will not be homogenous.

Twentieth century management mantras were all about standardisation and a one size fits-all approach. Those days are over, as leaders realise that if they are to be seen as employers of choice they have to stand out in the eyes of talent.

One of the significant aspects I foresee will be a rapid move to the end of the traditional Monday to Friday 9 to 5 week. Making all this happen will put significant pressure on leaders and managers to organise themselves to adapt to this redefinition of what is office work and when does the work get done. It may even include who does the work.

What we have experienced is a level of change the likes of which we have never seen. It has been so big, I wonder if that well worn phase many of us use running out of the house in the morning - I'm off to the office - will become a thing of the past for us?

Where Is My Office?: Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century by Chris Kane, former head of property at the BBC, with Eugenia Anastassiou, from Bloomsbury Business

Belfast Telegraph