Culture wars - what next for the office.
Some of you maybe familiar with the term 'Hypernormalisation'? It was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology, when describing the paradox of Soviet life during the 70's and 80's. Everybody knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo. They were resigned to maintaining the pretence of a functioning society, even though they knew it to be a lie. The fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed as a state of hypernormalisation.
Stay with me people..this may get very deep.
I am not the first and certainly not the last on LinkedIn that will suggest that the Covid pandemic has had a profound effect on the way we work, the world, and our perceptions of life. It is ongoing, and is here to stay. Therefore, any new 'normal' is only that until the next big thing in town replaces it. It is of course extremely sad. In many ways, Covid didn't really break things, it just shone a light on what was already broken.
So maybe it is time to share some truths and be honest with each other if we are to proceed and create something positive out of this. So let us have an honest chat about Real-Estate, co-working, and the way we work, eh ?
Some of you may be familiar with the term 'Hypernormalisation'? It was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology, when describing the paradox of Soviet life during the 70's and 80's. Everybody knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo. They were resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society even though they knew it to be a lie. The fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed as a state of hypernormalisation.
Hypernormalisation rings so true with some of our ideas about work, the office, real-estate and co-working doesn't it. We all know that the existing models are not working, but are not honest enough to admit it to ourselves. Things post-covid really need to change.
Let's start with home truths about Co-working.
Most of you are aware that co-working isn't a new thing, and despite the hype around it..it's never really worked. There. I've said it.
There were always two types of co-working spaces. Those that owned the building and used Co-working as a way to fulfil occupancy and increase transactions. This increased the yield of the building..the Mcdonalds approach. In this model, it didn't matter if the co-working space made much money, as the value of the building covered any loss. They attempted to offer a cool community and insights and had the cash to offer these things. But the model is based on over-subscription of space, and well, image.
The other type of co-working tried to sub-let spaces to make a margin on the division and oversubscription of the space and had little money to really offer community or all of the cool-things because it was simply too expensive.
What do you do now if the start-ups and entrepreneurs no longer have the cash to rent over-expensive desks and space, and Corporates are experiencing less than 20% occupancy..who needs to get more space? As a corporate, are you comfortable sending your employees to an external workspace where you cannot guarantee their safety? The model will break.
There is an acceptance now that you can work at home, and that this is ok as an image for a company. Then not having a dedicated office or space is no longer seen to be bad for business. If I can collaborate from anywhere, then the demand for formal space also goes down.
So now you have a dilemma. If you are Corporate Real Estate and you had issues populating your buildings at the best of times, or you paid for expensive flexible spaces from one of the many hipster co-working franchises to satisfy the demand. You have a problem. And a cost. The co-working business has a problem. The owners of buildings have a problem if they have debt on a building that is no longer in demand. The commercial real-estate'rs selling space will have issues. And the poor employees who have had their wages cut or frozen have an issue that the rents for their apartments are too high for the Companies to burden them further with the cost of a dedicated home-office and Internet.
Additionally, the metrics used to measure occupancy, productivity, and the fascination around the Sq Meter all get thrown out of the window if your space needs to allow for each employee to have more space to adhere to social distancing rules. 'Oh no..not the metrics as well' I hear you scream. Let's be honest, we all knew that the metrics were bulls*t, right?
But space is needed. To work, collaborate, to innovate and to promote culture. We got there !
The focus and battleground for the better use of physical space, work, will be around Culture.
Where most things can be replaced by the virtual world, our desire as humans to find connection and be part of something has remained strong. The attempts by social media, brand, and those well known Co-working spaces I mentioned ( amongst others We..cough) have shown us one thing. There is a desire for connection and community. The brief buzz we get from the virtual community is nice, but the positives from Covid is actually realizing what your 'tribe' is. Supporting your local businesses. Getting shopping for the neighbours and those in need. Understanding your colleagues better because you heard the screaming kids in the Zoom Background, or a guitar hanging on the wall.
The desire for community and culture is still there. And for this we require new ideas...and certainly new metrics.
A physical space that cultivates culture, trust, and concentrates on the reasons for people coming to the space will endure. The spaces may be smaller than planned. They will be designed differently.
We at any2any are already creating concepts for customers wanting a more federalized corporate space philosophy, where the company's brand and community can be experienced in multiple smaller spaces. Workplaces offer a unique social fabric and connection for people. It's not just the coffee, or the water cooler, or the kicker-table, but creating the right atmosphere and space for employees, customers, partners to congregate is the future. Maybe with less space..more drop-in collaborative space..but whatever happens, space will be needed. And that space needs to be culture-led in its design, services, interior, and approach.
Focussing on Culture also makes the use of space even more demand-led, and experience led, than ever before. Again, we have been trying to do this for years, but have often used the same tools to achieve different results. The obsession with giving the employee e.g. the ability to change the light settings has at times over-shadowed (no pun) the need to create better experiences. With the right purpose, this will change. But it will demand courage, to break the existing frameworks.
And courage is what we will need.
As RFK said "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
We will need courage, and confidence to do something new. And maybe start being more honest with ourselves. Take Care.