Jazz Shaper: Philip Ross

Posted on 06 March 2021

Philip is Founder and CEO of the UnGroup and Cordless Group.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers, it’s me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM. It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Philip Ross, CEO and Founder of UnGroup and Cordless Group, a family of brands specialising the impact of emergent technology on the way we all work and live. It was as Head of Research at the Business Design Group, a London based design consultancy, that Philip developed an interest in making directors think differently about work. He became a futurist, focussed on future trends. After founding Cordless Group in 1994, a workplace consultancy advising on tech strategy, design and implementation, he worked with Ericsson, Intel, AT&T as it was then, and Herman Miller, to build the world’s first wireless office. On the back of a surge of wireless technology and a realisation of the benefits and changes this delivers to businesses and organisations, Philip founded a series of brands, including research house and consultancy, UnWork, helping define the opportunities for innovation. Philip now has a client list that includes the majority of the top FTSE and Fortune listed companies and as he says, “The old stale status quo is no longer appropriate in a world where digital disruption, fast company behaviours and expectations of a new generation shapes a realisation that there’s more to life than sitting at a desk all day long.”  Here, here. It’s very nice to have you here, Philip. How are you in this new virtual Jazz Shapers world?

Philip Ross

Elliot, it’s a pleasure to be with you and very well, thank you.

Elliot Moss

Good. It’s strange that we are having a conversation, or maybe it’s not strange, about the future when it feels like the future has arrived, it feels like these conversations that you were having many years ago have transmorphed into reality. A conversation in our studio now, in the Jazz FM world, is slightly different. We are talking across a screen but I can see you very clearly because I believe you are in another invention of Philip Ross and his imagination which we will come onto in a moment but tell me a little bit about why you got interested in the world of work and what you thought would happen to it.

Philip Ross

Well Elliot, I mean if you rewind the clock back to the mid-nineties when I first started exploring the new world of work, we were in a very different place, you know, work was traditional, we commuted into buildings, we sat in these containers for work, surrounded by the paraphernalia of office life and that world was the networked computer and I challenged that, I kind of began to see in the lab something very different coming, I had a fantastic access to places like Ericsson in Nacka Strand who were showing me what was then the early mobile technologies, and Hewlett-Packard who showed me early laptops and then of course people like Motorola had this fascinating thing called wireless networking which was unheard of back then and I kind of just put it all together and said look what if, you know, what if we all were able to carry a portable computing device and connect wirelessly without this cable, what could the world of work look like and we began to re-imagine it.

Elliot Moss

And as you are speaking there, it sounds funny to me that we are saying about this wireless world. Imagine! Imagine there’d be this computer that you could walk around with and it would have everything you needed. Imagine you had a phone and that phone was the phone that you used wherever you were. I mean it’s extraordinary just the pace of change and I remember watching a presentation from David Putnam and I think he was talking about film and film technology and it was post-Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1979 and he was talking about the revolution that’s happened in technology and how it’s affected film. It feels like though, in the film world, people got on with it and special effects happened. In the working world, we’ve been incredibly resistant to change. What’s that about?

Philip Ross

Well I think Elliot, generally people are resistant to change but I think the world of work was kind of created by management theory, people like Frederic Taylor who thought that the organisational chart and the organisational efficiency was the way that work should be shaped and driven. So for a long time we drove people to the desk, presenteeism was the way that we managed people, by watching the back of their heads and we created these workplaces that were much more about an old-fashioned view of the world of work and it’s very difficult to challenge that, you know, what is the kind of impetus for change?  We believe that that’s technology but even with technology, up until quite recently, it has been quite a difficult process to think about how you’d enable anything different.

Elliot Moss

But beyond the technology there are so many different roles that people play in offices. Why did you decide that actually your work, because your work is kind of, I feel like it’s one of those moments when you look inside the mirror and inside the mirror is the person saying I wonder what’s the other side of the mirror?  Your work is about work, you know, my work historically was in the world of advertising and now my day job is in a law firm and I’m here as well and I love what I do but you decided to talk and focus on work. Where did that desire come from?  It’s an unusual thing. There aren’t many of you around.

Philip Ross

No. Well, I’m an economist and yeah, as an economist you kind of look at the future, you try and forecast and predict and we all work and I was really intrigued by the different forces that were reshaping work, and not just technology, you know, looking at sustainability, if you think about the contribution of buildings, especially commercial buildings and people getting to those buildings, has a huge carbon footprint, has a huge impact for example on transport networks, you know all of the kind of the regime and the kind of repetitiveness of the daily commute has never been challenged so I was really intrigued by the world of work and you look at the various opportunities to rethink that and the benefits to the environment, to people and their work and life and you can rethink that there’s a much more imaginative and positive way we can think about work and, as you said Elliot, up until a few years ago it was a kind of a difficult argument. The pandemic has really accelerated this, it’s on everyone’s agenda now because we’ve had enforced working from home which for many was unthinkable and now people have realised that actually there is a brave new world to be defined.

Elliot Moss

So, your own interest, you disclosed how you became fascinated by this subject. When you start doing that, it makes me think about Jeff Bezos trying to sell the Amazon proposition, you know, 1994 funnily enough same year, maybe he’s slightly wealthier than your or anyone else I have interviewed but he believed that the internet would be the place to sell books and that was a stupid idea, crazy, crazy, crazy. You have been talking about the future of work and now suddenly, we’re here. How have you, over these last 20 years or so, navigated the… cynicism is the wrong word but the kind of resistance perhaps to the new?  Or is it not like that?  Are there just a group of enlightened businesses that have gone, we love what you do and we’ll keep going or have you seen it change more recently?

Philip Ross

No, there has been cynicism and it’s a difficult argument and discussion. As you said Elliot, it has to be proven so there’s data and evidence that’s needed and the good news is that there’s a lot of data you can gather. You know, we’re talking about things like Microsoft’s platform that you can actually get the data from to show how people are working and whose interacting with whom but I think the most important thing is, the scepticism really is about having to challenge the status quo and many people don’t like to do that and in effect that’s where the brand I created came from, UnWork is about unravelling, unbundling, getting people to kind of stop and be introspective and unlearn some of their behaviours and I think that’s important, you know you don’t know what you don’t know and I think in business, you know you talk about disruption and need for agility, we need to think and really challenge ourselves as to how best people should work in the future, especially now we have realised that work can be redefined, we’ve all been working effectively at home, people have actually reported that productivity has increased and enhanced and actually if you think about it, we are bypassing the office, all of the technology and platforms we are using don’t touch the office at all so, how can we repurpose and rethink what this office is for going forwards?

Elliot Moss

In this time Philip, in your own business, what have you done?  What have you done in terms of the working environment, in terms of as you call it, an activity based space and the application of technology?  Are they things that obviously you’ve got to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, as it were, if I was to look inside your business itself before the pandemic, what would I have seen?

Philip Ross

Well the way I have always thought about my business is to give people empowerment and see them as a collection of entrepreneurs working together and so I think we practiced what we preached for a long time and we used the latest technologies, everyone has a device they carry and they can work from anywhere, the office itself has no desks that you would recognise, there are places to work and there’s a collection of environments and people choose where they want to work based on their activity or task and who they need to work with but also their personal preferences. I think Elliot what’s interesting to me is that, you know your comment that it’s personal, actually seems to be forgotten by most corporates, you know they leave that at the door and even though many have diversity as a value, actually that’s about attracting diversity and talent attraction but actually then they put people into a one size fits all box and they kill the benefits of diversity and my view is that it should be personal, it’s about people and their preferences and who they are and how and where they do their best work.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, it’s Philip Ross, he’s the CEO and Founder of UnWork and we’re talking about working environments and why work and the office aren’t necessarily to be said in the same sentence anymore going forward from 2021 onwards, maybe. Much more coming up from Philip in a couple of minutes. Right now though we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. They can be found on all the major podcast platforms. Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan and Anne Rose talk about the latest trends and developments in the world of blockchain and the key opportunities and threats affecting businesses looking to implement blockchain platforms.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again with Philip by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice of if you have a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows. But back to today’s guest, it’s Philip Ross, CEO and Founder of UnGroup, Cordless Group, UnWork and every other Un that we can possibly think of here. A family of brands, it says here, specialising in the impact of emerging technology on the way we’ll work and we’ll live. You obviously like working which sounds, you know would be most of the people I have on the programme like working but the work environment is what you do for a living. How do you keep yourself fresh?  How do you ensure that you’ve got the new ideas coming?  I mean people… I hear someone’s a futurist, I always go okay, well how do you do that?  I mean obviously we all have thoughts about what it might be and I remember being 7 and writing an essay about flying skateboards but isn’t it just conjecture?  Where does it come from and how can you then land that in today’s world?

Philip Ross

Well Elliot I mean, the world doesn’t stand still and you know part of my role is to be one step ahead of the people we work with because you need to be able to advise on the future and to be a futurist, yes you can kind of hypothesise but the proofs in the kind of delivery, you know if you get it right over the years and you have predicted the future correctly, you are then respected as a futurist and I think that when I started the business in 1994, you mentioned we built the first ever wireless office, people thought we were completely barking, I mean mad, it was era of structured cabling in very expensive office buildings, expensive furniture to bring those cables around the building and raised floors, all of this kind of huge infrastructure and we said actually it’s going the other way, you are wrong, we are going to be walking around with devices just kind of connected wirelessly and I think then people though we were completely barking mad and now of course the proof is here. So our next predictions, you know, we can then say with a certain degree of confidence, you know we are looking at the idea of smart homes, we are looking at the impact of the internet of things, on buildings, and we are looking at the various changes to how we’ll work based on what we can see in the labs of the technology companies.

Elliot Moss

How do you ensure that people remain central to all this because a brave new world that has such things in it, is fabulous and we talk about user experiences, we talk about speed of broadband, we talk about broadband in the same breath as we say water and other utilities but at the heart of everything is humanity so for you as well, does it start with people?  Does it start with gizmos?  Does it start with the word innovation?  What’s your starting point for defining all of this?

Philip Ross

It has to start with people and it’s all about people. You know, how can you get people to have a great day at work wherever and however that work takes place?  And I think it’s back to this diversity point, you know we have had had this kind of mechanised one size fits all, a very inhuman approach to the office and I walk into so many offices and they actually don’t feel particularly human. I often compare them to art, you know often the office is the kind of Mondrian, you know very, very kind of ordered, rectilinear and to some extent we want a bit more Kandinsky and perhaps there’s a good analogy with jazz because you know, that is the analogy, you know Kandinsky is classic, one of his favourite paintings is called Swinging and you know, music and improvisation, a bit more randomness I think is needed and that should be about people, giving them choice and variety and not just this kind of one place, the same desk, day in, day out that most of us have experienced.

Elliot Moss

But the other thing is and the other side of the argument would say come on Philip, people have got to work, I mean you work, you’ve got to be productive, how do you help people be productive?  Well you get them seated wherever they are. Truthfully, we don’t mind this home working thing say many employers but, really?  I mean, can you be as effective in your living room and what about mixing with other people?  I mean there are so many what abouts. Does that ever irritate you or just kind of dull your enthusiasm?

Philip Ross

No, for me it’s a challenge, you know interesting the surveys that we’ve seen during the lockdown, the magic number is about 7%. 7% of people want to come back to the office as it was before. I mean that’s frighteningly low, right?  And that’s across the world, law firms, banks, you name it, it’s a pretty common figure. So therefore that’s a pretty low kind of vote of confidence for the office as it was when people are asked themselves what they would like and of the balance, about half of them say I want to be mostly at home and half wanted hybrid existence and I think that hybrid world is what we’re going to head towards and that’s quite refreshing and therefore you can give people something a bit different, they can balance the way they work, they can get back the time they spend commuting and by and large I think the outcome, the output is how you’ll measure people’s performance, you know just by turning up and sitting at the desk at work all day long doesn’t mean they’ve been productive and effective so let’s move to an outputs led approach, a results orientated approach to work and then people can do whatever they want as long as they achieve the results.

Elliot Moss

And for you, briefly, what’s it going to look like?  Is it going to be three days in ‘the office’, two days at home?

Philip Ross

Gosh, I mean, for me personally, you know I… as you can see, we love what we do, it doesn’t really actually feel like working, we’re very lucky and to some extent, you know you balance it based on who you are working with and what you are doing and once we get back to travelling, you know who knows what that balance will be but to some extent the lines are blurred and I think each week will be different which I think is part of the joy of where we are heading.

Elliot Moss

How many people now are in your business?

Philip Ross

We are about fifty at the moment.

Elliot Moss

Fifty and is that the magic number?  People often talk about, you know over a certain number you lose track because you don’t know people’s lives and so on. I mean we obviously know each other’s lives much more now because of the nature of how we are working but have you enjoyed it more as you got bigger?  Did you like it when it was only a handful of people or has it not made much of a difference to you in terms of happiness?

Philip Ross

Yeah, no I think there’s still space for growth, I mean I often think a hundred is a good critical mass, I always was told that that’s where centurions came from, you know managing a hundred people is about the kind of limit of knowing someone’s name and I’ve always thought that’s a kind of a good critical mass of any group or business and it’s been around fifty people for a couple of years but I think this new world of work that’s surrounding us means that we’re quite excited about growth.

Elliot Moss

And how have you kept through this pandemic, how have you kept that sense of cohesion and sense of shared identity, sense of shared purpose going because we’ve all, anyone who manages individuals, teams, companies, has had exactly the same issue and it’s become the primary issue actually.

Philip Ross

It absolutely has. I mean I think we have an events business, one of our companies is WORKTECH which is a global conference brand and of course that kind of stopped, stopped in its tracks in March and you know the kneejerk reaction was to furlough people in that business but then through those summer months you realise that these are young talented people who were not being stimulated so actually we brought everyone back from furlough gradually in the autumn and everyone is now working and actually pivoting to a virtual platform has been very successful and actually more interesting because you are getting a global audience of people who before may not have travelled. UnWork is booming, as is Cordless. I mean, I think that actually we’ve done quite well through the lockdown from a business perspective and you know we think that the world is pivoting to be something very different and everyone is looking for those answers and solutions.

Elliot Moss

You mentioned your events business is also, is that connected to the Academy?  Is that part of that business which is all about sort of sharing and learning and resources and so on?  Did you do that beyond the marketing which obviously it’s good marketing to create these kind of platforms but did you do that because you have a desire to educate or proselytise or was it simply just good business?

Philip Ross

Well it’s interesting, Jeremy Myerson who I’ve collaborated with since I started the business, in fact we actually met through music, he is a Professor and came from the Royal College of Art where he was for a long time and still is a part of and he said WORKTECH was created actually because we were told by clients there was nowhere to go to hear knowledge about the new world of work that embraced people, place and technology, they were very siloed, very specialised events only and nothing broad so we started WORKTECH with the British Library twenty years ago and it’s now grown into this kind of global franchise and what clients then said is look you’re sharing WORKTECH innovation in Sydney, in Bogota, in Shanghai, in Toronto, these are fascinating journeys and stories that you’re sharing, can we bring those together?  Can you create a knowledge base and a community that synthesises everything that you are seeing around the world?  So, Jeremy joined and created the WORKTECH Academy about five years ago and he’s built a team of researchers and writers who in effect collate that knowledge and share it with our clients.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with Philip Ross, he’s the CEO and Founder of UnWork and we’ll be playing a track from War. That is in just a moment so please don’t go anywhere.

Philip Ross is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes and we’ve been talking about all sorts of things related to the office space and Covid-19 and all the things that go on around work. You have created a business which is a consultancy, it’s also a training hub if you like, but also you write. Which bit I guess is my question that you’ve enjoyed the most or that you enjoy the most?  Is it the thinking part?  Is it the delivering of advice part?  Is it the managing the business part?  Is it coming up with the new ideas part?  Is it the talking about technology or finding out about new tech part because you’ve sort of got lots of parts to your brain and your outlook?

Philip Ross

Gosh that’s a good question, I mean I’ve just actually somehow in lockdown, written my next book so Jeremy and I actually have finished the next book on the future of work which should come out later this year and I think I love that, I mean I love the luxury of writing and being able to kind of think and put that down on paper and the books we’ve written have been inspirational you know for people, I think they’ve just opened eyes and got people thinking differently outside of their comfort zone so I love pushing people and you can do that through speaking and presenting, the art of persuasion I think is very interesting and that I enjoy. You know, running a business almost kind of is by default, you know you are so passionate about what you want to do and how you want to kind of shape the world, I mean I think I’ve got a very clear purpose that we want to kind of improve people’s experience of work because I think, you know most people have a pretty grim experience of work and to try and find a way to show people that there’s a better way, a more enjoyable way and a more successful way to organise work, is a great motivator and very rewarding.

Elliot Moss

Do you think there’ll be offices in ten years? 

Philip Ross

I think there’ll be space. I don’t think this idea of the office will be something that you will recognise. As we re-appraise what we need post-pandemic, there’s about probably 50-60% of the activities you can now do successfully at home. All the focus work, the reading, the writing and so on but there’s about 40% that needs other people, you know you need to kind of interact, collaborate. You need to be spontaneous because a lot of the unexpected is about you know encounters that people have unplanned and therefore the space needs to achieve that but that’s not a building full of desks and meeting rooms, it’s something different, it’s a place that has purpose, that has a variety of environments that blends food, drink, leisure with environments for work and I think more importantly Elliot as well, you know we’ll head to a world of this hybrid working where people will be in the space and those others will connect remotely and therefore digital equality has to be thought through, you know how can we create the right experiences for people going forwards?

Elliot Moss

It’s been really nice talking to you, Philip and thought provoking too. When does the new book come out?

Philip Ross

In the autumn.

Elliot Moss

In the autumn of 2021 when all being well, hopefully there’ll be some more normality and I hate to say it, we’ll be back to normal because whatever back means is probably not as good as it should be going forward but normal might mean, being able to hug your friends and go to something live which would be good wouldn’t it and to actually see people, beyond the beautiful screens that we are now looking through to see each other. It’s been great fun talking to you. Before I let you go to the future of the world of work, Philip, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Philip Ross

Well, it was a really difficult one. I am a drummer. I have been drumming for most of my life and you know, like everyone, I thought Buddy Rich has always been a remarkable musician and I actually got to see him before he died, I saw him play live in the Festival Hall back in ’85 just before he died and I think that his technique is astonishing, his passion, his energy is astonishing, you know the fusion, the approach to rhythm is wonderful so I had to pick Buddy Rich but I’ve also picked a slightly, an interesting kind of track, again one of my favourite instruments in my orchestral percussion days was the vibraphone which I think is just a wonderful percussion instrument and Buddy Rich here is kind of riffing with the vibraphone which is Lionel Hampton who is a master and I think just the sound, the tonal quality and the rhythm for me is just wonderful.

Elliot Moss

That was Buddy Rich with Take the ‘A’ Train, 1960 version with vibraphone by Lionel Hampton, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Philip Ross. A focus on people, place and technology. A fundamental belief that people should love working, not hate it, and the importance of empowering people and creating spaces within which they can do all the things they actually want to do and be productive. Really good stuff. That’s if from Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Philip Ross is an author, futurist and advisor on the new world of work and specialises in predicting the impact of emerging technology on the way we will work, shop, learn, consume leisure and live. Much of his focus has been on workplace innovation, advising organisations such as McKinsey & Co, Marks & Spencer, EY, Allen & Overy, Penguin Random House, GSK, Barclays and Boston Consulting Group on innovation and future concepts. 

He founded his business in 1994 with the publication of The Cordless Office Report. Since then he has written a number of books on the future of work including The Creative Office, The 21st Century Office and Space to Work (all co-authored with Jeremy Myerson).

Highlights

People are resistant to change.

For a long time we drove people to the desk.

As an economist you look at the future, you try and forecast and predict and we all work and I was really intrigued by the different forces that were reshaping work.

The way I have always thought about my business is to give people empowerment and see them as a collection of entrepreneurs working together.

"It’s personal" – [this] actually seems to be forgotten by most corporates. They leave that at the door and even though many have diversity as a value, actually that’s about attracting diversity and talent attraction.

In 1994, we built the first ever wireless office, people thought we were completely barking mad.

We are looking at the idea of smart homes.

It’s back to this diversity point – we have had had this kind of mechanised one size fits all, a very inhuman approach to the office.

7% of people want to come back to the office as it was before. And that’s across the world, law firms, banks, you name it.

About half of them say I want to be mostly at home and half wanted hybrid existence. I think that hybrid world is what we’re going to head towards and that’s quite refreshing and therefore you can give people something a bit different, they can balance the way they work.

There’s still space for growth.

I’ve just actually somehow in lockdown, written my next book.

Running a business almost kind of is by default, you know you are so passionate about what you want to do and how you want to kind of shape the world.

I’ve got a very clear purpose.

I don’t think this idea of the office will be something that you will recognise.

We’ll head to a world of this hybrid working where people will be in the space and those others will connect remotely and therefore digital equality has to be thought through.

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