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Propertyshe podcast: Philip Ross

Posted on 02 September 2022

The office has to work harder but I think it also has to drive experience and that element of vibe, atmosphere, serendipity.  It needs to borrow on some of the best spaces that we chose to go to, a great hotel lobby, a fun coffee shop, an enjoyable restaurant as well as perhaps a member’s club type atmosphere where you feel belonging but you can again have a place to meet, socialise but also work and do the other activities that will drive a more purposeful day.

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman.  Welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya, in association with the London Real Estate Forum, where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment. Today, I am really delighted to welcome Philip Ross.  Philip is a Founder and CEO of the UnGroup and Cordless Group  He 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 work place innovation, advising leading corporates on innovation and future concepts.  He founded his business in 1994, since then he has written a number of books on the future of work.  His upcoming book co-authored with Jeremy Myerson is called Unworking, The Reinvention of the Modern Office and it is due to be published very shortly.  Unworking offers a panoramic view of the development of the modern office over the past 100 years and presents a manifesto for unworking, unlearning old habits and rituals established for an out-dated office and creating new ones fit for an age of digital technology, design innovation and diverse work forces.  So now we are going to hear from Philip Ross on the concept of unworking and what we can expect from the workplace of the future.

Philip, welcome and thank you very much for joining us today.  I think we last saw each other in Brussels at the ULI Europe Conference where you were talking to our tech group about your new book, Unworking, The Reinvention of the Modern Office which is absolutely fascinating and that’s really going to be what you talk about today.  I think it is fair to say that Covid has accelerated some pre-existing trends and since lockdown, all the corporate CEO’s have been adopting different views, trying to work out how the future office working is going to go.  You refer in the book to the resolute returners, the choice champions and the space shavers so who is right and are we going to see a pattern emerge come the autumn?

Philip Ross

Susan I mean it’s one of the pressing questions at the moment and I think you know, the press is full of debate, I was fascinated this morning to see Apple mandating to try and get people back in three days a week and then the backlash of employees saying, ‘look you should trust us, that was Steve Jobs’ mantra, why should we be forced back in?’.  So you have got this dilemma between you know, resolute returners and the other kind of categories that you referenced.  I think you know it is a very difficult position you know, when people question why they should come to an office, why should they go back to the office that they were in having actually done quite well at home or in other locations.  There has to be a premising purpose, I think people’s experience of coming back in has been relatively negative, you know, people have returned to fairly empty offices, why commute to sit at a desk, sit on Zoom team calls which you could do from home so what is the purpose of, of bringing people back is the key question for I think leadership and I am not sure that that’s yet been defined properly.

Susan Freeman

It is interesting the, the Apple workers you refer to talk about office bound work as being a technology from the last century which is a bit, is a bit damning.  I mean in the book you talk about the fact that the office has dominated working life over the last 100 years and it has not got to be reinvented as part of a flexible future work but is the office as we know it dead?

Philip Ross

Well I think it is dying you know, if you, if you trace back and in the book as you said Susan, we referenced you know the history of the office to kind of set the context, you know, we drove people to a workplace because that was the only option, the technology was based in the office and anchored down to the desk, the filing, the data, the telephone system, everything was based in this building called the office.  You dialled an office through a PBX to speak to somebody, people sat at their desk, tethered down and I think what was interesting is before the pandemic the ingredients for change were emerging you know, people had mobile technology, they could carry a laptop or iPad or other device which wasn’t tethered to a desk.  The desk phone was already dead for many organisations, we were calling a person on their cell phone and not a desk or a room and then of course the cloud really was one of the big triggers of change and that was really just emerging from when the organisations and firms before the pandemic, the idea that we’ve… all of our data and applications out of service in the office and to then nebulous cloud run by Google, Amazon, Microsoft or somebody else and therefore what is the purpose of the office, it’s almost becoming empty of technology, you know devoid of the infrastructure we once relied on that drove us to the office and we saw that, people worked very happily from home, they took laptops home, they accessed everything from the cloud directly almost bypassing the office so apart from a few old files and some artefacts and paraphernalia, there wasn’t a lot that was missed so the office in its really incarnation as we had it pre-pandemic, we think is dead but it has a purpose around driving people together.  You know, we can work pretty effectively alone at home but what we miss are the ingredients and the benefits of being with others and I think that’s becoming more and more the purpose of the office.

Susan Freeman

Okay, so we will drill down a little bit you know, into how, how the office will, will look, how technology is going to work but let’s first put all this into, into context because it is interesting in the book you talk about city to point zero and what I suppose the central you know, business zone is going to look like so are we still going to have areas that are demarcated for offices with lots of people in suits and smart or, or do you see that changing?

Philip Ross

Well I mean that’s one of the key questions and I guess one of the big challenges for city planners and those involved in creating our cities.  The old CBD as it was referred to was the idea of a glomeration of a cluster which made sense where we had presence.  Markets operated in that way, lawyers could be near, bankers could be near, others involved in transactions and clients but when you start to distribute work the construct of the CBD, the one central CBD begins to die and I think what is evident for all of us who have been into the city recently is that it is not what it was.  You know, we follow the press index which Bloomberg reports on and Pret A Manger has tracked a big decline in purchases of sandwiches in CBDs and a growth in suburban areas so you can see that people are no longer commuting in, you know, the transport data shows the same.  So what happens to our cities?  Well Richard Florida who is one of the most interesting commentators I think in the States around the future of cities talks about now not a central business district but a central social district and I think the city of London here have begun to talk about the 24 hour city.  I think we are a long way from that.  I was in the city on Sunday and it really was a morgue, there was nothing happening, very few people on the street but to reinvigorate the city to make it more now than a three day week city which is classically what we are seeing at the moment.  It needs a lot of thinking and revisiting all sorts of areas from whether people can live in the city to how they enjoy leisure.

Susan Freeman

I think to be fair the city has in the past tended to be quiet at weekends because there aren’t people living there, there isn’t you know the same sort of draw of restaurants whereas if you look at the West End you know, at a weekend you know, sometimes its busier than it is during the week so clearly you know, there are things that we can do but you talk about the concept of intermix with sort of more compact areas and more mixed use with people living closer to work which seems to tie in with the idea of the 15 minute city which seems to work in Paris but is London too big you know, to make that sort of idea of smaller communities work?

Philip Ross

Well I think Susan what’s interesting about if we do challenge the central business district is whether people can see, as we do, a polycentric city so London becomes more polycentric, you know, multiple centres which have centres of gravity or critical mass and you can see that in Kings Cross, you can see that perhaps in White City and maybe in the future in Canada Water, so you can see these new epicentres and within that we think that you can achieve this 15 minute city that again Paris talks so eloquently about.  You know there are benefits there of everything from you know commuting to social cohesion and activation and I think that integrated use is a response to I think has been a failure of, of mixed use.  I think the property world is very siloed from planning to the professionals who work along the siloes of commercial, residential, retail and industrial and these categories keep things apart, even a, even in a development that says we are mixed use it tends to have different people doing different elements of those siloes.  So I don’t believe you ever get true integrated use developments but we are beginning to see those emerge globally and I think just stepping back and the idea of the look I am working is to kind of think about un-bundling, un-learning.  I think to get this approach right we need to first step back and you know, un-bundle some of the assumptions that have been tried and tested and assumed to be correct and re-imagine what life could or should be like.

Susan Freeman

It’s a challenge isn’t it because the way the property is set to works it does divide into you know, offices, industrial to residential and the funding is also dividing so it will require some un-bundling and also one of the things that you, you touch on in the book is the idea of more digital districts so you know, use of data, sort of tracking what people are doing but there seems to have been a bit of a backlash against that in Toronto with the ‘sidewalks project’ that people just didn’t seem to be ready for that or want that.  Do you think that will change?

Philip Ross

It’s a classic question Susan.  I think Toronto project was a kind of a, a victim of ambition as opposed to reality and of course people fear change and fear the unknown.  I think that if you look at how different generations adopt data, the signal that I have got is that Gen Z, Gen Zee for our American listeners, would adopt a different approach to how they will expect to use data in the city and how they expect their data to be used to enhance their experience of the city.  Most Gen Z’s if you talk to an average 15, 16, 17 year old the two apps they use of choice are Instagram and Snapchat.  If you are however using Snap, SnapMaps, it seems to be a dominant method of organising their social life and their experience and they see all their friends in real time based on their location and their mode of transport and to some extent what they are doing and they are very happy to share that with people they know.  So to me that’s an early indication that the city will be more dynamic and respond to how people are using it and where people are and of course we all carry a cell phone which as well as a fabulous tool, is a data source and that we think in the future will have huge impact on how we plan and use our cities and buildings.

Susan Freeman

So let’s have a look at what happens to the workplace in the context of all this and one of the things that I know we have been trying to grapple with in sort of understanding the emerging picture is what was office occupancy pre-Covid because you know, some of the stats assume that it was 100% occupancy before we went into lockdown and I don’t think that’s right is it?

Philip Ross

No not at all I mean Unwork does regular occupancy studies for organisations.  The average I guess globally across all sectors was hovering at about 50% so if you walk into an average office pre-pandemic at any one point in time half the space was empty.  Some organisations were sweating it and were getting up to 70% by sharing and activity based approaches but by and large it was about 50%.  Now post-pandemic it is way down in the 20’s, so the average is now 26%, 27% across all industries.  Some are getting to 40% now but by and large it is still much lower than pre-pandemic and it has been squeezed into three days.  I think the big difference is it is no longer across the week.  Mondays and Friday is typically a very, very unoccupied compared to Tuesday, Thursdays and to some extent Wednesdays.

Susan Freeman

But it does seem to be very patchy.

Philip Ross

Yep.

Susan Freeman

There are some areas where you know its buzzing, it’s busy again and then some areas I suppose depending on the nature of the workforce.

Philip Ross

And leadership, I mean we’ve got a phrase in our research into hybrid you know, is it, is it mandate or magnetise.  You know, some leaders are mandating, you will be in as Tim Cook has tried to do recently.  Others are magnetising, they are trying to earn the commute.  Early days it was free pizza and donuts and alcohol, now I think there is a more considered approaches and a lot of it is about re-imagining what the workplace is for and what it looks like.

Susan Freeman

Okay, so assuming that a lot of, a lot of people running businesses are going to want to magnetise, what should their priorities be in this new world of work?

Philip Ross

One of the things that we like Susan is the idea of if we do embrace hybrid it involves decisions that most people didn’t have to make before.  When so I go in to work, what days but who else will be there?  It is pointless if we worked for the same organisation you chose Tuesday, I chose Wednesday and we never see each other so the first thing that has to happen is some kind of Apple platform that gives you visitability as to when your colleagues will chose to come in and we are seeing more and more of our clients adopt apps, you know workplace apps which we are helping to select and roll out, there are so many around the globe, we are tracking about 40 really powerful apps.  Those kind of allow you to kind of like cluster people together but that’s not all that it takes because you end up creating echo chambers.  You invite the people that you think you need to work with and therefore the idea of serendipity dies and there has been some lovely research over the years to actually some of the most useful people are the ones that you don’t think to invite but should be there.  So we need to also use other data and the best sources are things like Microsoft so you’ve got a new platform called Viva Insights that tracks data based on your outlook.  So calendar, emails, instant messages and it looks at network strength for example so it might say, ‘Susan we’ve seen that these ten people are weakening ties of yours, we suggest that you come in on a day when they can also come in and re-establish those ones because the office has also a very poor part to play in building your network, your human capital, your friendships, I think workplace friendships are fundamental to success and achievement and some of these things we think have to be engineered in the future.

Susan Freeman

Oh you mentioned you know serendipity and of course there’s the benefit of the random encounters when you go into the office.  Are these things that one can sort of evaluate or measure so that if you are running a business you can see there is some sort of transparency as to how, how these networks work?

Philip Ross

Yeah I think that’s key, measurement is, is you know part of our DNA and must be part of every businesses DNA.  In your world you can tell performance based on let’s say billable hours or profit per equity partner, in a sales environment you know the people who are selling the most in a sales team so what I like to do is to say, look let’s look at the successful people, the top 5% of sales people let’s say, what are they doing that’s different from the bottom 10%?’  And that data is intriguing.  How often do they come in to the office?  When do they come in?  Where do they sit?  You know, how many interactions do they have while they are there.  Even how much coffee do they drink?  All the various elements might point to success and actually we can measure almost everything if we want to.

Susan Freeman

So effectively there is no place to hide is there?  I mean everything that one does in the workplace is now going to be measured and going to sort of contribute to the data that’s being collected.  I mean, are people going to be happy with that?

Philip Ross

There is obviously a huge debate with privacy and data.  At the moment trying to anonymise data is the approach or getting it down to maybe 3, 4, 5 people so it is not targeting named individuals but I think the rise of, let’s call it, telemetry will be with us.  We’ve all seen the idea of smart buildings, well that’s extending into smart spaces and almost all aspects of technology are now measured so I think that is inevitable.  I think that if we can use intelligently then it might be accepted, for example, we are looking at a business where there are a lot of developers, they spend their life coding.  You can tell from telemetry when they write their best code, it can be measured very straight forwardly.  If they do 2 hours of amazing coding at 11.00 o’clock at night maybe you can say to them, ‘look that’s when you do your best work, come in whenever you want we don’t need you to sit in the office because we can tell that the best time for you is actually in the evening’.  Some of these things might have benefits in terms of work life balance.

Susan Freeman

And one of the things that people missed during lockdown is interaction with colleagues and the brainstorming and the collaboration and all those things that are difficult to do over Zoom so are you saying people now are reconfiguring workplaces based on the idea of interaction and ideas.  I mean is that, is that happening?

Philip Ross

It is, I mean I think the first thing to realise is that there is a huge opportunity here.  I think almost every firm and organisation has diversity as part of its corporate values but we’ve tended to park that at the front door of our office buildings.  If you walk into an average office it is one size fits all you know, regardless of who you are, you get the same desk and office and therefore that doesn’t celebrate diversity, it doesn’t allow you to get the benefits of difference which is the reason partly for diversity.  So we are going to see choice and variety we think in the workplace you know, a massive amount so you can align with who you are and what works best for you.  So the office itself needs to provide more choice and we see a much more heterogeneous approach to the planning and design of offices from the spaces that are provided to the actual look and feel and vibe.  Some people work well in a very noisy, buzzy environment, others want absolute peace and quiet.  So why don’t we give people choice.  So the office has to work harder but I think it also has to drive experience and that elements of vibe, atmosphere, serendipity, it needs to borrow on some of the best spaces that we chose to go to, a great hotel lobby, a fun coffee shop, an enjoyable restaurant as well as perhaps a club, you know, a members club type atmosphere where you feel belonging but you can again have a place to meet, socialise but also work and do the other activities that will drive a more purposeful day.

Susan Freeman

One of the things I certainly missed during lockdown was our Mishcon client lounge, maybe we were ahead of our time but it is, it is a bit like a hotel lounge where you can meet clients, you can introduce people, you never quite know who you are going to bump into and you know, it seems to be that that’s the way, that’s the way things are going?

Philip Ross

I totally agree Susan, I think your client lounge is fabulous.  I mean that this anchored barista, that there’s an atmosphere and its social, it’s on the ground floor, it’s visible, people can see each other, it is exactly what people need and so few firms and companies do that.  If it is done it is tokenistic and I think that’s a great ingredient for the future.  I mean the office should feel more like a club, more like somewhere that you belong, that you’ve come home to and clients I think equally should feel the same, I think that’s another big area of innovation but it is not just about your own workforce, it is about how client’s will interact with you because they again will be working in different ways and I think they will see their professional advisors as a place to come and work and spend time and I think those that get it right can draw huge benefits from that.

Susan Freeman

And I mentioned at the beginning I think you called them the space shavers, the corporates who saw lockdown as a wonderful opportunity to cut their you know, their, their property costs but what are you seeing because you are dealing with all the, all the big corporates, I mean are they, are they looking to take less space and better space?  Or more space to accommodate you know, these collaboration areas which take up more room than you know little modular offices.  How are things going?

Philip Ross

So this is the big paradigm shifts Susan, I think there are so many forces at play here.  I think, look if you analyse the space you need, if you adopt hybrid and our general trend sees a 2 + 2 +1 pattern for hybrid.  So 2 core days in the office, 2 days at home and 1 in between or in a co-work or somewhere else.  You can easily reduce your fundamental space by 50% so the space shavers in that category in our research were looking at maybe a 30 to 50% space saving.  Some of our clients have mandated 50% less space.  Now that has to wait to perhaps a lease event and when that happens we think there will be a rush to slim down and reduce the space that’s needed but also there will be a reallocation of the type of space people want.  The buildings that also provide shared amenity will be more and more attractive so that not only must tenants think about their own space but they will think about which buildings can provide shared space which don’t have to be part of a leased demise.  So a great example is 22 Bishopsgate in the city of London who worked with Sir Stuart Lipton and AXA on the team on the ideas behind that and at 1.3 million square feet in the building there is about 100,000 square feet of shared amenities.  So for example, Convene which is a, a brand that has come from America has two floors in the building and provides auditoria training rooms and meeting rooms.  So no tenant in the building has actually had to build an auditoria because they know that there is a state of the art one downstairs and similarly with food, with the gym and with the other amenity that is coming to the building.  So we will see I think amenity rich buildings, very much like the condos in America and we will see that the office world will catch up so that tenants can lease less space, higher quality space and then share amenity on demand and a much more elastic workplace.

Susan Freeman

Yes and of course I’ve interviewed Ryan Simonetti from Convene for the podcast so we talked about Convene.  So from the point of view of the developers that are listening, so you are talking about corporates taking less fixed office space but there is the potential for more amenity space, more flex working.  So how much flex working are we going to see because I have heard you know, people talk about 30% of global office space, 50% of global office space, it depends who you are talking to but will we see a lot more flex space and will people use that to supplement the fixed space that they have on, on long leases?

Philip Ross

I think it depends on our definition of flex space and that market as you know Susan has emerged very quickly and there are quite a few different products which are kind of bundled under this name flex.  I think, I think what you find is if you look at the growth of members clubs, Soho House and the others, it is a remarkable kind of endorsement of the fact that people need somewhere to work where they feel that they belong, that they are a member and I think one of the best co-work has been the Ministry of Sound who have opened the Ministry so what is a music brand, record label, a club brand has got a co-work space purely for people in the music industry to come together so one of the predictions in the book is the re-emergence of the guild and actually if you look at the commercial buildings that first emerged in our cities, whether it was London and elsewhere after religion it was the guilds that built these fabulous guild buildings as a celebration of profession, of a particular be it a skill, goldsmiths, tanners etcetera, etcetera and we predict the re-emergence of those guilds, perhaps your client lounge is a guild you know, it’s got like-minded people in law coming together and the Ministry is a guild for music and there are others emerging and I think that that’s an interesting trend. But we also looked in the book at the idea of the schooler and if you go to Venice the schoolers, sirocco and these great buildings emerged alongside the guilds and they allowed people from different professions to come together and join and actually if you look at the history of the schoolers, they are attributed for example to the spread of the printed word throughout Europe because Princes and merchants would be in this kind of mixed together and we think that’s perhaps a big role for the future of flex and co-work.  I think it will be a part of the market now going forward i.e. am I leasing my space or am I going to pay for workplace as a service and that’s a kind of transactional element to it but I think the most exciting part is a re-emergence of a new format of place that drives you to go and work with like-minded people and I think that’s a big trend we’ll see.

Susan Freeman

Yes that’s really, that’s really interesting and I’ve got this sort of vision of lots of lawyers working together in, in a designated cluster but the idea of people with you know, from different skills and backgrounds working together but you know, in some you know, all innovators or disruptors you know, could produce some really interesting thinking.  So one of the things our mutual friend, Ronen Journo, who is now at Heinz, I mentioned that we were going to be having a conversation and he was talking about the un-working office needing a convergence of people, place, technology and culture and suggested I ask you where you are seeing this you know, really begin to come to life.

Philip Ross

Mmm, that great question.  I think we are doing a lot of interesting work around the globe, working with organisations who’ve got the opportunity to do something different with their headquarters to re-imagine it and what we are beginning to see is companies re-imagine a variety of things.  One of my favourites for example is Scotiabank in Toronto where they have a programme called W4 which stands for For The Way We Work And Wear.  They’ve actually achieved that space shaving, they’ve taken 40% reduction in their real estate requirement and as a result or at the same time have created a much more exciting place to go and work that’s clustering people based on a common purpose.  So when you do go into a physical environment there’s a density, there’s an energy and you are with people that will make sense.  I found that some people’s response to hybrid is just to create the anonymous, unloved, hot desking, shares environments and you go in and you park yourself and you’ve got a suboptimal environment, bad technology, bad acoustics with people sitting near you and you have no idea who they are and you think, ‘why have I bothered, why have I come in?’  Whereas if you class the people in a much more intentional way, I think that drives success.  The other one which I love is Lego.  Now we all know Lego, they’re a fabulous organisation and brand and their headquarters in Denmark is in a town called Billund which is not in Copenhagen so get you on a rain to Billund is a challenge and in lockdown they closed the headquarters, re-imagined it, re-furbished it and they have now re-opened it and whereas before most organisations, I think including Lego, had 70% of their floor space being given to desks, it is now under 30% and the other 70% is split between social spaces and collaboration spaces back to your comment Susan and I think what’s exciting about that is that People House now has the most insane amount of collaboration and social space including a sixty bedroom hotel, including karaoke bars, cookery kitchens, amenities such as spaces for hobbies and creation, places for wellbeing and exercise, a great restaurant and so on.  And then we are also working for example in a financial organisation where we are actually creating a club for them.  They wanted, they thought they wanted some extra office space but actually in talking to their people what they really want is a club with their own front door and somewhere that they feel belonging and they can come back to and again some of these early indications for how we might re-imagine our offices.

Susan Freeman

Are we going to see employees being actually involved more in the design of the office rather than it being designed and they are told this is where you work?

Philip Ross

I think so, I think that there have been some organisations that have always involved employees in the design and creation of work space and I think you know, giving people the choice of a compromise and I mean you and I have had this discussion, if you look at lawyer’s offices, you know, you see the benefits of giving everyone a private cellular space you know, what’s not to like, you’ve got privacy and you’ve got the ability to kind of personalise it but if that’s at the expense of other amenity then you have to step back and say well what’s the compromise.  If you can afford it all fabulous but if you have to compromise then what is it actually that you really want and, and that ranges from the idea of office as off site, you know, this idea that actually you might want to bring fifty people together on a particular day into the office, it’s not really geared for that today in most offices and typically our off site to be in hotels which are again suboptimal for something as regular as an off-site.  We are seeing more process around agile scrum for example which is a, an environment which gives you regular cadences which require specialist space for daily stand-ups, for retrospectives and so on.  Then of course the amenity is huge.  Often we talk a bit about coming to the office but also having the social cohesion, you might want to also then cluster with musicians or sing in a choir or do some Pilates or, or get together with some other people for a like-minded environment, you might want to do some cycling.  So all of these things require space and everyone has to now re-balance what they want to provide to their people.  We suggest that actually the desking is shared because if you are only coming in to use it occasionally why have a desk standing empty, costing perhaps on average in the city of London, £17,000 / £18,000 per annum.  When you do want to come in I think it should be about the spaces that you really enjoy being in, a great coffee shop as I said earlier, a hotel lobby, a member’s club.  Those are the environments we actually want as you referenced your client lounge and I think we will see more of those and perhaps more food and drink and social space as well.

Susan Freeman

Interesting and the future clearly is hybrid in some shape or form you know, people are choosing to work you know, some days at home or near home, some days in the office, you know, one of the practical issues is still the hybrid meetings where you’ve got some people in the room, you’ve got some people on a screen and it’s… I mean are you seeing any new technology coming through which is going to make those meetings more equitable and manageable?

Philip Ross

Absolutely.  Look I think our current meeting rooms are completely outdated for the kinds of environments that you have described Susan, I mean there are two perspectives.  People talk about digital equality.  I prefer to talk about digital equity where you don’t try and give everyone you know, the common denominator, you try and recognise differences and adapt so that everyone optimises and I think what we now need to look at is more specialist spaces to achieve digital equity in the environments where we have some people in the room and some remote and that could apply to clients as well.  That classic rectangular room where we are all craning our neck and looking at the screen at the bottom and those who are remote still can’t really share us or know who is talking and certainly can’t see anyone annotating on a white board, those things are disastrous.  So again, one of the things we are doing in our work is actually designing new spaces to achieve digital equity.  They typically involve a different geometry of room.  They have become more square than rectangular.  Some rooms are more specialised so that actually you are almost in a semi-circle looking at a screen so that it achieves that equity.  Other rooms are a bit more like the Google campfire which I am sure many of your listeners have seen, something that’s in the round where people who are remote are almost at the table alongside those who are present and then there are either hybrids, the idea of a quick stand-up where we can do this but we don’t have to book a formal room and the ability to kind of be a bit more spontaneous when we are working with co-workers who are not physically present.

Susan Freeman

And is the Metaverse going to change the way in which we operate.  You know, at the moment it’s you know, it’s a bit Marmite, certainly in real estate, some people are saying, oh you know it is all over hype but it does seem that it does, it is going to offer the facility to actually meet in a different way?

Philip Ross

Yeah look I think like any other big, new, disruptive technology there are always sceptics.  I think again if you go to look at Gen Z and the gamers and the way they use a game like Fortnite, that should give you a good indication as to how the Metaverse will operate once they join the workforce.  The idea of being in a team inside a virtual environment with the ability to interact, to work together I think will absolutely come through and I think the pioneers like Accenture, Deloitte, Pfizer who are now using Metaverse and both extended and augmented reality and virtual reality, the various kind of flavours of where we are heading have found huge benefits, for example, on boarding and training hugely beneficial using a Metaverse type technologies, people seem to be very happy with that approach and I think what we will find is that we will see it beginning to replace some aspects of what we did physically but I think it will actually replicate the experience of the physical office.  Accenture have got twelve replicas of their actual physical offices in virtual reality so you are not going to some kind of bland, anonymous space.   I could say to you Susan, ‘hey look let’s meet at Accenture in San Francisco but we’ll do it virtually’ and it looks like we are walking into the SF building.  The architecture is the same, the design is the same but actually we are doing this from home either with or without headsets and the key is that you can see people and join in the conversation so again it’s a brave new world, we are researching it as you can imagine but you can’t ignore it.

Susan Freeman

No, I think it is going to be very, very exciting.  So how, I mean with this new technology and you talked about Gen Z and the different way they work, there is going to be a real problem for people separating their work life from their personal life.  How so you make sure that people take holidays?

Philip Ross

I mean I think look, we’ve had that for a while haven’t we.  I mean it started with the Blackberry and, and it’s kind of continued where you have a connected device and we’ve seen some legislation in some European countries about you know, the right to switch off.  I think it has to come to the fact that it needs to be down to both a combination of the individual and common sense from the company or the firm that they work with.  I don’t believe that you can turn off an email server because people work across time zones and they also have different preferences, some are early morning people, some are night owls, you shouldn’t dictate when people work best but there needs to pause and the interesting thing is that Microsoft I think begin to see this and their new Viva platform has got a wellbeing element.  They are building in a head space, they can see and predict burn outs, they can tell that you haven’t had enough down time and space between meetings, they can suggest you improve flow and deep work because they can see the interruptions.  So I think what we will find is a digital response to this.  I think that the platforms themselves will build in downtime and the data can show you the people who are at danger of burn out and the other risks that comes with it and again tracking that data, that’s down to the benefits of that data you’ve perhaps prevented issues down the line.

Susan Freeman

Yes that’s good.  One of the things that occurs to me is that we could end up with our offices full of extroverts with the introverts opting to remain at home as much, as much as, as they can.  I mean are you, are you seeing that?

Philip Ross

I think that’s a huge issue.  It is interesting.  I mean a lot of companies have tried to kind of create personas when they’ve looked at hybrid.  I think that’s a bit shallow you know, they are often based on job roles and it is a bit narrow.  I think you have to look deeper you know, into the psychometrics.  Also into the life stage.  I think people ignore life stage you know, if you are in your early 20s the office has a big social function.  If you’ve got two young kids and live in the suburbs, you know, the commute needs to be earned and what we found interviewing people is people love the freedom and the cost saving and child care that comes with being more at home and then you get the empty nesters who actually want to be back in the city because they want the cultural and social infrastructure around them so I think that’s a very kind of high level view but you look at life stage as much as the psychometrics, as much as, as the sociology and that’s back to that diversity and choice but I do think that’s when the data begins to show that people are isolating themselves perhaps because it suits them or suits their temperament and that has to be corrected because they are at danger of being siloed and isolated or, or burning out or other, other factors.

Susan Freeman

So you mention, you mention life stage and in the book you refer to the Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton, London Business School book on the 100 Year Life, so as well as dealing with all these other challenges you know, businesses are going to have to deal with people of I don’t know, four generations at least you know, working in an office at the same time and it is going to be very challenging to provide an environment that suits everybody.

Philip Ross

I think that’s right.  I mean you know, I love places like Boeing where there is no retirement age and people do work into their 90s and I think more and more as Lynda Gratton’s book shows, we will have people who don’t retire but don’t want to work five days a week as they worked before, 9 to 5, 9 to 6.  So there will be a huge variety I think of workflows and work patterns and we have to kind of recognise and celebrate that but perhaps that’s the big benefit of hybrid.  It’s not about conformity and uniformity but much more about divergence and digression and as you saw from Apple, perhaps more empowerment and trust.

Susan Freeman

And who is going to be making the decisions as to where people work, I mean is it actually, you mentioned trust, is it going to be the employees who decide you know, how their work week is going to look or is it going to be the employer?

Philip Ross

Again really interesting because of course you know some work has to be synchronous.  You know, you’ve got this again overlay of synchronicity versus asynchronous working and you know when you are working on a deal or a matter Susan, as you well know, there are elements of that where you have to have synchronous working and then there are elements where you can do it in your own time whenever suits.  So I think it is a complex map for employers and I think the other element of this is it is not a static map so if we analysed you this month you might say, yes I can work from home one day a week in the office but let’s say you are in HR, when you come in for comp and review time, you may need to be in the office five days a week for a few weeks.  So there is a business cycle overlay as well.  So if you are kind of planning your office and saying how much space do we need, what kind of space do we need?  It is quite a complex formula because you’ve got to understand job roles, personas, differences, preferences, give them the choice and variety but then overlay these quite complex peaks and troughs in demand based on cycles.

Susan Freeman

And you make the point in the book that in the past we’ve been siloed and we’ve got HR, we have IT, we have real estate management working individually, deciding you know, how much space we need and you know, how it should be configured but you make a very good point that these people all need to come together.

Philip Ross

Yeah look we are beginning to see some new job roles, head of workplace experience is emerging.  I think that there will be a change and we are seeing some of our projects more and more lead by HR.  They see it as a talent first as opposed to a real estate of facilities first project and you can understand why.  But obviously the best is for all three of those groups to come together because as we discussed, more and more it needs technology at the table.

Susan Freeman

And you work internationally, you are working with big corporates all over the world.  Are you seeing any difference in attitude to the workplace and the future of the workplace when you are working in the UK or working in the US or Europe or Asia?

Philip Ross

I think it’s… there is some geography but I think also it’s the location in each country and that has impacts so it can be housing costs, as we’ve seen in San Francisco.  It can be commute times that we’ve seen in the Netherlands.  It can be cost of transport and commute that has a big factor and so on. I think culture has an element to play but then I think also crime and experience of commute has been really prevalent in some of the decisions and of course it is a vicious circle and I think it is a big issue for cities but if higher net worth individuals don’t commute in, the infrastructure that supports that, that is supported by that so whether its transport infrastructure but the cafes, the dry cleaners, the bars, the restaurants, there is a big issue now as to how you support the ecosystem that makes a city vibrant and I think we have seen in the city of London 14% of restaurants closed during the pandemic and the more that that is occurring of course then the less desirable it is to come back into the city so you have this vicious circle of decline.  I think we have seen that in Manhattan in that the subway is becoming harder to use, you know, crime, dirt, safety so people are less inclined to make that trip into the CBD so there are some issues there I think across the globe that are prevalent to get these things right.  Very difficult decisions.

Susan Freeman

Yes it is going to take a while to deal with them and as we said, you know, if you look at the city, traditionally people haven’t lived you know, within the city core area which I suppose is you know, different for Manhattan where people do tend to live sort of side-by-side with the commercial areas.  One of the things I was wondering about, I mean just using the retail analogy where we had sort of digitally native retailers who had only been online actually taking physical space because they realised they could get closer to their customers and all sorts of other reasons, are we going to see any sort of backlash against this you know, people sort of actually suddenly realising well you know, okay it’s more comfortable working at home and I don’t have to commute but actually I really miss you know, having lunch with my colleagues every day and you know, I am not learning in the way I did when I was sitting in an office with you know, my line manager.  I mean will there be, will there be some sort of backlash?

Philip Ross

Well look I think there’s already a backlash Susan, I think isolation and loneliness has been recognised, that’s come out in surveys.  I think look in your world in a profession a lot of apprenticeship has been done by osmosis, by observation so how do we train the next generation if they are stuck at home, often in quite inferior locations, you know, bedsits and stuff where they haven’t got the luxury of a study or a spare room.  So I think people will gravitate back as we’ve seen, as we’ve discussed and I think that is where we have to kind of drive that experience and we can shape the experience we want people to have, I mean you can design that experience so that is what retail has been so good at, they’ve, they’ve purposely designed experience and I don’t think we’ve done that in the office and so that is perhaps an ingredient for the future that, that the retail is about what the brand stands for and how you shape an experience that lives and breathes a brand.  Maybe we need to translate more of that into the office.  A typical office doesn’t change much.  Do we need a curator to bring some joy and excitement, you know, the element of the art gallery or, or the flower shop or do we need somebody to be a concierge or host to meet and greet people, to make them feel welcome, to say, oh Susan by the way so and so is in today, or, there’s a special thing at lunch and just kind of making your day a bit more enjoyable so maybe building on the hotel and leisure experience that we love as well.  So I am sure we can learn from other sectors.

Susan Freeman

I think that’s a really good place to stop and that’s so, I mean so interesting and you know one can imagine all the jobs of the future that possibly don’t, don’t exist now and you know really looking at how you get people back to the workplace by magnetising them back which I think is a great concept.  So Philip thank you so much, I mean that is, is really fascinating and I think people will read your book with interest, I think it’s due to be published next week in the UK.

Philip Ross

It is yeah, Unworking is just coming out now and it was written in lockdown so we thought long and hard about what’s next so yes it’s been a pleasure having that conversation with you Susan and I hope you enjoy the book.

Susan Freeman

Okay, thank you very much.

Philip Ross

Thank you.

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much Philip for talking to us about your new book and for some really fascinating insights into the future of working and unworking.  So, that’s it for now, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and, most importantly, suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

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

He 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, Macquarie Group, BBC, PwC 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). He has also contributed to a number of other books and reports including the Corporate Fool, Jelly Bean Working and the Responsible Workplace.

Philip regularly gives keynotes, presentations and runs think tanks and workshops for organisations in the process of change. He is frequently quoted in the media, including The Wall Street Journal, BBC Radio 4, The Australian, Financial Times, OnOffice and France 24 TV.

Philip’s next book (co-authored with Jeremy Myerson) is called Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office, and will be published on 31st August 2022 in UK and Sept in USA. Unworking offers a panoramic view of the development of the modern office over the past 100 years and presents a manifesto for ‘unworking’ – unlearning old habits and rituals established for an outdated office and creating new ones fit for an age of digital technology, design innovation and diverse workforces. 

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