As with so many things, the forces that align to bring about a universal change in the way we live and work are many, and to some degree speculative. After all, it is quite possible that historians will never resolve the debate as to which came first, the consumer revolution or the industrial revolution, and we all know how the chicken and egg story goes.

However, in the context of the way businesses use office space and its role in the development of the Gig Economy we can see a series of trends converge to create a considerably changed, and still evolving attitude towards the need to house employees, and that in turn opens up the discussion around how and why businesses employ people.

As we already mentioned in Chapter 1, we are living in a world where the space in which we work is changing. Hot desking has increased, flexible office spaces are growing in popularity and hubs are very much in vogue. “People are seeking flexibility and shorter lease terms,” Jason Kow, chief executive of Queensgate Investments told the Financial Times in 2016 when their portfolio of London serviced offices was put on sale for £700m in an attempt to cash in on rising demand.

The geography of which business sectors are located where is changing too. Research into city migration trends, commissioned by the City of London Corporation shows a changing landscape in the city itself, highlighting that while certain industries had a tight community within it, such as the insurance sector, now technology, media and telecommunications firms have moved into the city and have changed the ecosystem – perhaps because of the tech hubs in Hackney and Islington that are in close proximity – but seeing merit in a more diverse community.

At the same time, Forbes reported on the increasing availability of co-working spaces across the world, an industry in itself, from New York to Hong Kong, where “operators offer different businesses, rental offices and desk spaces on a shared floor” and the business model thrives on a sense of community or a proactively diverse renter base to hedge against a downturn in any one segment.

It is a model that Hubble, the proptech company which matches people looking for offices with those who own them has capitalised on, with more than 20,000 desks available and brands including Jaguar Land Rover. “Big companies are increasingly looking for flexible space,” co-founder Rohan Silva points out succinctly.

So where have we come from and why the changes?

In the 1960s the corporate culture, so glamorously portrayed in the TV series Mad Men, was having its heyday. Big spending, lavish displays of corporate wealth, lots of socialising and a sense that big offices were not only necessary to house the staff needed to create and sustain a successful corporation, but it was also a tangible outward facing sign of a brand’s virility.

In the 1980s and arguably into the ‘90s, that model remained very much at full strength, but then something began to happen. As a succession of global recessions left their mark, the attitude towards running a business and looking after the bottom line began to change. The cost of real estate has continued to rise and has become almost prohibitive in the world’s leading financial districts, senior members of staff are more responsible for their own communications than they were in Don Draper’s world resulting in long-term decline in personal assistant and administrative roles, and developments in technology have facilitated more remote working.

So the necessity for housing employees in large premises has continued to decline and, in increments, the manager’s workspace has gone from a big office, to a pig pen, to a desk by the window, then just a desk, then sharing a desk and then managers have become ‘flexi or homeworkers’ and bought their own desks.

It’s important to point out that it isn’t merely economic constraints that have caused change. This is not a story of thrifty doom and gloom. Alongside economic changes, phenomenal leaps in technology, including the Internet, have completely overhauled the way in which we communicate and work. It’s probably quicker to send a message to someone you work with by email or (even that is getting a little outdated) a customised internal communications system, than it is to walk across the office and have a chat.

Courtesy of Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, with a little help from Steve Jobs, not only have the platforms on which businesses communicate changed, “We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” said Stephen Hawking, and with such a shift it’s unsurprising that people have started to reconsider the physical space in which we work.

Wellbeing and the workplace

Perhaps as a result of recession, or as a natural progression in the evolution of the working culture, there has also been a universal change in the way individuals want to live their lives, with a greater emphasis on work life balance. People are living longer and want or need to be part of the workforce for longer, while there’s also increased awareness about the effects of long hours and long commutes on health and wellbeing.

“An estimated 1.3 million people who worked in 2015/16 were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by work,” reported the government’s Health and Safety Executive, continuing “in 2015/16, an estimated 25.9 million working days were lost due to self-reported work-related illness.”

There is a demand amongst workers at all levels for a different way of working that takes into account their lifestyles and wellbeing as well as financial remuneration. One of the ways this can be achieved is through flexible working. A 2015 report from flexible working experts Timewise and social research charity The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that almost half the UK workforce – more than 14 million – would like the opportunity to work in a more flexible way. Meanwhile, The Telegraph reported that US retailer Best Buy adopted flexibility at its headquarters, resulting in a reduction in staff turnover by 45%.

What are the benefits to business?

The result of this shrinking physical footprint is that businesses now think more creatively and with more precision about how, why and where they employ members of their teams. With changes in the way we use space comes the conversation about a change in the way we contract work.

How creatively can you minimise costs and maximise productivity? Do you need an office space at all or can you be entirely virtual, conducting meetings in hired office rooms and public places? Will you limit the size of the space you occupy by doing as the Japanese do and having stand up meetings designed with the express purpose of keeping them short, sweet and functional?

The confluence of socio-economic changes, technology and attitudes to work means that recruiting gig workers at the C-Suite level not only makes good business sense, but it’s a way of life in demand. Perhaps not quite the Mad Men generation but certainly a demographic who have grown up in offices and now want ‘out’ of the offices but still want to work.

Key points

  • Changing the way your employees work can reduce staff turnover dramatically. US retailer Best Buy adopted flexibility at its headquarters, resulting in a reduction in staff turnover by 45%.
  • Flexibility is amongst the top priorities for those coming into and rising up through the jobs market, and finding a way to accommodate that is a priority for forward thinking businesses.
  • Reconsider your use of space – do you need an actual office or does it need to be as large as it has been previously?

READ: The Gig Economy – Chapter 3: Let the numbers do the talking

©gigCMO First published  April 2018