One of the final acts of my last role, leading business operations within Arm’s nascent IoT SaaS business, was to open a brand-new city centre office in the heart of Glasgow.
It was a highly anticipated move – following a 10-month design and construction period, many millions of pounds investment and thousands of hours of design smarts, organisational know-how and hard graft.
The result was a truly world-class office environment. It was a fantastic team effort, and the result was a totem to the scale of our global ambition, and the confidence of our executive team and owners.
Three weeks later, but some months after news of the Covid pandemic first hit China, Arm announced that all staff were to work from home and virtually no-one has set foot in that office since – except to collect chairs and screens.
Furthermore, the confidence in that IoT vision has been shaken by Softbank’s decision to sell Arm to Nvidia and the separation of the IoT business as a distinct entity from Arm’s chip design powerhouse. In addition, this news has been accompanied by the announcement of redundancies – documented elsewhere in the press.
The ever-faster pace of business change is one of the most hackneyed cliches in the management lexicon. Yet, in this instance, my colleagues and I have experienced a powerful example of how quickly and dramatically things can change. Some six months after that triumphal acquisition of a transformational space that office lies empty – it is the world around us that has transformed, rather than us transforming it.
It was not only a pandemic which changed us, but a rapidly transformed investment outlook from our SoftBank owners – a much-heralded ‘300-year strategy’ that flinched as the WeWork proposition started to falter. Both chain of events gives cause to re-think the nature of office work.
In the build-up to these moments, we had grown the team rapidly to address the global opportunity in front of us. Central to this vision of growth was the idea of creating a vibrant hub where this newly assembled team would come together to interact, collaborate, learn and have fun.
As a management team, we agonised over the definition of our approach to flexible work – not as a matter of trust in the team we mused, but in the belief that physical proximity would inculcate stronger team bonds, shared goals and sustainable innovation.
On reflection, I think there was also some legacy thinking going on – the idea that being seen in the office was a proxy for being productive, for commitment to the cause and a sign of gratitude for this cathedral of work that we had constructed.
The first six months of this pandemic has shattered pre-existing notions of work, office and team. What has been exposed is that we were experiencing a kind of resigned equilibrium, where an idea of work and office has been fossilised since Victorian times.
It has been an orthodoxy that has seemed too difficult to challenge, with too many vested interests and a rigid infrastructure supporting it.
The office as a separate and dedicated place of work, distant from where we live, has been a physical and psychological law as immutable as gravity.
Whilst, pre-Covid, there were more ‘at home’ workers, and Silicon Valley has tried to make offices feel more like home, the concept of office as a place of work has barely shifted in a hundred years or more.
Despite the persistent improvement in remote technologies, working remotely had largely remained a marginal activity with those poor home-workers often being forgotten about in the meeting invite, or only snatching fragments of conversation through poor conference lines.
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We are now living through an experiment that represents a seismic shift in paradigm. Remote working has become the paradigm, temporarily, at least.
So what will emerge on the other side, and what does it mean for new businesses and new experiences post-pandemic? Today, we have existing businesses that have migrated or pivoted to a different model of working almost overnight.
I can say that at Arm this was managed brilliantly, with a receptive and adaptive workforce willing to embrace the change and stay alert to some of the pitfalls. Evidence and analysis elsewhere also points to the fact that this shock has jolted many of us out of the old, barely tolerated equilibrium into a realisation that the post-industrial perspective of office work needs to be challenged.
Whilst I do not believe this to be the death knell of the office or commercial real estate, a substantial re-balancing is possible – required, even. The social and economic architecture that has become so familiar (and moribund) could undergo a significant transformation.
In a world where people spend, say, just 50% of their time in their company offices I can foresee a win-win for companies and employees; governments and citizens.
In my reverie, I imagine people spending less time in cars or crowded trains, more time with their families; home-made sandwiches and salads. I also envisage a re-vitalised high street where derelict retail is replaced with public touch-down space for those that either don’t have the space at home to work or just need a change of scene. And a gradual reduction in the sprawl of suburbs, fewer cars and people returning closer to the centre of towns and communities.
The Prime Minister’s fantastically ill-judged demand to return to our offices simply failed to capture any sense of a possible new future.
Notwithstanding the economic impacts on transport, and the proximate office sub-economy (pubs, sandwich shops, retail) this new environment requires a different approach to scaling a new business and onboarding of new employees.
What is abundantly clear is that the remote experience of employees needs to become central to the design of communication and interactions – there should be a presumption of online presence for every meeting, and ways and means to replicate the serendipity of ad hoc interactions – the apocryphal water cooler moment. But we should also resist the call to be online-only – it’s not too old-school to understand that in-person interaction remains a necessary and intrinsic part of team-work and our humanity.
Whilst it may mean that businesses need not be constrained by geography as they once were, any savings on expensive real-estate needs to be re-directed to ensuring that both technology and physical proximity are incorporated into a new operational model.
If people are to spend less time in the office, then we really need to think about improving the quality of these less frequent in-person interactions; they have to deliver mutual impact and value, and joy.
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So we are moving to a more flexible hybrid model – but do not be fooled into thinking that you take 50% of each model (remote and office-based) and plug them together. This seriously under-estimates the extent to which things need to change.
Like taking a bicycle and a motorbike and welding them together, it simply won’t work. The challenge for new and existing businesses in this new work paradigm is to design and scale operations with these hybrid intentions explicitly in mind – mapping employer, employee and customer use cases.
(See also “blended learning” within schools – this needs to be designed from the ground up, rather than cobbled together if it’s going to meet the needs of society).
I think this new hybrid model offers an exciting opportunity to deliver a better social and economic equilibrium to our cities and towns and reduce the load on our creaking infrastructure.
Our challenge, post-pandemic, is to embrace this new flexibility and turn it into something that’s new and positive that delivers both socially and economically. I’m still waiting to hear, in our political and business discourse, a real champion for a bold new vision.