Matthew Evans – An insightful discussion with Ronan Journo, Corporate Real Estate & Operations at Wework. His thoughts on the workplace reimagined, pre and post Covid-19.
What are your initial thoughts on how Covid-19 has changed the working culture?
Previously, employees were offered some form of choice in regards to flexible working and the technology they could use, but because of Covid-19 it has accelerated this choice, forcing people to become flexible. Everyone from board level to junior now get to experience flexible working, whether we like it or not.
We don’t have enough data yet on how successful this global home working has been. We are still trying to understand how much productivity has been lost because of the economy, or whether productivity has gone down due to working from home – or both. Not everyone’s setup will be equal as people have different working environments. Some are fortunate enough to have a room dedicated to working, whereas some people share a small space with others and some have children. We don’t have enough data yet to fully know the hardship it may cause in the long run.
Some themes that are becoming clear; The purpose of the office as we know it will continue to change, and rapidly. If anyone is asked to commute to the office, that purpose will no longer be just to get your head down and process work. Organisations may have to invest in repurposing these offices. It will serve a different purpose than just a place to work; it may be where we go to feel we belong to the organisation and be part of a community. We will be choosing to physically be together and be more creative.
Are people going to use this as an opportunity to cut cost? Reinvest? Offer more choice?
I think it depends on where your starting point was before the virus, to where you’ll go next. Hopefully, the winners out of this crisis will be people and technology. We’ve proven that most people can work from anywhere using the right tools.
The concept we are playing with at the moment is the collection of places you can work from. You can work from home, you can work from the office, you may go to a local co working place or coffee shop – you can work from a third space designated by the company. So yes hopefully it will be seen as an opportunity to offer more choice.
How does a flexible/serviced office sector deal with the issue of human interaction/sharing spaces in light of the current situation?
As a flexible workspace provider, we are approaching it in a similar way to everyone else with social distancing, increased hygiene/cleaning, improved air filtration systems, and limiting who needs to go back to the office and who doesn’t. All of that is transitional. Some issues/factors will not change – in larger cities most employees need to use public transport to get to work and will regularly share public spaces. We can’t turn these environments sterile – It’s impossible. So I believe they will limit the risk by limiting the amount of people who go back to work at any one time.
The other side of this is, as an employee, when will you be comfortable to get back on a tube or a train again? It might take a long time. The choices that individuals make will be different, and I believe employers will have no choice but to work with the needs of the people.
Are your clients taking this as a global strategy, or are they breaking it down according to countries? Are you seeing a blanket plan for how the future of the workplace will look?
Global enterprises and SMEs definitely have different approaches. SME’s are localised and will do whatever the government is saying and look closely at how it’s implemented, what they feel comfortable with.
We don’t fully know yet what the large enterprises are doing, they’re still in the process of figuring it all out. The large corporates will look at what governments are saying and establish their own “golden standard” that they feel is right, in order to protect their employees. We think that they will open their offices when it’s safe to do so but simultaneously give people permission to work from home until a certain date. Some people need to go back to work but don’t have childcare, so that will also need to be taken into account.
Do you see a fundamental difference in each country culturally, in terms of people’s attitudes? A difference in country’s desire to do things?
Every country and culture has taken back control in different ways. For example, in Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong they are very focussed on controlling factors such as testing, hygiene and masks, but not so much social distancing as it’s virtually impossible in such dense populations. People are going back to work in a controlled manner. Each country is very different.
Do you think businesses’ investment in technology is robust enough to support our new ways of working or do you think more development needs to be done?
From speaking to 50+ global heads of real estate, across very different industries, many acknowledge that investing in tech prior to the crisis has really paid off. If people had the right equipment they could smoothly transition, for example access to data such in the cloud. Some companies however were not ready technologically speaking. They had to quickly order laptops, and quickly work out how to go virtual. When you look at the various software/tools on offer such as teams, zoom, skype, cloud capabilities, all have their strengths and weaknesses, but the bottom line is that they help people connect and get on with business. I think that every company will assess what works and what doesn’t work, over time, and tighten the gaps.
Are we going to lose human connection?
Definitely not. The more we use technology, the more we will be thirsty to go back to human connection and nature. So it will come back, it’s in our nature – everything is temporary.
If people are struggling with a lack of connection and engagement and find that they are struggling with their mental health, this will go back to the company boards and they will hopefully take action to bring back the balance.
The birth of co working spaces have brought the physical congregation of people together and I think that will stay in the long run.
What are Wework doing to keep communities connected? Is there an online/digital version of these communities?
Our portfolios have stayed open across the world unless the governments have shut us down, and we have seen people continuing to use those services where they can. The mobile community never went away, that has continued to operate.
We recently launched a series of webinars where we engaged with our members which has been a success. Additionally, the sales team reached out to clients on a regular basis to engage.
Does the framework exist to move Wework to a digital platform if it needs?
It’s a difficult question and I believe time will tell. It all depends on how much damage a potential recession will cause to our SMEs. It’s hard to say right now.
How’s your relationship been with your landlords? Have they been accommodating?
Landlords don’t want to see us fail, as it doesn’t benefit them in the long run. Like everyone else, hopefully they will understand that flexibility is here to stay. We have been taking each conversation on a building by building basis, to understand what we can do to help each other.
And finally, how’s the situation in Paris, is lockdown easing?
It’s beginning to ease in baby steps. People are allowed to roam more, but with masks. Some shops are open but the children are not back to school yet. The government and scientists are assessing the situation day by day, and they will reassess whether the reopening is the right thing, if there is a risk of a spike. Realistically, I am not expecting it to be lifted any time soon.