The one and many conversations.

Friday 1 May, 2020

The one and many conversations.

Please forgive a little nostalgia for a moment. My excuse is that I have a milestone anniversary next year; a professional one that is - 2021 sees my 30 years in the world of corporate real estate. And there have been a few articles, postings and thoughts in the last few weeks that have prompted my glance in the rear view mirror as context on a couple of observations.

After a few years in the team managing the head office buildings of Boots in Nottingham I was luckily placed to be a project manager in the mid 1990’s on what was then one of the largest implementations of new ways of working in the UK (now showing the creaking of history with that phrase) with a head office building refit and extension to accommodate about 2,500 people. It was hailed as an exemplar of it’s time, award winning and a working environment that is perhaps best described as ABW but with allocated desks. The change programme that enabled such a successful introduction provided the building blocks (no pun intended) and passion for a large chunk of my subsequent working life in that it connected business and people strategy with workplace strategy. One of the issues was about speed of product to market and therefore planning and enabling the appropriate teams to work better and more closely together – physically and culturally.

The main consultant on the project was DEGW and I joined them in London in 1999 after the project completed. It felt like a special time; working alongside Frank and John (the D and the W and authors of the seminal workplace thinking), growing publicity around the changing dynamic of the workplace in the UK, working with some very intelligent and insightful people (a sincere and grateful thank you…) and seeing the publication of many articles, papers and books by colleagues (including the odd one from me) which set the agenda then and seem to continue to add to much of the conversation today.

Indeed, the strategic idea of the workplace (change) as a catalyst for wider organisation change and the absolute connection between real estate, IT, FM, HR and business objectives alongside its ongoing adaptability to respond to corporate requirements (like a theatre set) feel like - in my memory - almost daily discussions among colleagues and with clients.

OK, well that’s a (vaguely interesting) short walk down memory lane you might say (being generous)…but so what?

Well firstly, there seems to be a lot of industry discussion over the last few weeks especially on what we should be discussing. There is debate on the validity of conversation on the immediate, the medium term, the strategic and all aspects in-between (if that leaves anything). There is commentary on whether the focus should be on the physical real estate or leadership or change management or organisational development. I think that this might all depend on the lens of the individual and the context although we can say that the conversations on the strategic aspects have certainly been ongoing for quite some years already, albeit currently with a focus and intensity that is welcome.

Just to conclude the personal history…roll forward a further twenty years and work with way over a hundred clients directly in the UK, across Europe and the US with projects engaging and impacting tens of thousands of people, and we are up-to-date (that part was quick).

And so secondly, in all that time, the range of conversations with clients has been pretty consistent. Some are about the day-to-day as projects are in-flight and it’s all about the tactical need of the now. Because now does exist and it needs to be tackled. And very senior folk need that now (and next week) to be great because it’s on their mind and they asked you to help.

And some are about the what if, and the complexity of working patterns, utilisation, commuting, travel, technology and real estate requirements as part of the efficiency and economic debate in conjunction with workplace and employee experience, sense of community, purpose and belonging and the environmental and sustainability impacts. Those are great discussions too and very senior folk want to know how to connect all of this to their corporate vision, values, strategy and objectives to enable complete and inextricable alignment.

And these can (and do) happen on the same day so that we are constantly shifting our focus from today to tomorrow and back. All these conversations are valid and valuable and necessary. It’s the twin-track that many of us ride every day. It’s not that there is one conversation to be had – there are many. And they have been taking place for some time.


Tim Allen 

MD of Workplace

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