Hybrid, flexible and spread out: the space of the future

Il·lustració © Maria Corte

Workspaces are rapidly changing on account of the pandemic. There is no doubt that coronavirus has been an agent of change that has generated a new social and economic paradigm. However, many of these shifts in workspaces are not just the result of COVID-19.

If we examine the natural evolution of offices, they have gone from being a productivity space to a place where we innovate, co-create, solve problems, socialise and work as a team. To understand this evolution, we have to look above all at the technology sector and the structural changes that began a little over two decades ago. As Jennifer Magnolfi Astill points out in an interview in the Harvard Business Review: “A shift occurs when an ecosystem of companies actively competes for a sustained period of time to unlock the potential of an innovation in technology.”[1]

Three structural changes have been seen in the business technology ecosystem. The first, with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, led to a change in the workspace in terms of design (from cubicles to open spaces); the introduction of new digital work tools, such as e-mail, which helped employees to become interconnected; and the arrival of the World Wide Web invented by Tim Berners-Lee, which spawned a veritable paradigm shift in communication.

The next big change came with mobile and cloud technology, when workspaces extended beyond the office and work started to be done from anywhere. This wasn’t inconsequential, since it triggered the emergence of coworking, the rental of more accessible and temporary spaces, for open innovation, new professional profiles and the first digital nomads.

[1] “What Is an Office For?”, Scott Berinato. Harvard Business Review, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/07/what-is-an-office-for?ab=seriesnav-bigidea

The change we are currently faced with, and one accelerated by the pandemic, began around 2016 with the arrival of artificial intelligence in companies and humans and machines working together. It is the time when workspaces are beginning to be rethought and organisations need to bring their teams together to tackle the most complex matters, to work on creativity, to share learning, to make joint decisions and to acquire new knowledge. People are beginning to talk about underused office spaces, excessive commuting times to work or the impact of business meetings on the environment.

The two faces of remote work during the pandemic

This new challenge has borne many implications. Some have been positive, such as remote work, which, in addition to allowing us to maintain economic activity in many sectors, has shown good levels of productivity in companies and has made many companies that had never considered teleworking to define the implementation of this dynamic in their organisational and operational processes in the wake of the pandemic. In addition, the fact that we are commuting less also has beneficial implications, such as reducing pollution or having more free time and improving quality of life.

Now, whilst it is true that remote work is here to stay, that does not mean that we never want to work outside the home again, especially younger workers, in need of continuous learning. As negative aspects, over these months we have witnessed the consequences of social isolation, the need for many people to make false commutes to disconnect or workers’ concentration difficulties due to the fact that homes, despite being somewhat reconfigured to accommodate the new needs, are not yet designed for the purpose of working for so many hours in them. Moreover, we mustn’t forget the economic impact endured by those businesses located in financial centres, which have had to halt their activity because the offices were empty. The decentralisation of cities is something that remains to be seen, and it will take a while to determine what consequences and implications it will bear in the future.

Il·lustració © Maria Corte Illustration © Maria Corte

The third place to work

As Aristotle said in his book Nicomachean Ethics, virtue is the middle ground. Now that we are starting to network more and new models of the city, work and workforce are being defined, the uses of spaces are beginning to be hybrid and flexible.

In this vein, the hub and spoke model, in which companies have the corporate headquarters (hub) and a network of spaces (spokes) spread throughout the city, offers employees the possibility of working beyond their own residence, such as in coworking spaces, hotels, office buildings, cafés and new spaces adapted for work.

In the 1980s, Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the third place emerged to foster interpersonal relationships among professionals. Today, this term coined by the American sociologist has gone even further, since it also offers the possibility of sharing knowledge, learning, innovating and meeting professionals from other sectors and companies.

However, it is important to underline that this evolution of workspaces implies a change in the company culture (many of which are currently not prepared). Now that we have been forced to leave the office, there is an excellent opportunity to turn it into a corporate centre and an exceptional environment in which to connect the four C’s: culture, colleagues, clients and creativity.

An opportunity that cities cannot miss

Today, a large number of companies are analysing the impact of remote work on their real estate footprint, seeking good functional cohesion between the home, the office and the third place. And many cities, following the reconfiguration of the uses of workspaces, are becoming more sustainable, practical, comfortable and attractive for those who inhabit them.

If we analyse a trend that in the United States has grown by 49% in one year, according to Forbes[1] magazine, digital nomads, professionals who work remotely for extended periods of time in different parts of the world, are a great opportunity for cities like Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid, and more so considering that, unfortunately, international tourist visits fell by 77% in 2020, according to the Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE).

Our cities should put themselves forward as hubs for remote work to attract knowledge, talent and high-calibre professional corporate tourism. It is already being done in Spain on the Canary Islands and in Málaga, and there are also countries that are leading this trend, such as Portugal and Croatia. For this to happen, mechanisms must be created, such as Estonia’s digital visa, new public and regulatory policies, tax alternatives or a recruitment strategy rolled out by the government administration with the help of the private sector. The thing is that we are facing a unique opportunity to become the European hub for digital nomads and corporate professionals who can work remotely. Let’s not let the chance slip by.

[1] “What the Rise of Digital Nomads Means for Destination Real Estate”, Rodolfo Delgado. Forbes, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesrealestatecouncil/2021/02/03/what-the-rise-of-digital-nomads-means-for-destination-real-estate/.

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