Will the gig economy kill the office?

SPONSORED: Agile organisations need agile workspaces.

by Alison Webb
Last Updated: 12 Jul 2017

The modern world is in a maelstrom of change. Disruptive technologies can create opportunities in a heartbeat, and destroy them again just as quickly. The only hope of survival for organisations and individuals alike, is to be agile enough to keep changing with the times.

One significant consequence of this is the rise of the gig economy, where firms hire freelancers on a project by project basis. Already, the self-employed make up nearly one in six UK workers, up 25% in a decade, and it’s common for teams working in large organisations to comprise both permanent employees and contractors.  

As it matures, the gig economy will have profound implications not only on how we work, but also where we work. Ask yourself this: if you don’t really have permanent employees, and everyone works on their own devices, and all your documents and proprietary software are on the cloud, which everyone can access easily from remote locations, do you really need an office at all?

The answer we think is still overwhelmingly yes. As psychologist and MT columnist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic said at MT’s recent Future of Work: Digital conference, work is still essentially about getting people together to achieve something they could not achieve individually. It depends on communication, and for that there is no substitute for face-to-face.

In the gig economy, where there aren’t necessarily long-standing working relationships between team-members, the need for effective communication and free-flowing collaboration becomes more important, not less.

Indeed, the workspace could play an important role in answering a serious problem that arises from the gig economy: how can you nurture an organisational culture and impress your vision on a new team, as quickly as possible?

Rather than doing away with offices, organisations will instead need to adapt them to a more flexible style of working. You can already see aspects of the ‘agile’ office starting to arrive, with moveable kitchens, reconfigurable cabling and efficient floor plate designs that can quickly and easily be split, fit out and branded to suit. For some organisations, it may even become normal to house incubator-style project spaces for teams that form and re-form, in places that convey their purpose. But as with everything else today, speed is critical.

None of this is to say that communications technology won’t play a part in the way we work tomorrow. It’s not impossible to imagine VR or even AR hangouts for a project team, with a virtually designed ‘digital workplace’. But as impressive as this may be, it can never entirely replace face-to-face interaction for an organisation, and tech in itself, also needs to be carefully considered in your workplace design. Tip: simply placing a screen on a wall in a room is no longer enough.

At International Quarter London, we are working closely with our tenants and design teams to ensure these shifts and even future evolutions in the way we work are catered for in our workplaces. We know flexibility is key, and it’s our job to work out how that is realised in a practical sense.

Success in this new world of work is seen in organisations that run with new opportunities as they arise and bring their teams, in whatever shape or form that may be, with them.

Image credit: Gavin St. Ours/ Flickr

Alison Webb is head of workplace for Lendlease.