By Tony Pereira
SOMETIME in the summer of 1990, I was working in Toronto, Canada with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) when I received a call from a headhunter. He asked if I was interested in pursuing an opportunity with Coca Cola. Even though I was very happy with PwC, I was intrigued by the opportunity. A few days later, I was at the Coca Cola office in Don Mills, Toronto, just outside the city speaking to their Human Resources Department. Coca Cola wanted me to join their North American internal audit department for about three years. Subject to satisfactory performance, they were then going to move me back to Malaysia in an operational or corporate role.
Two things struck me about the conversation I had with them. One, how did they ever find me? They were clearly looking for Malaysians working overseas to be trained and then posted back to their operations here. I was impressed. And remember – there was no social media back then. Second, their concept of a virtual office – it was unheard of back then. When I asked where I was to be based, they said – nowhere and everywhere. What they meant, of course, was that I would literally be on the road 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year (except when on vacation). I would not need a permanent office. I would visit Coca Cola operations around North America, and when one assignment was over, I would simply move to the next location.
It was a great way to see America coast to coast. And I would be living in hotels. All paid for. You can imagine – for a 20-something single male, that was very appealing.
Flexplace in 21st century
Fast forward to the 21st century, and many companies are following a similar concept. The idea of employees having to work at a desk in an office is slowly diminishing. Many companies practise working from home or flexplace. The idea of this is to provide employees with a very compelling work-life balance. After all, the time spent travelling to and back from a physical location is essentially dead time. If one takes public transport like I do, what I see every morning and evening is people with headsets listening to music, watching Netflix, chatting via WhatsApp or occasionally checking emails.
Many of them continue with the headsets even when in the office. The concept of multitasking now means being able to listen to Coldplay while completing spreadsheets. Why put employees through all this travel when they can be working productively and not have to spend stressful time in traffic or getting caught in the rain when the person can work from home? Such have been the advances in technology that there is really no need for the individual to be in the office on most days.
A regional office, for example, can be in various locations. Wherever one can find good people, that can be a regional office. Why confine it to Singapore, or Hong Kong or London? It can be the living room of a person in Mumbai or Bangkok.
What does all this mean for the working environment?
Firstly, the demand for office space is going to reduce. The concept of one desk per employee is dead. In modern offices, the concept of flexible seating is the way forward. And it applies even for the most senior staff. No longer will they have a space where they put up family pictures. Under this new concept, they simply book a space like they would when booking a room at a hotel, and when they are done, they check out. The technology to enable this already exists, and the app to enable one to book one’s desk from a phone is already in use.
I had read an article on the amount of office space that will be available at the Tun Razak Exchange in Kuala Lumpur and am wondering – who needs all this space when the trend now is to reduce office space and offer flexible options?
Thus, I believe that companies are going to reduce the space requirements but will ensure that the office is a cool environment. To make up for less space, they will make the flexible seating concept attractive. Staff will sit as a community. Instead of offices, the concept of “villages” will be used which promotes collaboration among different functions. Occupancy costs, previously a large fixed cost in the profit and loss statement, can be reduced without any negative feelings.
Those who own shares in property companies should evaluate their portfolio.
Secondly, a positive benefit of the flexplace option is that it is environmentally friendly – less cars on the road, less commuters travelling, less likelihood of accidents, less petrol consumption. The list goes on. Certain businesses can expect to experience a reduction, such as public eating places like hawker centres. Fast food establishments may not notice the reduction now, but as flexplace gains more popularity and companies move from having restrictions on the number of days one can work from home to full flexibility, expect less spend on these items and more spend in supermarkets. The good thing about this is that people will migrate to healthy eating. It is the trend anyway.
And for technology companies, flexplace is a godsend. People will want to invest in better home infrastructure. Improved WiFi connections throughout the home, better tools to ensure the same experience of working with colleagues even when not in the same room, wireless convenience so that one can prepare lunch while having a conference call – these are all options that will make technology companies attractive investments. And just as they are now, the telcos will be desperate to get a piece of this action. Competition is so fierce but consumers will benefit.
AI in the workplace
Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change the way companies operate. For sure, the number of people in the workforce will reduce. Bots are already handling transactional activities that humans used to perform. Basic tasks such as checks and balances as well as expense verifications can be done by bot. These do not need any people management skills; there is no need to develop a career path for them and time is saved by not having to carry out performance appraisals for them. And there is no need for year-end bonuses or annual increases. So given a choice between a human and a bot, which would you choose? As AI develops further, the tasks that can be automated will increase. Smart offices have already dispensed with the need for a receptionist. The workplace is changing.
It is both exciting and scary. But such are the capabilities of humans that nothing is impossible.
The idea Coca Cola presented to me back in the summer of 1990 seemed scary at the time. They were clearly many years ahead in thinking about the workplace. If employers want to remain relevant, they need to be prepared to change. As for our living rooms, they will be the workplace of the future. - Jan 13, 2020
Tony Pereira is the Business Management Director for Boston Consulting Group in Southeast Asia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org