Episode 2

Go Big Or Go Home! Getting Workers Back To The Office

Where do you stand when it comes to getting workers back to the office? This debate continues to exercise business leaders up and down the land with seemingly little agreement on the best way forward. What is clear however, is how we work will never be the same again. Exciting times!

Giving us his tough and uncompromising message on how organisations can encourage workers back to the Office is Olly Olsen, co-founder of the aptly named The Office Group – a leading provider of flexible workspace in the UK and Germany.

With rare candour not often shared by CEOs, Olsen chronicles the damage he perceives that has been done to the culture of The Office Group and the spirit of his colleagues by Covid-19.

Links:

https://www.theofficegroup.com
https://www.linkedin.com/in/podcasthost/

About my guest

Giving us his tough and uncompromising message on how organisations can encourage workers back to the Office is Olly Olsen, co-founder of the aptly named The Office Group – a leading provider of flexible workspace in the UK and Germany.

Transcript

Welcome to Season 3 of the Oven-Ready HR Podcast. I’m Chris Taylor, your show hosts. Our purpose is to bring you stories from the world of work told by world-class expert guests. Our content is free and we carry no advertising. Meaning our voices independent and unbiased. If you like what you hear, it’s important that you rate and review the show. You can find out more about me at OvenReady HR.com and also on Twitter at OvenHr. If you have a story you’d like us to cover or would like to appear on the show, please do contact me. Remember the content is unbiased and free and relies upon listeners support. So please do hit the rate button. Thank you.
What would entice you to return back to the office? This is one of the questions keeping this week’s oven ready guest awake at night . Olly Olsen is the co-founder of the aptly named The Office Group. Shortened to TOG.Where since 2003, he and his business partner, Charlie Green made it their mission and purpose to reimagine office space to make our working lives happier, healthier, greener, more productive, and yes, fun think, office based a little bit of theater thrown in. Walk into any TOG location and you’ll see the total commitment to thoughtful futuristic and holistic design quirky, artistic interpretation, and a laser focus on member experience more often found in a high end boutique hospitality business.
TOG has some 20,000 members accessing more than 40 buildings in cities across the UK and Germany, unsurprising, therefore that US private equity giant Blackstone came knocking and took a majority share of the business in 2017 for some 500 million pounds. Yet, despite having one of the strongest and most desirable, flexible working franchises around the last 18 months, have proved extremely challenging. Certainly the bottom line has suffered, although business is now bouncing back, but what’s really bothered Olly is the damaging effect a sustained work from home directive has had on the culture of his business and the spirit of his colleagues. This is a candid thoughtful and ultimately optimistic interview that Olly gives, and he gives a warning to organizations not to be complacent about how intricately connected their physical environment is with the somewhat nebulous concept of organizational culture. Neatly summed up. This is a go big or go home is Olly’s warning when it comes to tempting workers back to the office.
Olly welcome to Oven ready. Give me a sense of where the market is in terms of flexible working space at the moment. I mean, it’s been an extraordinary 18 months or so, and there are lots of organizations that have sort of given us plenty of commentary on where they see people returning to the office. What would you say?
Olly Olsen
Well, it’s first of all, Chris, thanks for having me it’s, it’s good to speak to you and I appreciate the opportunity to chat today. It’s been a roller coaster, and it’s been stop and start. And I think that the stop and start nature of the pandemic in the last 18 months has actually helped the industry. Because if we were told that no one going to need an office for the next year and a half, I think we would be in a very, very different position right now, but where we are, as of today, I think there’s probably a couple of things for me. We are almost certainly entering a post pandemic environment. And I think the future of, the occupier and perhaps our customer as well, It’s not only becoming, significant, but it’s absolutely priority for everyone within the market and requires attention. So what I mean by that is the customer’s needs are changing. Their tastes have changed and what we all need to be doing now, I believe is focusing on a, a fully customer centric product and design, because the world’s changed. The customer’s changing. To answer your question. I believe the markets, everything, everything within the market’s pointing towards the need for flexibility. So we are, our statistics and our data is showing that now naturally we’ve taken a big hit, over the last 18 months, there’s still a lot of work to do, but I feel very, very comfortable and confident that, the world of flexibility, where everyone’s headed. So, it’s stronger, but it’s, there’s a, there’s a lot more to come, which is not just about enquiries and letting space. This is more about understanding what the customer needs and frankly, I don’t think they know just yet.
Chris
Okay. Do you do quite a lot of research though, into what you believe that the clients want? I mean, do they tell you, are they pretty good at saying, look, actually I want this and I want that and I need it to look like a certain way or a certain style. Are they quite good at giving you that information?
Olly Olsen
Well, we have a big dataset. There is, you know, w we’ll we’ll do, you know, 150 odd viewings every week, and this is businesses of all sizes and all sorts of different industries and sectors, a real diverse group of businesses, and yeah, they, they, they provide us the information of what they need. So we collate all of that information and we look at it and on top of our own views as to what we think that they’re going to need as well, but yeah, we, we absolutely, we, we bring in the data and we, we listen to learn and, what we’re currently seeing, it’s quite normal for a customer to come in, and if we just say an average of say 30 people, its to say that we need, access for all 30 members of our business or 30 employees. but we need an office just for 15 or 20 people. So, they’re taking smaller offices, with the need for additional memberships, but then the question comes into it; what happens when they all need to get together? Where do they go? And how do you arrange this commercial relationship between, operator so landlord, occupier sort of business and then the employee. What’s the commercial arrangement for this sort of additional number of people because what you can’t do, Chris is, allocate 2000 or 3000 people to any one building that can only accommodate a thousand or 1500 people because health and safety won’t allow you to flex up and down so much. So there’s, there’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot more to come from this new scenario. And I think technology and space allocation are probably the two questions that will form part of the formula.
Chris
Okay. I mean, you operate in a number of different locations, both, you know, obviously in London, overseas, regionally as well in the UK. Have you seen, for example, like your regional business in the UK performing stronger than perhaps even your London business?
Olly Olsen
Yes is the answer. We’ve got two buildings outside of London, one in Bristol and one in Leeds, comparable to what is 45 in the Capital, but yeah, those buildings, they, the customers have stayed with us. We saw a lot less businesses choose to leave their office and they held onto it during the pandemic, being able to dip in and out a bit when they needed, outside of lockdown, and the customer retention seems to be a lot stronger outside of London. But again, you know, the, the examples that we have is, is, is very small, but yes, the, the, you know, outside of London that has, has really, has really performed well over the last 18 months.
Chris
And you have a business in Germany, I think as well don’t you?
Olly Olsen
Yeah, that’s correct. a couple of well, a few years ago we sort of, we were close to opening our first building so we are now, five strong in Germany, one in Frankfurt, one in Hamburg, one open in Berlin and, two further buildings to open in Berlin. We were very excited about Germany, as, as a location and an environment for us to create something new, create something that we hadn’t done before. Germany has a number of cities, all of which would be considered capitals in their own right which allows us to create something very, very different across the board. And as of last week, I was able to travel there after the first time of the year to visit, to visit what is a team of 20 who I’ve never really met some of them, and to me, a group of customers that I’ve never really met and it was, I must say it was terribly exciting and inspiring to be able to go to an environment where there was this collective view towards success and a collective vision, which was very simply to, succeed in a new market in a new world and the team there were delighted to see us. And it’s very different to coming back to London because you know, our head office here is 120 strong. You haven’t seen people in some people for over a year. And what that does to a culture, is, well, I was questioning what it would do to a culture a year ago and the result is today, it’s the biggest issue that I face over and above occupancy and trading performance, is, a happy team all with the same vision or with the same understanding of the direction of travel, and we found that, the lack of bringing everyone together is probably one of the single biggest issues that we’ve got on top of that, it’s not helping with, staff retention as well. You know, people when they haven’t been into the business and they see other opportunities, obviously they’re going to be tempted a lot more than if they were here happy. So getting everyone back together is key. And when we were in Germany, they all seemed very much together, and, and it was, it was a real delight to feel like we’re back to being a small business again, which was inspiring to say the least.
Chris
I mean that’s a real to your business, isn’t it? In terms of, you know, it’s the fact that you have, you’re concerned about the people and the culture within your UK business, because you’re saying that everybody has been working remotely for such a long time, that it’s really had a detrimental effect on how that is.
Olly Olsen
I mean, I, you know, absolutely Chris, I, I recall a year ago or so, and I was at home and we would have a, you know, we’d catch up at the end of each week and we’d have a long list of customers that are, that were leaving, and there was a reason as to why they were leaving obviously pandemic, obviously the flexible nature of their licenses with us gives them the ability to get out if they need to but it was a real exodus, you know, everyone needed to get rid of office space as soon as they could. The government told them that they don’t need it anymore. They shouldn’t have it anymore. They need to work from home. That’s true. So, it was, you know, that I thought at that time was the biggest impact and the biggest problem that we had in the business now naturally as a business that needs to do a number of things, including, you know, break even at the very least, and, and afford to be able to sort of look after reward its team, and those that choose to work for the business. I didn’t realise the impact that the pandemic would have on our workforce. And as you say, the real cost to the business of people working remotely, I thought it would just be occupancy, but naturally, you know, we all come to work every day, working with people that we enjoy. And when you have to, exclude yourself from that and work from home, it’s been terribly, terribly tough for us to try and bring everyone back together and try and join together as a team. And, you know, prior to the pandemic, you know, we’d lose a certain number of people through natural churn. Of course, during, during this and post Chris, you know, it’s been very, very difficult for us to even sit down and see people face to face and talk to them about their, some new choices that they may have. And, you know, we are now building a new headquarters on the back of the pandemic and it can’t come sooner because, you know, I am seeing a very, very clear knock on effect and loss to the business, whether it’s through salary, recruitment, or, or, you know, at some point you’re going to have people that aren’t even that aren’t going to come in and you’ll have teams that are depleted so much, you know, I’ve seen hotels work at a limited occupancy because of lack of staff. I’ve seen restaurants not open because they can’t get the staff. Now we’re not at that place just yet, but I’m certainly looking down the line and recognizing that, you know, if we don’t do something about it soon, then we, and many other business could be in the same predicament. Right. The people is the number one priority for us as a business always has been, but it’s never been a problem for us. Whereas now it’s very much there and, and we need to, we need to bring everyone back together and it is a real cost.

Chris
Okay. And are you, would you say that your employees on the whole are quite happy to be returning generally, you know, Monday to Friday, whatever, or they, or are they sort of requesting this sort of hybrid working where they do a certain amount of home and a certain amount in the office, but you are a people business and you do have to have people on the, in the buildings don’t you? I mean, you, can’t not, not everybody can work from home all the time. It just doesn’t work like that.
Olly Olsen
So, Yes, the majority of our team are wanting and looking forward to coming back into the business. The business was, gave them the social interaction the business, gave them more than just coming in. I mean, the rows, the days of, rows of desks, Chris and coming in at nine and leaving at five are obviously over. And it’s clear that this great global return to the office is finally underway, but there are some big questions I think that remain unanswered, which our team considering and asking us, and it’s something that we’re having to do. And there’s probably a few things here. So I think the first thing is what, what are the cultural, and design standards that, will inform the new workplace and how can we make the office attractive for our employees, to now choose where to work because they do have the choice and what really is the point of coming in, if you’re able to stay at home? And I think our role as an employer, we need to look at these five or six different things and I think as an industry and as all businesses need to do the very same. So I think the first thing is, the environment, the workplace environment has to be dynamic and it has to be innovative and it needs to kickstart company culture. I mean, there’s no point in coming into a big room with rows of desks where your heads down and you’re not inspired and you’re not talking to anyone. So the furniture is going to shift and how the workplace is going to look will definitely change, and we’re already on track to sort of install some, some new ideas there. I think that space has to be sustainable. It has to be a green space. Yeah. It has to be human centric, and designed for all ages, abilities, beliefs, backgrounds. Again, this big sea of rows of desks is gone and probably gone forever. Digital is really at the forefront of my mind. And we’ve got to find this blend because I don’t think everything needs to be digital. And you need to have this physical and virtual experience within the workplace. So where do you go, virtual? Where do you go digital? Where do you go physical? So that is exceptionally important. And I think we’re seeing new technologies coming into play now, which are, going to be mainstream and there will be certain elements of the workplace where if you don’t have the tech, you’re going to be unable to do, do the work, which is specifically relevant if you’ve got a number of different people, working from a number of different locations. I think an activity-based workplace is key. It needs to be agile. It needs to be fit the hybrid world of work. I certainly know Chris, when I go into a building, I’m thinking about where I want to work. I do choose different buildings on different days, depending on the type of work that I want to do. So I think, I think, I think a hundred percent. I mean, I think we will work well from certain environments, some people, you know, get their ideas in the shower. Some people may be on the train into work. Some people work well, you know, with headphones on some people work well, you know, looking out through over a window. And so everyone’s got their own view and I don’t think you could be descriptive. So you have to have activity based working. I mean, I’ll go to the space in The Shard if I want a quiet day to focus on something specific, up in the clouds. Yeah! Looking over London you know get inspired perhaps or,I’ll drop into Shorditch or Notting hill sometimes, which is closer to home. And it’s a really nice environment there. And I feel inspired in a different way to, to change location. Yeah. And I think the last thing Chris sorry is it’s got to be healthy and it has to be comfortable and a safe, environment. So if you don’t cover all of these things, these points within the workplace, then you got to ask yourself, what’s the point of coming into an office? And that, that is the role that the office is going to be more valuable than ever, and the office has to work a lot harder than ever because you’re going to find people at home you know, we’ve adopted a hybrid working, model, you know, it’s five days a week and you gotta be in on a certain numbers of days, and the rest of it you can choose to work from any of the other locations or from home. But frankly, I was talking to someone, last week about this and, you know, they said to me, yeah, I’m, I’m planning to come in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Now it bothered me because I think the Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays just fitted in around the weekend, which made it easier just to come in and spend more time at home, which is one thing which obviously helps the work life balance perhaps, maybe it makes them more productive. But the issue that I’ve now got is that I’m hearing the same thing from a lot of people. So when I come into work on a Monday wanting to see the team, there’ll be tumbleweed, it’s going to be no one there. So what do you do when you’ve got a big room with no one in it? So I do think that we’re at the infancy of this it’s just been born. You know, probably in about two weeks time, we’re going to start seeing people come back in and that’s what our data is showing us. By Christmas, I think a few things will have changed.
Chris
Has the situation thrown up any positives? Has it sort of given you time to sort of re-engineer certain things or, you know, maybe look at your internal talent and actually sort of identify opportunities that you maybe wouldn’t have had had this, not, not this not happened as it all been bad or has it been some light?
Olly Olsen
No, no, no. We were planning on or we were working on, you know, training, employee wellbeing, healthy workplaces. We felt we were pretty generous with, a flexible way of working pre pandemic. And I thought we paid our teams pretty well and, you know, engagement was strong. But obviously since people have been working from home, it’s it has moved in the wrong direction.
Chris
Becuase you were known for having a strong culture. You were known as a business that cares about that. And it’s important to you. And I can, I can really tell this that it’s it bothers you, that you think that this has been, you know, adversely affected by what’s happened in the last 18 months?
Olly Olsen
Yeah, I have to look forward and as running a business, you know, I’ll run a business when we’re doing, you know, when we’re going in one direction and I’ll run it in another direction, I’ll run the business when we’re selling offices and I’ll run the business when we’re buying offices, so whichever way we go, I’m here to manage that situation.
I’m really enjoying, the new people that are coming in. Our people team that have kicked into a gear that I never realised we had, and the number of people that we’re trying to hire at the moment is, is extraordinary. And it really is, wonderful to see our teams work so hard in finding the right people and bringing in new talent, new talent and, and deploying sort of new trading, et cetera. So our systems are really now in place to move forward and do that. So, it’s wonderful to see, to see the new talent. It’s also made me realize that actually I’m welcoming and, accepting people finding new opportunities and leaving the business because you know, some people have been with us for 7, 8, 10 years. And I liked the fact that, you know, they’ve had a good time with us. I like the fact that they’ve taken the experience moving forward and I’m, I’m, I’m embracing the change, Chris. Also as by way of a product. I mean, well, you’ve got to keep moving; the world’s changed; the customers change, their tastes have changed and we need to move forward and we are being adaptable and we are doing just that for our customers and for our employees. So, you know, it, it’s, it’s been a really learning experience for me, and probably one of the, you know, the biggest experiences that I’ve had in the 18, 17, 18 years of operating TOG.
Chris
Well you’ve had your mettle tested haven’t you?
Olly Olsen
For sure, and I think that the proof will be in the pudding and those that come out of this stronger, will be those that have been tested and have learned from their mistakes or learn from the way in which the world’s changed. And if you’re adaptable, which you need to be as a business, then, then you should be perfectly okay. And I do, and I think that we will come out stronger. I think that, you know, occupancy in the buildings, which will be a true reflection of our product, will get back to where it needs to be, which, right now it’s showing that, but there’s there’s, there is one big question I keep asking myself, which is the relationship or the commercial relationship now between the employer and the employee, and what our customers are saying, because, what does it mean to as an employer to employ, an individual that needs to travel in, eat in town, work in town and has a cost base of a certain amount of space in town, and equally needs to work from home. So what’s my relationship with my employee? Do I need to, contribute towards the home office as well? Yeah. You know, they need good broadband, they need better equipment. There might be a need for new technology. and, yeah, or, or just, yeah, just a chair. So, so what does that look like? Okay,so, so that’s going to cost That’s one thing that’s gonna. Cost more. So then on the flip side, maybe I don’t have to take on as much office space in town, so there’s a saving there, but actually if that person does need to come in every so often there is a cost. So that commercial relationship needs to be adjusted. And you then have an employee which, is currently exceptionally happy working from home a certain number of days a week. You know, there are cost-savings to that, so, you know, now they’re going to have to come on back into the workplace, going to have to spend more money, arguably when someone’s looking for a new flat, now, Chris, are they looking for a bigger apartment because they know that they need to work somewhere. So what’s the commercial arrangement there? You know, do employees need, greater earnings to be able to afford larger properties? So there’s a number of unanswered questions, and I’m not saying I’ve got the answer, but this is definitely a number of things that we’re looking at.
Chris
Keeping you awake at night?.
Olly Olsen
Yeah, for sure. Because, whichever way you look at it, it’s costing everyone more money to operate in this way. Our employees, it’s going to be more expensive and for us as employers it’s going to be more expensive. And we know that there are some employers, that have said, if you’re not coming in you, you’re not going to get paid as much. So it’s going to be very interesting to see where that goes, because I’m not saying I necessarily agree with that, but right now it’s costing everyone a lot more to operate in this way.
Chris
But I guess you can understand organizations that pay, for example, a London waiting that, you know, people are no longer working in, in central London, then it can’t really be expected to be paying a significant uplift in the salary if they’re no longer coming in. So I agree. I know, I the government have sort of talked about it, and there’s various different departments that have talked about it, but it doesn’t seem to be you know, an agreed view on this at the moment. So I think you’re right. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for this to settle down and sort of shake through and we will see where we are, but ultimately Olly do, lastly, do you, are you, you’re generally an optimistic character, are you’re optimistic about the sector, the business that you’re in, the people that you lead, you’re generally optimistic for the future?

Olly Olsen
I, I think that now is the biggest change that we’ve seen in all global working practices for a hundred years or so. I think it’s the biggest and the best opportunity that this sector has ever had. I mean
Chris
You’ve cheered me up no end!
Olly Olsen
It’s sincere and it’s true Chris because, you know, if ever there was a need for flexibility, now, now is that need and the world of hybrid working,that, that model is going to become the new normal. And if technology hurdles can be overcome, um, it’s then going to be a productivity driver as well. So it’s going to help productivity. It’s going to help this sector and this industry, and I think it will help businesses, but the key is those businesses have to change and the operators have to adapt because the old product is not going to work as well moving forward, it has to change and it has to adapt and I’d watch carefully.
Chris
Olly Olsen thanks very much, indeed.
Olly Olsen
Thanks chris.

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