Go Big Or Go Home! Getting Workers Back To The Office
Mark Kass is CEO and Chairman of The Enterprise4Good Group. The group operates a socially responsible stable of brands that designs, delivers and manages a variety of economic growth programmes to create measurable social, environmental and economic impact.
His typical clients are from the start-up, SME and Freelancer sectors all of which have been deeply affected by recent events. A wide-ranging interview covering a number of themes:
Has technology aided or hindered creativity?
The effect on mental health from working remotely
Why property owners need to think differently about property
The importance of community
Why HR should be involved in planning future office needs
In this episode, Chris talks to prolific ‘Social Entrepreneur’ and and ‘Social Impact’ investor Mark Kass. Mark Kass takes us through the highs and lows of operating a co-working and business centre operation during the Pandemic and why the widely purported death of the office is hugely over-exaggerated.
[Chris]: Welcome to this week’s Oven-Ready HR Podcast. My guest this week is Mark Kass. A prolific entrepreneur who combines his passion for business with a zeal for regeneration, social mobility, and community engagement. Holding multiple executive and non-executive directorships for a diverse range of profit and not-for-profit organisations based largely in his beloved East London and Essex region. Mark is a true advocate of the positive impact business can have in communities often overlooked, helping transform some of the most deprived areas in the UK into thriving communities.
His particular focus during the pandemic has been his role as CEO of Workspace Hub, The Hive enterprise centre in Southend. A state-of-the-art business helped it provides affordable and flexible workspace solutions for local entrepreneurs and businesses. As any flexible workspace provider will surely tell you, 2020 was a year like no other, and 202 1 will be the year to encourage workers to return to the office.
A lifelong West Ham United supporter, Mark describes himself as a frustrated guitarist and drummer, who, along with all of us, hopes 2021 will be dancing to a different beat. Welcome to Oven-Ready, Mark. Looking at all the roles and responsibilities you have, you must be one hell of a time management expert.
[Mark]: It’s got to that point where I was actually looking forward to some kind of lockdown. I could rearrange my time management, but yeah, it’s a case of needs must, I think. I’m thinking to add to that bio as well. I’m a frustrated West Ham supporter as well.
[Chris]: I looked at, I’m not a football follower, but you know what, I did look at the premiership table. I think you’re number 10, aren’t you?
[Mark]: At this point in time, yes. But that changes almost on a minute-by-minute basis, the way we play.
[Chris]: Okay, but at least you’re not supporting Arsenal though. Right?
[Mark]: No, I don’t think anybody is at the moment.
[Chris]: Okay. Right. You’ve described yourself as a social entrepreneur. Tell me a bit about that.
[Mark]: It’s about retention of that entrepreneurial spirit but really trying to make a difference. Not just from a dividends and profits basis but using those profits to deliver some real sort of social impact. Very community-focussed, making sure that we’re there, not just ourselves in the enterprise world, especially as landlords, but as a supportive partner, especially during the current climate.
[Chris]: Right. Okay. It’s been tough. Hasn’t it?
[Mark]: Yeah. I mean, it’s been tough for everybody. I mean, we found it tough on our level. but moreover, our clients have really, really struggled. Some have literally had to shut up shop and disappear. Others are using opportunities to refresh some have sort of kind of held their hands up and just said, “Wait and see.” There’s so much stuff going on at the moment that it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.
[Mark]: It’s quite frustrating, to say the least.
[Chris]: Yeah, no, absolutely. So, what would you say the particular impact has been then on, on The Hive, for example?
[Mark]: Well, I think the first lockdown, we lost a lot of business. We lost a significant amount of business literally overnight as people went into panic mode.
[Mark]: It took us about three or four months to sort of, but we stayed open because we still host some key workers and some essential workers here. It’s sort of infrastructure businesses, medical businesses, health industry businesses.
[Mark]: So, we’ve had to stay open. With that comes the pressures of how do we operate as a business sustainably whilst looking after our clients? So, it’s been a really, really sort of tough balance. The confidence of people returning to work has been tough, but it’s slowly started to creep up again. We were starting to feel quite confident back end of last year. That sounds so long ago, even though it was only last week.
[Chris]: I know.
[Mark]: But the confidence again has sort of been pushed back a little bit because of the latest lockdown. So, it’s very reactive. The enterprise centre is very reactive to lockdown.
[Chris]: Yeah. Okay.
[Mark]: But it’s been tough, but it’s been an opportunity as well because it’s given us an opportunity just to sit back and think and rethink and engage more with our clients that are using us to find out exactly what we want. So, we take the “every cloud has a silver lining” kind of approach to this, and I’ve looked to how we might be able to flip our model of delivery and support to adapt to the current climate and what we think may be happening in the future.
[Chris]: Okay. That’s very interesting. So, obviously, it’s given you this time to be perhaps reflective and to have conversations with clients that you probably wouldn’t have had, would you say, had it been a normal year?
[Mark 00:05:28]: Yeah, yeah.
[Chris]: Because everything must be…
[Mark]: Very much. I sort of kind of went into panic mode right at the beginning because nobody knew this was coming. Nobody had been through it before. Everybody was purporting to be an expert in everything, and you’re getting bombarded with way too much information. So, you had to sort of, kind of take a step back.
[Mark]: It’s pointless trying to get your crystal ball out in a situation that nobody’s ever been through before. So, we just had to really look at it quite parochially, and just see what the opportunities were. Get over the panic and the shock and think like how do we step over that?
[Chris]: You work with a lot of startups and SMEs within the creative sector. Obviously, lock down number one, two, and this is our third one. What do you think has been the effect on creativity and communication without those casual chats that we’ve used to have in the office? Those sort of water-cooler moments—people vaping on the fire escape. What would you say has been the effect of that?
[Mark]: I think what it’s forced people to become is a creative business, whether they were or weren’t.
[Mark]: So accountants into having to become creative lawyers, doctors. Everybody’s having to become creative, and this is beyond paintbrush and palette kind of creativity. This is like, how do we get through this stuff? What’s our capability? We have spoken to the creative sector, and in all honesty, a lot of them are quite used to working on a solo-type basis anyway. So, the real brush and palette kind of guys are quite used to locking themselves away in the shade or the garage and doing sort of painting and that kind of work.
[Mark]: Where it spills out is into organisations such as architects or design consultancies, where you do need to have that across the table. Oh, light bulb moment. Let me just quickly ask Steve or Colin or Charlotte exactly what they think of my particular idea, and you’d kind of losing that spontaneity.
[Mark]: So, that creativity has disappeared to a point. We’re sort of kind of controlled a bit by technology now, and technology has very much pushed us into that much more structured sort of day. That structure can sometimes quash, I believe, can quash that creativity.
[Chris]: Yeah, no, absolutely. But you’re on the board of the UK’s flexible space association. So, you must have been talking to other independent workspace providers. What’s the general feeling you’ve had from them, and how do you think they feel about 2021? Is there a bit more optimism?
[Mark]: Yeah, I think we’ve been quite optimistic from a sectoral point of view because again, once you sort of get over the challenges and the panic mode in the first sort of five to six months of this one, we’ve all sought. Because we’re all sort of independent sole trader types or sole director, small enterprises having to think sort of quite fast on our feet and having to look at how we can adapt.
Now, looking at this, and I hate this expression, this new way of working, everybody’s now thinking, “Well, actually, am I going to be pushed back into the office? Am I going to be pulled back into the office? Do I want to go back into the office?” Where are we looking at this as an opportunity to look at local enterprise, not just on a corporate scale, but how do we service our local market and how do we potentially work with our local authority, for example, how we can promote in with investment? How can we encourage other businesses to start-up in here that ordinarily would go to the big city business districts and the central town centres? Now think about looking at more regional aspects, much closer to home. I think the whole independent sector, and in fairness, the big corporate sector, started to look at this in a big way.
[Mark]: It’s moving out of the, it’s great to work in London or Bristol or Manchester or Leeds, what can we do in the suburbs? There are countless independent enterprise hubs serviced office centres, wherever you want to call us, that exist out there. I think this is actually an opportunity for us. We just got to wait for that opportunity to be to be uncapped by some changes in announcements from central government.
[Chris]: No. Okay. But look, I think you’re right. I think that regional UK centres—the baths, the Bristol’s, the South ends, wherever, the Watford’s, I think there’s a bit of a Renaissance, or there will be a Renaissance in terms of the local population who would have commuted normally let’s say into central London or Manchester or Birmingham will actually be much preferable to staying closer to home and being more local. That’s an opportunity, isn’t it?
[Mark]: Very much so. People have enjoyed the opportunity to be at home and are now enjoying the opportunity to choose where they want to work. I think that’s the element of this that I think that we need to really focus on. It’s not where am I going to be working. It’s where do I want to be working? It will take us sort of a good employer to listen I think to their teams about their productivity, about their work-life balance, as well as the demands on, we need to get you in because we’ve got this massive office and we need to use it. The economics of closing it down may be outweighed by the flexibility that we give you.
But I think this is an opportunity for choice of where people work. I think if you go into any Costa pre-pandemic, any Costa and Starbucks, and local cafes and libraries, and there were lots of people working in those places that may have only been around the corner. Whenever I’ve worked from home, I go stir crazy well in advance of the pandemic.
[Mark]: So, I would disappear off to a local coffee shop. It wouldn’t bother me that I was paying seven or 10 pounds a day’s worth of coffee, but just to get out of those four walls. I think it’s that opportunity there, and that keeps the whole sort of mindfulness and wellbeing focus, I think. Employers really need to start thinking about that side, I think, rather than starting to become quite demanding on their teams.
[Chris]: Okay. So, the knock-on effects then of people working more locally would be obviously that would be an opportunity for local cafes, local shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, what have you to serve perhaps a workforce, which will be staying at home. And as you say, we’ll be popping out to providers like you at The Hive or whatever. So, there is ultimately there is a win-win, isn’t there?
[Mark]: I’d like to think so. From a local economic growth and sustainability perspective, I’d really like to think that there is a win-win situation. It’s just a pity that local authorities are the behemoths that they are. It takes such a long time for them to adapt. This nine-month period that we’ve been through so far is quite a short period of time in terms of local authority decisions. Saying that, South end borrower accounts, we just recently bought a shopping centre that was struggling. So, they’re looking quite far in advance.
It’s the short-term impacts that I think we need to be able to all sort of get together. We were working with Chambers of Commerce and Business Improvement Districts, locally economic partnerships without saying. How do we make this particular street in this particular borough become a destination rather than just a load of venues? Stimulating innovation in the high street through this sudden retention of local residents, I think is going to be really, really important.
[Mark]: So, coffee shops, bars, hotels, how can they work together with organisations like ourselves?
[Mark]: So, we strike deals with local caterers, for example. So, if somebody does want to come in and they do want to do, for example, we have one, a couple of weeks ago, a socially distant meeting where they had it was only seven or eight people in there. But we just did a local deal with the local cafe.
[Mark]: So, these guys wouldn’t ordinarily have met, but they all happen to work for the same firm, happened to have the same postcode, and used us as almost this regional hub. We make sure that we utilise the local supply chain. So, I think it can impact if it’s managed appropriately. It can have a huge positive impact on the local community. We just have to get over the shock, and the awe of we’ve been through.
[Chris]: Quite, but you obviously, you’re pretty good at navigating local authorities because a lot of people are quite terrified of getting in touch with their local authority because they know they’re often perceived as extremely bureaucratic, rather box-ticking organisations. It seems to me that you have a pretty good relationship with people that you work with.
[Mark]: Yeah, it’s a case of having to–. On a social enterprise model, we can’t work with the community unless we engage with the local authority. The local authority are really very, very keen to engage with our local communities, both from a operational level and on a political level. Because these guys, obviously the politicians want the votes, and the council officers want to a certain extent the easier life and the capability to innovate and adapt.
[Mark]: We’ve made sure that that we’ve engaged with local authorities, not just out in South end, but across the whole of Essex and East London, just to let people know that we’re there as a potential partner just get a small business perspective on things.
[Chris]: Yeah, but ultimately—
[Mark]: Going outside of your typical sort of chamber of commerce, I tend not to join Chambers of Commerce.
[Chris]: Interesting. Why?
[Mark]: Because sometimes you can sort of, kind of get wrapped up in the politics of that.
[Mark]: But we like to think that the local authority have got other priorities, sadly at the moment to worry about. Their own funding, for example. The local business community and the local employees that are now working from home can work out some kind of way of rallying together to help become, as I said before, very parochial and look at how they can make a difference to the place that they live in.
[Chris]: Okay, and obviously, a thriving, local community or original community has obviously, it’s a win-win for the local authority because, of course, it’s also revenue-generating at the same time. People parking near parking metres, business rates, what have you. It is a win-win.
[Mark]: Absolutely. I think what people need to understand, though, is that counsellors aren’t just about the money. I think a lot of businesses are frightened of approaching the local authorities to sort of get help and advice and guidance. Where most of the local authorities have quite solid and sustainable, and now because of the pandemic, reasonably well-funded economic development and business support units that are looking at recovery and an opportunity that will come with supporting small businesses. I think they’re mindful of the fact that if small businesses fail this, a potential loss of income from business rates. Business rates is a whole other podcast, to be perfectly honest.
But I think people need to realise that local authorities are there to support as well as just to take money or give out money. That’s been skewed a little bit by central government, giving out of the grants through local authorities because then it’s sort all the good work that local authorities have done on promoting their community engagement side of things has been pushed back into the money pay again.
I think over the course of time, that will adapt quite quickly as people start to see some of the positivity’s of working with local authorities coming out of there. I don’t get paid by the local authority by any stretch, but I am very, very supportive of the work that they do to try and engage with the local economy and the local economic community.
[Chris]: Okay. So, taking the working from home concept that we’ve all been, obviously many people are living under the last year or so, my feeling is that most people want to return to the office in some form. Would you agree with that?
[Mark]: Absolutely, and I think especially for the younger workforce. It’s been particular the graduates. Those poor young people that graduated in September and October, went back to work, got a new job sorted out in the new year in January, and then six to 10 weeks later, they were thrown back home. Probably have had incomplete training. Probably have had inductions, which has just been very two-dimensional in terms of the ways that they are presented, not being able to engage with teams, and that whole human interaction thing that you get when you start a new job, I think has been a real challenge.
I think the support is desperate for each other. They’ve been through some real hardships over the last few months, as well. The fact that you’ve effectively broken up a three-dimensional team and turned them into a two-dimensional team because of Zoom, because of Google Hangouts, because of Microsoft Teams, and all those sort of things makes. Makes meetings and conferences very, very flat. I don’t know about you, but I come off of a Zoom meeting, and it can be a really productive meeting. But as soon as you press that button that says “Leave meeting,” you suddenly realise, Oh, okay. I can’t have a chat with Steve on the way to the kitchen about what Dave just said.
[Mark]: We lose that human interaction and that the opportunity to be bitchy or supportive or funny, hence it becomes very, very technical. I think people need that humanistic approach to work.
[Chris]: No. I totally agree. I mean, I think there’s been lots of incidences where people have thought they were muted, and they weren’t muted.
[Mark]: – Yes. I’ve fallen into that trap on a couple of occasions.
[Chris]: Okay. So, if this is a cultural issue then for example, it’s very difficult to build organisational culture, and if you’ve recently done a new hire, for example, as you say, is it very two dimensional because you’ve brought somebody on board. He or she may never have even met their colleagues in person yet, and that’s very difficult to instill it or maintain a company culture. Isn’t it?
[Mark]: I think so, and if you look at a completely the opposite end of it, the poor people that have been made redundant and lost their jobs, how does that affect a team? What’s the impact on a team with that? One minute, this guy is next to you on a Zoom call, and then he’s disappeared, and you’ve had no interaction. You’ve had no real sort of gossip about why it happened, what could have happened better. Again, that human side is things around loss of jobs, as well as gain of jobs.
But also things like training and development and the innovative chart chat as you said, the water cooler conversations, the vaping on the fire escape conversations. That is so, so important, and we just need a really sensible approach to how organisations can cope with this. From us, even from a marketing point of view, when we’ve been trying to [look at] some of the corporates to try and attract new corporates to think of on a much more regional basis where some of their workforces are based. Who do you approach in there? Is it the head of HR? Is it the operations director? Is it the CEO? Is the CEO just going to pass it off to somebody else in the organisation? Have they dedicated this to a property person?
So, it needs some kind of coherent join up. Realistically, I would have thought this is very much an HR matter. It needs to be very, very collective approach between HR operations and the CEO around how they engage with their workforce in the future. Well, now for the future.
[Chris]: Okay. So, what leadership skills, I mean, would you think a CEO needs to display right now? What behaviours would you say they need to have to encourage people who perhaps are a little bit resistant about returning to the office because, you know, they might be frightened of the pandemic or whatever reason it is. What would you say? What would you give tips there?
[Mark]: I think the biggest one is to listen to what the workforce wants.
[Mark]: If it starts to become too dictatorial, you could lose some really, really good people because people would just say, “Well, I don’t care what he says. I don’t want to go back to work full time. I don’t want to start commuting again.”
[Chris]: Right. Yeah.
[Mark]: So, but I think it’s the pre-work before that action is taken. It’s that listening and learning, engaging with the workforce to find out exactly what they want, how they feel about commuting, if they’re going to have to commute, how they feel about walking to work better than riding to work. All those sorts of things. Just the whole gamut of people management. It’s got to come back from right from the top, not just from the HR or from an operations perspective. But that leadership has got to come absolutely from the top and beyond the CEO as well. How does the board support this? How does the chair run with some other non-exec directors and directors to change the culture of an organisation? Because that in its own right is going to stimulate innovation and growth.
[Mark]: That ability to listen, I think is going to be so, so crucial.
[Chris]: Okay. So, in a way, the last sort of 12 months has been as an opportunity for the flexible workplace providers sector because this has actually shown other people that they can work from different locations, or they can work from home. It can be completely flexible, and it’s not going to return back to the nine to five, Monday to Friday that I think that we were all used to.
So, what would you say to the sector then often with a young workforce? What would they need to do to sort of implement a creative and entrepreneurial spirit? Because you are passionate about entrepreneurship.
[Mark]: I think it’s being mindful of the fact that you can’t just be a landlord.
[Mark]: We don’t promote ourselves as a landlord just offering property. We offer ourselves as a collaborative organisation, and I think more and more corporates are working like the independence. So, in the past, we’ve run events based—most of our marketing has been events based. So, we’ve run a whole series of free events that we funded ourselves through our social enterprise model to attract people that didn’t get bums on seats. That’s going to have to change to a degree until we’re all fully vaccinated, and we’ve got that confidence of that behind us.
But I think it’s promoting confidence in return to a physical space and being really, really supportive. We chose the word, The Hive. We called it The Hive because it is about collaboration. The most effective workplace in nature is the beehive, which is why we went for that collaborative approach attached to our name.
I think more and more independents, and in fairness, more of the big corporates are starting to think about how else do we create a spirit of community in there? As long as it’s safe. As long as it’s supportive, people will start to return to work, and our industry has been during the financial crisis, we saw an opportunity in startups.
[Mark]: So, how do we support startups? How can we build an ecosystem? But we call it our SMEcosystem because it’s an ecosystem of SMEs, and it’s making sure that everybody knows who else is in the building. So, if a lawyer needs a graphic designer, for whatever reason, rather than just start Googling, we just make sure they get introduced in the coffee shop and things like that.
[Mark]: So, it’s taking that localism agenda and making it much more of a community stuff within our four walls and beyond.
[Chris]: So, your approach to community is much more than a happy hour or free Prosecco on tap, would you say?
[Mark]: Oh gosh, yes. I couldn’t cope with free Prosecco on tap. Prosecco, I can’t even say it. I couldn’t cope with a free Prosecco on tap because the workloads just wouldn’t allow it, nor would my liver and my kidneys. But for us, it’s about making sure that we introduce people to the right people at the right time. So, we have eyes and ears on our community. We don’t just sit behind a desk and just take money and credit cards.
[Mark]: We make sure that we engage and more and more of the flexible workspace industry, I think, is taking that approach. We’re looking much more about design and layouts of the buildings that we operate. They’re becoming much more hotel lounge, coffee shop kind of approaches to it, whilst still maintaining the big service office type activity. But it’s not just about all the free stuff. Most of the guys here are just only too pleased if once every three months, you buy them a pizza. They just want to get on crackle with their work.
[Mark]: Come and go as they please. They don’t want just to be able to help themselves to a free bun or a Prosecco.
[Chris]: No, no. Quite. Having said all of that, are you optimistic then for the future of the flexible workspace sector?
[Mark]: Medium-term, yes. Short term, there are still so many unknowns.
[Mark]: Anybody that says they are very, very optimistic between now and the end of this year, I think is being a little bit over optimistic.
[Mark]: I’m optimistic for the sector because I think this proverbial new way of work we all get up very much for that totally flexible choice, and so people can have this opportunity of choosing to where they want to work. As long as they’ve got the support with our employer behind them, and similarly, I’m really optimistic because we’ve already started to see this. We’ve got a handful of new startups where people have unfortunately, been made redundant. Both said, “You know what, I’m too young to stop working. I want to stop on my own.”
[Mark]: So, I think this opportunity for startup and pre-startup work for us is really, really quite encouraging. That’s the bit I’m really looking forward to.
[Chris]: Yeah, so I think new company registrations have gone through the roof. So, I think there is optimism, but of course, they will need careful nurturing. I think with the work that you do at The Hive, in particular, I think that’s very much going to be your metier isn’t it?
[Mark]: Yeah, very much so. At the moment, government are very focussed on developing what they call “growth hubs,” which are very much about signposting for information, advice, and guidance and grants and loans and things like that, where we need to see, and where we succeed quite well. He’s kind of pushed us through or dragged us through the brambles of 2019 that were there literally is a safe pair of hands, a shoulder to cry on, an arm to punch, or somebody to laugh along with so that we’re a physical support mechanism—socially distant, of course.
But people buy people, people don’t buy computer screens, and I think the novelty of technology has worn off. We’ve put in our meeting rooms and conference rooms 360 degrees state of the art HD video camera and some people are actually thinking, you know what? I don’t really care. I’d rather just be in the meeting room with other people.
[Mark]: Don’t get me wrong, it’s paid for itself, but people still want to be in meeting rooms with people. I’m really quite confident that over the coming months, that choice, the ability to meet and greet people, to shake people by the hands or by the throat, depending on how the meeting goes, I think is really going to be the most encouraging bit. People were quite excited about the prospect of coming back to work.
I showed a guy around the centre yesterday, who is just going absolutely around the twist, and unfortunately, the kids have now been forced back home and aware we’re a bolt hole.
[Chris]: Yeah. A piece of sanity.
[Mark]: Yeah. Well, it’s a piece of sanity and safety piece. He said, “Because I am liable to—probably not kill, it’s probably a slightly exacerbates the word—harm one of my children or my wife or my dog or put my foot through the television or empty the fridge on far too many occasions. I need somewhere where there’s a level of structure back in my life, and I haven’t got that moment.
[Chris]: Okay, and are you optimistic about West Ham?
[Mark]: Can we do that in the next interview?
[Mark]: Next season, preferably.
[Chris]: All right. All right. Mark Kass, thank you very much.
[Mark]: No, we’re playing okay. Again, this is spirit of team. To me, this is all about people buying people. They could not have done this had they not had the level of consistency. So, West Ham had done okay this year. They’ve got a good solid manager in place.
[Chris]: All right.
[Mark]: Somebody that’s prepared to lead and a board that are prepared to invest in that team. So, proof of the importance of people in a business.
[Chris]: Totally right. Mark Kass, thank you very much, indeed.
[Mark]: Thank you, Chris.
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