Tom Ball is the founder and CEO of Desklodge, provider of innovative, award-winning co-working spaces. Passionate about the potential of technology to change the way we work for the better, he talks about his vision for the future of workspaces and the potential of co-working offices to foster increased diversity and inclusivity.
Technology has given us a magic wand - and with it we’ve been told, “You can now work anywhere in the world”. But I think everything we’ve seen so far around the idea of “remote” working has been a really bad “Version One”. When we talk about the “workplace of the future” we’re not talking about one workplace. We’re talking about a number of spaces within that idea, possibly spread out over a large geographic location. Of course some people will choose to be at the same desk every day, from Monday to Friday, 9-5, but in general I predict that people will work from where they are going to be the most productive.
I had the idea to set up Desklodge after I visited the launch of Google’s new office in London. It is an amazing space, and they’ve obviously spent a lot of money creating it – but not just because the company has a lot of money; they did it primarily because it attracts the right talent. People enjoy being there: they get more done, stay longer, work longer hours, are inspired to be more creative and so on.
My initial thought was “I want to work here” – but I didn’t want to work for Google. The next idea for me then was, “why can’t there be a place like this where anyone is welcome?” If you’re an accountant, for example, why do you have to work in a boring magnolia room? Why can’t you be as welcome in stimulating and flexible environments every bit as much as tech people are?
In most traditional offices there’s usually a breakout area, some meeting rooms and a sea of identical desks. In ours at Desklodge there are desks, so you have somewhere you can go back to and leave your stuff, but also a whole range of different places to work – from massive open-plan desks and high tables to booths and shared private tables. The space has been created around the idea of activity based working – where you choose a location that suits the task you are doing. You don’t have to be at the same seat when you’re sending out emails as when you are writing a presentation or reading somebody else’s report, for example.
Geography is another aspect of the choice we now have. For me, the idea of daily commuting seems like insanity. If you are working remotely in a co-working hub you can be near home and don’t have to travel as much or as often.
In the future, I’d like to see the possibility of walking into a dedicated work space in the middle of your market town or village, where you will also find all your neighbours hard at work. And this workplace of the future wouldn’t be segregated – putting all the tech people in this part of the building and the public sector and health professionals over there etc. Everyone would be sharing the space and co-existing.
Working in a cool space that is flexible and geographically democratic was my vision for Desklodge. The contradiction is that the first versions of it were in Kings Cross and central Bristol, but change takes time and you often have to start in the biggest spaces and move to the smaller and smaller spaces as the market grows. We’re now in Bristol and Basingstoke and heading to secondary cities – Reading and Cardiff are probably next. My aim though is towns and eventually villages, but that will take much, much longer.
When people come round to see the Desklodge spaces they often comment on them being “for Millennials” and yes, Millennials do love them, but it’s a myth they’re the only ones who appreciate this agile and inclusive working style. We have a chap in his late 60s who works for a national infrastructure company and was given a budget to get an office - he decided to have a desk in the open-plan area.
I think in the realm of the future workplace, office space will become something you consume. It’s crucially important to get it right – and that’s why companies will start to outsource it to someone who does it for a living. In terms of co-working spaces, there are many benefits - and they don’t have to just be for freelancers, which is another big misconception. The biggest benefit, I think, is diversity of opinion, which comes automatically when you have different sectors all sharing the same space. It’s hard to have a diverse group of 31-year-old graphic designers who all went to the same university…
Diversity can also be really hard to achieve as a small organisation. Put a company dominated by men and a company that is mostly made up of women in the same room though and suddenly you have a building that is diverse. Co-working can also be a very natural way of networking. Why should it be something you only do on a Wednesday evening over a glass of warm white wine?
Interestingly, in one of our spaces we have a room with 50 chairs in it and a big kitchen table with eight chairs. When we started up I would watch as the first person into the room would sit on that kitchen table, the second would join them and then the third person would also alight there. Three people from three different companies would all sit on there together. I had initially expected disparate people to sit as far apart from each other as possible and I think there is something quite telling about that idea being challenged.
If you’re designing offices for the future workplace you can also start to really think about how to make them more inclusive from the outset. We have just begun the journey of greater awareness around making spaces more female friendly - someone pointed out that all our sockets at Desklodge were at ankle height, for example, which is uncomfortable if you have to scrabble around on the floor in a skirt to put a plug in.
When we put them at desk height none of the men complained that it was easier to get to a socket – it just made things better for everybody, but especially women. I made up the term ‘women-first’ design, which in my mind is the idea of first asking women what they want and then backtracking and saying to men ‘what do you think?”. By doing that you either end up with the idea you presented, or a mix of both viewpoints in the design - but nearly all the time everyone likes the solution.
I do think there is a push toward more flexible, creative - and by extension inclusive - working models and we’ve made huge strides toward reflecting that in the “workplace of the future”. As the William Gibson quote says “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed” and I think the same is true of attitudes, particularly in large corporate environments. It will take decades to actually build the spaces for people to move into them but I think in five or 10 years though “remote working” will die out – it will just be called ‘working’.