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Do we take the wrong approach to working smarter?

We live in an increasingly connected world. High-speed Internet can be had throughout much of rur...

We live in an increasingly connected world. High-speed Internet can be had throughout much of rural Canada.

It’s the convergence forward-thinkers dreamed about 20 years ago, where the Web will empower us to better communicate, collaborate and generally get stuff done without having to endure a rush-hour commute and spend the day trapped in a cubicle.

And yet, most of us continue to endure a rush-hour commute to be trapped in a cubicle. If you don’t believe me, just look at how Canada’s major cities continue to grow, at the demand pressures which contribute to affordability crises in several of them, at the highway congestion that is sparking new multibillion-dollar investments in mass transit.

It’s not like going to the office is a more efficient and productive way to work. Sure, there is benefit in the occasional meeting face-to-face. But the office environment is often the enemy, not the ally, of a productive work day.

Not the place to get work done

Last month, American magazine Business Insider featured the results of a rather telling survey from the U.K. that polled some 2,000 office workers. It found, on average, a salaried worker accomplished barely three hours of productive work each day. More hours at the office didn’t help.

The article also cited research that finds most people can’t concentrate for more than 20 minutes at a time, and in the office, especially those open-concept offices that have been all the rage, distractions keep from them from focusing on a task for more than 10 seconds.

Some of these people are no doubt lazy, but most are just distracted, tired and under-motivated by having to spend so much time at the office.

The article also cited a use case where productivity and morale went up at a financial services firm after the work week was cut from 40 to 32 hours with no change in pay.

All of which to say, what are we doing?

The Canadian Press ran a story a couple weeks back, “Canadians increasingly putting the ‘remote’ in working remotely.”

An argument full of holes

This one talks to real estate folks about how more consultants and senior executives with the freedom and flexibility to call their own shots are avoiding the office. They are choosing to work from the cottage, become a snowbird and work from down south, or make a killing on selling that house in Toronto to buy in lake country where there’s good Internet service.

Are some employers waking up and seeing the benefits of extending this option to the sleep-deprived rank and file? If, as some research shows, trying to force your employees to run longer and harder in the rat race is counter-productive, why not change?

Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer started a stink on the subject back in 2013 when she axed the Internet company’s remote worker program. She acknowledged that people working alone are more productive, but asserted they are less innovative than they would be when able to collaborate face-to-face.

This mindset has driven decisions by many large companies in recent years to scale back their support for telecommuting.

The counter-argument to this view is that the smaller, younger and more nimble companies a Yahoo is up against, are innovating and competing by embracing flexible work options outside the typical day at the office – the gig lifestyle (working as a self-employed hired gun on short-term engagements), telecommuting (working from home some or most of the time) and working remotely (working for a company/client from a location so distant commuting to an office isn’t even practical).

Does “working smarter” cut real estate costs?

Add to this the pressures of finding talent as the boomers retire, which leaves employers having to woo millennials who, again, are known for relishing their freedom.

What employers may need is a realistic way to allow more of their rank and file to work from outside the office, without losing out in the benefits of collaboration.

This is the wrong column in which to dive into the various flavours of collaboration software that have been around for years. Nor is that the point. It’s not the tools that need to evolve, but the mindset, and by extension, the way employers view their real estate.

What kinds of work take place in 21st century offices?  Giving everyone the option to work from outside the office doesn’t mean everyone will. Nor must it be all-or-nothing proposition. Just think how many cars it would take off the road if each person on your payroll telecommuted even two days a week.

How much would this save on your real estate costs if it consequently allowed you to cut your office square footage and parking space needs by 40 per cent? All of this sounds good, but is it actually happening?

Widen your talent pool

How much would this widen the available pool of talent to draw from if you a) allowed people to come to the office when it best suited them, outside regular rush hour; and b) allowed them to work remotely and come into the office, say, once or twice a month?

Think about it – you could find the people you need well beyond the reasonable commute radius of your address, without requiring anyone to move (and pay more for housing) to take the job.

There is no single right answer for the future as we seek to balance urban growth, the strains on our transportation infrastructure, and the challenges of finding and retaining good people.

But some workplace changes are taking place.

New office developments

In this article, I’ve tried to look at what some people think they want offices to be, but having said this, what is in fact happening?  The utopian ideas of telecommuting appear at odds with the real world and the continued growth in office space.

Just look at the news this week that construction will soon begin on the final phase of the Bay Adelaide Centre. This will add another 820,000 square feet of office space to downtown Toronto. What is actually happening on the ground appears to conflict with the supposed telecommuting trend.

The reality might be that office space design is changing and some people will telecommute, but the overall demand for office space continues to increase. We’ll just have to wait and see where that leaves us in 10 years.


To discuss this or any valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at I am also interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.


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