The Damien Hirst designed Union Jack at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games.Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.
The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) should get gold themselves for organizing a showcase games in terms of planning/design/execution, sustainability and a legacy of urban regeneration. After the euphoria of Britain’s very own goldrush and stellar performances from global superstar athletes, we now return to post-Games reality in London. In time, we will see lasting benefits to the East London area as the Olympic Park physically transforms itself to become a new vibrant quarter of London, eventually to be rechristened Queen Elizabeth Park.
So what other likely Olympic legacy themes will we see emerge, post-Games? The strapline of The Games was “inspire a generation” (to participate in more sports), but what about “inspiring a (re)generation” of working styles? I believe this theme - largely unexplored until the Games themselves were upon us – has enormous potential for the Capital and other major metropolitan cities: inspiring a flexible working revolution.
Outside of London, one of the least known by-products of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games was that it gave rise to one of the largest flexible working experiments ever undertaken. In the months prior to the start of the games, warnings to “Get Ahead of the Games” were cranked up daily by the London Mayor’s office, the fear being that London’s transport infrastructure would grind to a halt under the crushing weight of an anticipated 1.5 million extra visitors to the City. This was essentially a plea for us all to change our daily commuting pattern during the Games to avoid travel disruption in getting to work.
The bigger fear of the Mayor’s office and the wider business community was that people would not come to work at all, which would in turn create more damage to the UK’s ailing economy (London representing 25% of UK GDP). And were their worst fears realized as an estimated 30% of London’s 5 million working population – 1.5 million people – opted to either work from home or simply go on vacation during The Games? I think not.
This was not an enforced stay-away caused by some natural disaster, infrastructural calamity or act of terrorism. This was planned, anticipated and welcomed by those who chose this flexible working experiment In reality, it seems to have worked pretty well for them.
In the private sector, Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, revealed that 40 per cent of its 8,500 staff based in Canary Wharf worked from home during The Games – 3,400 individuals.
In the public sector, an estimated 800 Ministry of Justice staff were working from home, while around 400 London-based Department for Work and Pensions staff relocated to offices outside the capital. In total, more than 4,000 civil servants who normally work in London (around six per cent of the total) are thought to have taken advantage of the offer to work from home, or from some of the UK Government’s new co-working hubs in suburban locations like Croydon.
Some were even farther ahead in their planning, though. Earlier this year, Telecomms company O2 conducted its own flexible working experiment at its Slough head office, anticipating travel disruption both during the events of the Royal Jubilee and The Games due to its proximity to both Windsor Castle and Eton Dorney, the Olympic venue for the Rowing events.
On 8th February, O2 asked over 2,000 of its employees to work away from their Slough Office. O2 wanted to see if work could carry on as usual if nobody came in at all. The pilot proved that that people could adequately do their job without being confined by office walls and showed that flexible working can indeed drive productivity, improve sustainability performance and bring benefit to employees all at the same time.
O2 published the results of this experiment and the facts appear to speak for themselves. More than 2,500 people successfully worked remotely, thanks to their newly strengthened networks - technology inevitably being the backbone of this flexible working experiment - enabling those who needed to get online and communicate to do so. This included using the network to share documents, discuss projects over Instant Messaging and hosting meetings via their Microsoft Lync system – along with a host of other activities.
Fears that distractions of the world outside the office would impede people’s ability to concentrate were dispelled: O2’s survey results showed that 88% of their staff said they were at least as productive as on a normal day at the office, and 36% even said they found themselves being more productive than usual.
But this is the result of just one company’s flexible working experiment with 2,500 people over one day. How would this scale up to the 1.5 million people, many of whom chose this flexible working experiment for a whole week or even two weeks during The Games. What would the real impact have been?
A recent research paper on the benefits of flexible working by the London Chamber of Commerce interviewed several London businesses were offering remote or virtual working options for staff. The main reasons cited as encouraging a better work-life balance (54%); reducing stress levels (43%) as well as increased employee satisfaction (51%) and work being completed more quickly (46%). On the flip side, the most common issues reported by those offering or working remotely themselves showed that staff working from home experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness and lack of social interaction (29%); increase in the actual number of working hours (25%), technological glitches (25%) and deterioration in communication (24%).
For the economists counting the cost of the Games on the London economy though, the glass is still half empty. For some, the flexible working experiment was less successful. As one leading economist put it: “The risk is that you can’t or don’t do as much from home, so while people may report similar hours worked their output –and therefore productivity – will be lower.”
But is measuring the hours people spend at their desk a true reflection of productivity in today’s already hyper-connected workplace? The answer is not either “work flexibly OR go to the office”, but both together. It is the act of truly being present – either physically, virtually (or both) that counts for many businesses today, rather than the old model of presenteeism.
Paradoxically, for the industry that designs many of the digital user interface and user experiences for virtuality, ‘flexible/ remote working’ is very low on the agenda. The innovative new businesses at the forefront of the burgeoning Tech City movement in London’s Shoreditch prefer proximity. They want to be together in one physical space, as programmers, digital media, apps and website designers’ workstyle is based around the agile or scrum model of working that relies on quick, intense collaboration, followed by isolated flow work using office spaces that resemble traditional design studios.
So one size certainly does not fit all. But a new workstyle revolution in one of the most vibrant and coolest cities on the planet would be a fitting additional legacy of the inspirational London 2012 Olympic Games.
Philip Tidd is Gensler’s Head of Consulting, EMEA and has spent the last 20 years working across Europe at the sharp end of where business and buildings/spaces meet. He regularly works across the city and office scale and is a passionate believer in harnessing the power of creative insights to solve clients’ complex problems. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.