No one shouted stop, although we all should have seen it coming

And No One Shouted Stop! seems to me to be an apt phrase to capture these post- pandemic times as we grapple with work and workplace dilemmas. It comes from the little-known but widely acclaimed book of the same name by John Healy. It is set over 50 years ago and it chronicles the decline of an Irish town. The book’s underlying narrative is a train crash happening in slow motion, people see it coming but nobody feels able to stop it. I sincerely hope that this will not prove to be the case for the world of commercial real estate as it grapples with hordes of tenants asking not just ‘where is my office?’ But ‘why do I need an office?’

Once upon a time in a pre-pandemic world it was all so easy, so predictable, so stable. ‘Location, Location, Location’ ruled the day and from landlord perspective returns were consistent, revenues secure and all was well with the world. Then along came Covid-19 and completely upended what was a very nice little earner.

The enforced Work From Home experience proved to be much more than an emergency effort, it turned out to be a global experiment in working in a completely different way. One that has opened a Pandora’s Box of challenges not only for enterprises but for the insulated and insular commercial real estate industry. For the first time ever, tenants have started to question the need for offices. For many in the industry this is an unthinkable situation, many are putting a brave face on it, others have been embarking on rebuttal campaigns. But the tide has gone out and the industry is looking pretty naked in how it appears to its customers – the tenants.

The main question we must ask ourselves is: How do we make sense of the uncertainty we’re facing today in this New World Order and how will things fit together? It is not just about real estate, but it is more about the interdependencies between people, place and planet, together with technology and leadership. The interesting thing here is that all these aspects are interconnected. So, it is little wonder that we find ourselves in a fog of uncertainty which reminds me of a character in Juno and the Paycock, the famous play by Sean O’Casey. Set in the 1920’s, the feckless old timer Captain Boyle’s final line in the play “The whole world is in terrible state o’ chassis,” seems apt in summing up the enormous uncertainty facing us today.

The updated version of the book Where is My Office, cowritten with Eugenia Anastassiou is a ‘clarion call’ for everyone to crawl out of their siloed, insular spheres/sectors and take a smarter approach in how spaces and places are used in the best possible way. One of my great inspirations is Charles Handy, not only is he a fellow Irishman from County Kildare, but he is also rightly regarded as a leading business management visionary. He once said to me, “we need to address the challenge of how to design the modern workplace for creativity and human engagement”. To this I add that we should all become part of the ‘Coalition of the Convinced’ – a collaborative endeavour in building bridges to co-create effective, engaging omni workplaces, which contribute to a better more sustainable ‘built’ legacy for future generations.

This comment first appeared in IN Magazine

Image: a contemporary illustration of the Tay Bridge Disaster. Artist unknown.