From a workplace and workforce perspective, 2022 is nothing like what we knew just two years ago. The events and circumstances of the past two years have changed the work environment dramatically. On one hand, the evolution of the workplace had already been put in motion years earlier thanks to the innovative technologies that allow workers to communicate and collaborate with colleagues and customers in new ways. One the other, the change was rapid and unexpected, and most companies were ill-prepared for the sudden transition.
When most companies sent their workforces home back 2020, most expected it would be a short-term situation and things would be back to “normal” quickly. Fast forward two years and we know now we are in a “new normal,” and most workplaces aren’t likely to ever look like they did two pre-2020.
That’s created new opportunities for both businesses and technology providers to appreciate and benefit from the new workforce dynamics that most companies agree represent permanent changes, at least to some degree. Even many companies that anticipated struggling during the pandemic saw unexpected success supporting the changing workplace.
One of those companies is Coworks, which is sponsoring Future of Work Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, June 21-24, 2022. It was natural to think the coworking market would stumble, but Coworks CEO DeShawn Brown explained what really happened when I caught up with him recently, along with sharing some of his thoughts on how companies can successfully navigate the changes in workplaces and workforces.
How have the past two years changed your company?
When the pandemic shut the world down, we were pretty scared that our business at Coworks — coworking space operations software — would suffer. But, not only did we double our coworking space customers in 2020, but our customers themselves saw a steady increase in demand for their space. That was due to the new pool of people that needed a place to work. These were folks who formerly had their own office but now were at home, and who needed a middle ground for remote work.
If anything, the past two years have accelerated the vision and trends I believed in and saw over seven years ago when it comes to flex work. Specifically, the level of interest from large enterprises who simply have been forced to rethink their office space strategy.
“Future of Work” is being used in many different contexts. What does “Future of Work” mean to you?
To me, the future of work means flexibility. It means that the office is no longer a stake in the ground around which an entire culture revolves. Instead, work can be done anywhere. Work can be done anytime. And thought workers who have had flexibility during the pandemic still want that flexibility. If they can, they will work from their living room, from a home office, or from a flex space in another country. It’s a more mindful approach to physical workspace.
What’s the key to companies understanding their best path forward in a way that accommodates evolving employee needs while still ensuring business success?
This is the crux of it. And it starts with listening. What do your employees need? What will make them feel valued? Because an employee that feels valued will deliver performance. There's data that supports that.
So listen to them. Do they need collaboration space? Do they need quiet, work alone time? How can you deliver that through your physical space, through your tech platforms, and IT configuration? Is the office a place they feel they have to be or that they want to be? The data says remote work is effective. It's not perfect for everyone, but I think a flexible mindset is key to success.
What are the biggest factors business leaders need to consider for succeeding in a world that features more flexible work models than ever before?
Business leaders need to focus on where you are investing your dollars. Is having a big, beautiful office headquartered in a downtown corridor critical to your success? Or is it responding to the needs of your employees and providing the resources they want to have the best work/life balance that enables them to perform?
Then business leaders can consider how we can adapt and adopt the appropriate tools and systems to create a seamless experience for everyone across this hybrid, flexible model.
Of course as a technologist, I’m always looking at how we can use tech to help scale the things that we know are working well. I've always believed that the best businesses/services/products are the ones that are dedicated to the experience of the consumer/end user — as opposed to capitalizing on that fact that they "have to" do something or "need" something. Give them what they want, but take the time to create an experience that is enjoyable and that's how you hit that next level.
What’s the biggest challenge businesses face as they seek to define their own Future of Work strategies?
Fear is by far the biggest challenge for the people running the businesses. But there is always fear in the face of change. Especially when we are faced with change by external forces, such as a global pandemic. When you really challenge the pushback to a full return to the office, you’ll see the fear is that people won’t do their best. They won’t perform.
But a real strategy in the Future of Work is building a culture where you meet people where they are and you structure your office, technology, and resources in a way that delivers on the needs of your employees, fostering growth and success.
How has adoption of new technologies driven workplace evolution in the last decade and what technologies, specifically, have been critical in businesses successfully navigating change?
The first technology we couldn't do any of this without is the internet. It goes without saying. Even ten years ago, Wifi was something that was nice-to-have. Now it's a must-have. It's a utility — and it better be high speed. And it turns the world into our office.
We are also squarely in a mobile-first world. We all have these powerful computers and databases that we carry with us at all times. The upside to that is that we can be reached anywhere, anytime. The downside is that we have trouble creating boundaries. And that threatens our work/life integration. So workplace evolution has blurred the lines between our work day and home life. And that is scary for a lot of people and risky for our mental health.
So I think it's critical for businesses who are navigating this change to lead by example, and to make sure their technologies are configured in such a way to help their employees strike that balance and flourish. Maybe it's a culture where you can't send email after a certain time, or you have to schedule a Slack message to arrive in the morning rather than at 10 o'clock at night. The leaders need to step up and be the ones to help create those boundaries, leaning into the innovative platforms that can enable behavioral change.
There’s been a lot of talk about employee well-being and the so-called Great Resignation. How can Future of Work strategies positively impact employee well-being and business success simultaneously, and help companies retain their talent?
The best thing about the Great Resignation was starting conversations around equity and access. Working parents in particular were hardest hit by the pandemic, and I’m particularly excited to see how the coworking and hybrid workspaces we serve have stepped up to assist that population with innovative solutions and services to prevent losing these minds from our workforce.
Overall, people are stepping away from jobs that don't offer flexibility and finding ones that do. They're looking for opportunities to be successful, to achieve and demonstrate their performance for companies that value their contribution, rather than their time logged at a desk. I think the future of work strategies of being flexible, of listening to your end user — who is your employee — and creating solutions that help them deliver results rather than creating structures that limit the way they can perform are how companies are going to be successful and retain their talent.
Are the changes we are seeing in workplace and workforce strategies sustainable in the long term, or are they merely a passing fad?
We will absolutely see these changes sustained through the near future and beyond. We cannot put the learnings of the last two years back in the box. We’ve rethinking and re-imagining how we work, how we live, where we work, and where we live. There's no way the modern workforce is going to backtrack and tie themselves to a desk willingly when they know there's a better, more effective option for people and for businesses.
We believe that flex work is the future and will be the standard in real estate, in business methodology, and in experience.
What does the future of work look like for Coworks?
Coworks is a software company. But we’re in the business of solving problems. And right now, we see owners and operators that are iterating on the traditional coworking model of desks and offices. They want to serve niche populations, they want to connect communities in new, exciting ways. And they want to deliver these solutions outside of conventional, urban markets.
We’re excited to partner with them and innovate the technology that delivers on those needs. We've only just begun to scratch the surface of what is in store for the future of flex work and the role tech is going to play in it.
Why should your session be on the list of must-attend sessions at this year’s conference?
I'm thrilled to be taking the stage at Future of Work Expo. This is a story and a path that I am so excited about. I love how technology can empower change. I'm excited how innovation is going to shape the way that we do work and do business.
I think there are so many developing trends and innovations in our space that people may not know about. I'm excited to shed some light on what the future of work looks like and how we get to be a part of that action.
I can tell you that there's impact everywhere from the biggest of metro cities, to the smallest of rural towns. And the best part is that businesses and employees alike are going to stand to benefit from these changes. Also because coworking is global — we are bringing some truly diverse perspectives and insights!
Be part of the conversation about how the Future of Work and how both the customer and employee experience is evolving at Future of Work Expo 2022. The conference focuses on key elements of today's re-imagined workplace, not just for improving productivity, but also providing better experiences, through the intersection of technology and the human element. Future of Work Expo is part of the #TECHSUPERSHOW experience, taking place June 21-24, 2022 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
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