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In search of the perfect blend

In the 21st century, the boundaries between work and social life have blurred, and office workers expect to have access to more than just a few sandwich shops and pubs when they socialise at lunchtime or after work. We look at this work-life blend to find out what is driving it and how it is likely to develop in the future.

Twenty years ago, visiting the City of London at the weekend was an eerie experience. Office blocks were empty, their front desks manned only by security guards. In streets lined by tall buildings, taxis were few and far between, the cabbies knowing they were unlikely to pick up fares there. Most sandwich shops and pubs didn’t even bother opening. It felt like a ghost town.

But a quiet revolution has been happening in the City. Visit British Land’s Broadgate campus – at the north east corner of the City – on a Saturday morning now and it’s a very different story. The sun shines down on the open space in the middle of Broadgate Circle where there’s a constant stream of people passing through, not to mention those who’ve come for a leisurely brunch in one of the many cafés and restaurants – something that’s become so popular that booking is essential. Others linger to enjoy one of the many artistic and cultural activities that take place on the campus; a pop-up art exhibition, some live music, maybe a food fair.

Sundays are quieter, but there are still plenty of people around, perhaps on their way to or from the gym or just enjoying the open-air art. And the office buildings are open for those who want to work.

“Many employers have moved away from the traditional nine-to-five, allowing their employees to come into the office at the times that suit them”

Stewart Whiting, Product Lead at Storey

So what happened to the idea of work-life balance, whose central tenet is that work and leisure should be strictly separated for the good of our mental health? The answer is: quite a lot. The ubiquity of mobile devices, from smartphones to lightweight laptops, has made it easier to carry out work tasks from home or on the move, blurring the lines between working hours and leisure time. Many employers have moved away from the traditional nine-to-five, allowing their employees to come into the office at the times that suit them (within reason) – which may include the weekend. And underlying all this is the rise to prominence of a generation of workers who have very different attitudes to work and the workplace than their parents.

As a result of these and other factors, work-life balance is giving way to the related, but very different, phenomenon of work-life blend. And it looks like it’s here to stay.

The new normal

The concept of work-life blend isn’t new. As long ago as 2012, US-based consultant Ron Ashkenas wrote an online article for Forbes entitled ‘Forget Work-Life Balance: It’s time for Work-Life Blend’. In it, he wrote:

“In previous posts I’ve encouraged professionals to manage the work-life balance more proactively by thinking through their priorities and consciously addressing how work intrudes on their personal lives. But in light of how many of us blend work time with personal time, perhaps this advice is overly simplistic – unrealistic even. Maybe we need to accept the fact that the sharp demarcation between work and home is a thing of the past, and that the new normal is a life that integrates home and work more seamlessly.”

However, the phenomenon we’re now seeing in London is less about integrating home and work and more about spending additional time in and around the workplace doing non-work activities. Neil Carter, Estate Director at Broadgate, sees this happening all the time:

“The gyms here are open at six in the morning, and you’ve got people coming to the gym before work, starting work early, and then they might finish at four and go to a bar or a restaurant,” he says. “Then we’ve got people who start later, and they’re in the gym till 10 o’clock at night.”

“People just blend all their activities into the day. Rather than thinking, ‘I travel to work to start at nine, finish at five and go away and do all my leisure activities back where I live,” they will stay on for an hour and a half after work and do something.”

You get the feeling that people are working, socialising and relaxing on campus, and that gives it a relaxed, cool energy.”

This energy is attractive to employees and employers alike; most people prefer to work somewhere that has a buzz about it, while companies realise that basing themselves in a vibrant location will help them to attract and retain talent.

Flexible friends

One of the key enablers of the work-life blend concept is flexible working. In a survey commissioned by recruitment firm CV Library, 59% of UK workers said they believe that the traditional nine-to-five is an outdated concept, with 67% saying they would prefer to work hours that suited their natural pattern and when they work best.

This is a concept that has two components; the flexibility that hi-tech devices and hi-speed connectivity give people to work anywhere, at any time, and the creation of workspaces that flex to suit the changing needs of the people working there.

Stewart Whiting is Product Lead at Storey, which British Land launched in 2017 to address the needs of scale-up businesses. He sees the challenge for employers of this size as being “how they differentiate themselves from their competitors and retain staff in this world where the workforce has become much more flexible. So they in turn need the flexibility to deal with their changing needs over time, which links into work-life blend – specifically the contingent workforce, and the way the needs of businesses seems to be changing much quicker now than they have in the past.”

Some experts believe the work-life blend trend will go much further in the future. For example, a report by The Future Laboratory entitled The Future of the Workplace describes the ‘hospitality workspace’, “a one-stop urban flagship destination for the 5G workforce, a place where work, play and rest are combined under one roof, forming convenient destinations and innovative communities that will attract the globalised, footloose workforce of the late 2020s.”

They may not want to live above the office, but workers today are looking for a good range of amenities to enable them to enjoy their work-life blend. “The ability for people to go out and do whatever they want to do and come back to the office quickly, and not have that time cost of having to travel a long distance, is really important,” says Whiting.

While retail and services are important parts of the mix, the key outlets modern workers are looking for near their workplace are those that provide food, drink and leisure activities.

“How do we find time for ourselves, and time to recharge, when everything is so blended that we’re always turned on to the idea of work?”

Separation anxiety

For all the benefits of working in a vibrant environment surrounded by leisure amenities, the idea of work-life blend isn’t universally seen as a good thing. Whiting sums up the key questions this trend raises.

“Some people will want to be able to work very close to home, or live very close to where they work,” he says. “The big challenge may be how we start to find separation within that. How do we find time for ourselves, and time to recharge, when everything is so blended that we’re always turned on to the idea of work? It will be interesting to see how that plays out; how close people want to live and whether they want some separation.”

Given the rise of flexible working and the ever-increasing power of personal devices, some might question whether we will need offices in the future at all. But Whiting has no doubts. “There will always be a benefit to bringing people together instead of working remotely,” he says. “There’s something special about creating an environment people want to be in.”

This does place the onus on employers to create an office environment that people will want to make the effort to travel to, though. “We’ve moved to a world where people can work from anywhere and they could choose to work from home, but bringing people into an office where they can be in the same space is important,” says Whiting. “It’s essential for maintaining talent as well; if people never come into that space and interact less with the people in it, it may be easier for them to make the decision to move somewhere else. So for that space to be attractive and draw people in is key.”

*A version of this article was published on The Office Agenda