Why BT leaders are still looking at office real estate

Leadership and team development is evolving rapidly. The skills required need to be updated rapidly to help us navigate the next decade and that means relearning what work is and how it is done. We are in TRUST generation.

The LeaderX Podcast episode with Dr Nicola Millard, psychologist and futurist at BT, shared her experiences of home working in 2020 and the research she has been doing since 1992.

We chatted about the 1992 Inverness experiment, where a group of individuals volunteered to work from home exclusively for a year, and how it has shaped BT’s working strategy. I asked her if BT had fallen out of love with working from home.

We didn’t exactly Fall Out with it. So as a piece of history, I think BT was a very early adopter of homeworking. In fact, in 1992 was our first time working trial and that was in Inverness. What we did then was pretty pioneering. So we got 11 volunteers, and they were volunteers. We didn’t force them to work work from home. They actually said they wanted to, so and we got them to work from home for a whole year.

Now, I was a very small part of that project around the psychological monitoring and because we didn’t know if these guys were going to go nuts, I mean, nobody had a year at home before.

So they didn’t By the way, in fact, they, what we’re seeing what we saw with them we’re seeing now I dug out some of the paperwork a couple of years back and This one lady said that I learned to cook and found out who my neighbours were. And I think that’s pretty much what we’re finding now.  So I think the psychology piece hasn’t changed.

The reason it didn’t work really that well, in 92 was the technology because simply we didn’t have broadband, we didn’t have 4g, or 5g, we didn’t have the connectivity. So in order to get those guys to work effectively from home, we literally had to dig their front gardens up. So there was a bulldozer involved. And that cost a lot of money at the time.

To be honest, it was the economics that kind of kind of made us not necessarily do it as early as 1992. I mean, we were also we slightly over engineered the solution, we gave them video conferencing for a start. It did it very much did. The units were about the size of a small fridge but and the quality was terrible. It has to be set to no one really used the video links. We thought they might but but they didn’t really. So you know that there’s a lot of lessons that we can learn.

By the year 2000, BT had kind of wholeheartedly gone into home working and there was a fair percentage of our workers working permanently from home. But I think we learned and again, this is echoed by what we’re experiencing now that permanent home working can be incredibly hard. So I always used to quip that some of our employees never got out of their pyjamas that’s probably unfair. But they certainly didn’t get out of their houses very often. And they didn’t see other people that they were working with very often either. So I think what quite rightly BT started to think was well do we need to pull back and maybe not have vast numbers of home workers but actually encouraged people to work anywhere effectively, so much more mobile working. So they get the socialisation they get out of the house.

Much more recently, we’ve been we’ve been looking at our offices states. And I always joked that a lot of BT offices were not made for people they were made to house very large bits of kit. And therefore, it’s quite common in vt to have a completely windowless office because frankly, technology doesn’t need daylight. So quite rightly, we also were looking at updating our real estate, which we are still doing. So there was much more investment in the actual place where you work rather than necessarily, you know, a massive investment or work from home.

So we haven’t fallen out of love with it. I think we just acknowledge that. It works for a lot of people, we found that but it actually can be quite hard to do on a long term basis.

Real estate or remote?

This insight is quite profound. For Leaders who are stick hung up on location, they need to start thinking about what work needs to be done, and how best an individual can do it. The cost of technology is no barrier to working from anywhere, but that doesn’t mean the expense of real estate can simply be replaced. 

There are some very unique benefits to face to face work. Bringing teams together for specific work or meetings will still be preferable to build trust, to interact, to socialise with each other and build community.

The key to success is choice and purpose. Give people the choice about how and where they work and be clear on the purpose of the real estate and when to use it. This is what leaders need to think about in the near and longer term organisational strategy.

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