With the gradual return to the office, we will find out soon enough how well our businesses can adapt to hybrid working. 

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

As I said at a recent RICS panel on the future of the office, the tech is largely there but it’s the human element that presents more of a challenge. Hines European Head of Operations, Ronen Journo commented in the run up to the event ‘isn’t it time to shelve this debate?

The new norm is about human centricity, flexibility, choice, being kind and thoughtful to our environment and community, work/life integration balance and impact.’ He is right, but will choice of working arrangements be constrained by other factors?

A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that there is still a way to go as almost half of managers forget about remote workers when assigning tasks! Other findings were that 67% of managers say they spend more time supervising remote workers than workers onsite. So successful and productive remote working is not just down to technology. Managers will need to learn new skills in order to deal effectively with distributed teams.

The survey also showed that 34% of remote workers think working from home will reduce the number of career opportunities, a view held by many including Chancellor Rishi Sunak who has waded into the debate saying that young people will see their careers benefit by working in the office. As he told LinkedIn News, he doubted he would have done as well if he had started his working life virtually.

Working from home

Source: Shutterstock/ fizkes

This thinking was echoed in the recent statement from Eric Grossman, Morgan Stanley’s longstanding chief legal officer. He triggered consternation in the legal sector with a ‘warning’ to the bank’s outside law firms about allowing remote work and ‘the lack of urgency to return lawyers to the office.’

He observed that the legal industry’s apprenticeship model has been critical to the ‘development of young lawyers’ and ‘individual lawyers learn and perform best, and collectively deliver the best results, when they are together.’

He also said firms that get lawyers back to the office ‘will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not’. By way of example, he wrote that the bank ‘will not be accommodating zoom participation in critical meetings.’ This illustrates a further challenge for law firms and other client-facing businesses as they try to accommodate the wishes of both their clients and their staff.

Against this backdrop, I was delighted to participate in the recent RICS webinar ‘The office is dead, long live the office: PropTech’s golden opportunity’ alongside Hugo Silva, Senior Investment Manager at Pi Labs, Nikki Greenberg, Founder of Women in PropTech and Founder of Real Estate of the Future and Eddie Holmes, Co-Founder of Unissu.

One of the questions I fielded was on how to achieve the perfect and seamless blend of hybrid working using proptech. I’m not sure it’s going to be seamless for a very long time, more of an ongoing experiment. Opinion is increasingly polarised. The CEO of Goldman Sachs describes working from home is ‘an aberration’ and JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon said remote work doesn’t work well ‘for those who want to hustle.’

Plenty of business leaders still view five days in the office as proof that employees are ambitious and productive, suggesting that, in some workplaces, two classes of workers could emerge. On the other hand, a long list of companies have announced they are going remote first or partially remote. And, could we see a divide between the private and public sector as, according to The Times, the vast majority of Whitehall civil servants have been told they will not return full-time to the office under plans that would cap some at two days a week.

One of the many challenges is how, in a hybrid world, we create a level playing field in the boardroom between those physically present and those dialling in. I have previously written about Google Project Starline, which uses AI and 3D video to make meeting encounters more realistic. I am also intrigued by Google Campfire, a new meeting room configuration that intersperses seats for those present with screens to make it feel like virtual attendees have a dedicated space in the room. I’m interested to hear feedback on this.

We were lucky to have Zoom, Teams, Hopin etc when lockdown hit but we are still in the foothills on all of this. At the moment, those in the room do seem to have an advantage. So, if you have an important deal negotiation, you may want to be there.

In my recent podcast interview with Roger Orf, Partner & Vice-Chairman, Apollo Global Management he offered some valuable insights into the art of dealmaking. He mentioned the importance of timing and pacing the deal to lead to a conclusion, much like an orchestra conductor leading to a crescendo. I didn’t ask him the question, but I imagine his skills have been honed around the boardroom table, rather than on a zoom call. Link here to the podcast interview:

Remote working requires a reliable internet connection and wifi speed is key. It’s all very well to elect to work from home, but if your connection isn’t up to it, even the most state of the art tech won’t help you. The government have announced that ’millions of people in rural England will get access to the fastest broadband speeds as part of a £5 billion plan to level up internet access across the UK. You just have to hope that the roll out is coming to your area soon.

In something of a proptech landmark, Central London landlord Shaftesbury has just completed the UK’s first two digital end-to-end commercial leasing deals using software from innovative proptech start-up, Least. The first letting, on Broadwick Street, took only six days, with the second, on Carnaby Street, just fifteen days. The platform can be used to negotiate heads of terms on any office space, and speeds up the leasing process.

Leon Ballard, Co-Founder of Least said, ‘For anyone who knows the market, this is a problem that needed fixing’. Least, is an independent business, co-founded by my tech savvy Mishcon de Reya colleague Nick Kirby with ongoing strategic and operational support from MDR LAB, our venture investment and venture building arm. Applications for the upcoming MDR LAB Improve programme are now open to early stage startups in the legal space. For an opportunity to spend 12 weeks working with people across Mishcon de Reya, accelerating knowledge and focusing on product development, see details here:

To date, MDR LAB has worked with 19 legaltech start-ups who have cumulatively raised over £35m of funding and are collectively valued at over £130m. Alumni include Thirdfort and Orbital Witness.

Finally, as reported in the Financial Times, Mishcon de Reya has recently achieved B Corporation accreditation, becoming only the second large law firm in the UK to achieve B Corp status, following Bates Wells, who became a B Corp in 2015. It will be interesting to see which other law firms decide to follow.

Working with B Lab since they came to the UK some five years ago, we have advised more than 80 businesses on how to achieve legal B Corp status before we decided to embark on the challenging process ourselves. As my colleague Alexander Rhodes, told Financial Times Moral Money, ‘We aim to enable our clients and our people to shape the world’s larger purpose towards sustainability’.

With an eye firmly on the ‘E’ of ESG, Mishcon de Reya, are delighted to be partners in The Climate Crisis Challenge alongside Argent, Savills and Barclays. The campaign, calling on the real estate sector to reduce its carbon footprint, was launched by Property Week last year in collaboration with the UK Green Building Council. With the delayed COP26 climate conference in Glasgow now just months away, we do need to be focusing closely on what actions the property sector should be taking to demonstrate that it is rising to the climate challenge.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya