Chris Kane

People, purpose & the future of the workplace

Today I have the pleasure of speaking with workplace and change strategist, Chris Kane, the Founder and Director of Six Ideas Ltd. Having started out as a Chartered Surveyor, Chris’ 30-year career spans corporate real estate and workplace strategy, and he has held positions from the CEO of BBC Commercial Projects and Head of the BBC Corporate Real Estate, to the VP of The Walt Disney Company’s CRE.

Of his wide-ranging projects, the largest includes overseeing the BBC’s £2bn property portfolio regeneration to deliver a fit-for-purpose estate using the Corporation’s decade-long ‘analogue to digital’ transformation, as a catalyst for organisational change – an endeavor which also involved masterminding the foundations of new innovative and creative media, business and residential quarters in White City, London and Salford, Manchester.

Chris is also the author of the brilliant book, Where is My Office? Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century, published by Bloomsbury, a volume that presents a game-changing challenge to the existing ways we work, as well as being a guide to harnessing the true potential of an organisation’s people and workplace.

Key themes

Workplace, office, real estate, talent, human, social responsibility, sustainability, inclusion, place, purpose, omniworking

Reflection prompt

“What’s happened in the last year is that us human beings have gone through a very, very big behavioural shift. And for those who work in the traditional offices, they’re asking themselves, ‘What is the purpose of the office?’”


Books & recommended reading


Nathalie: Chris, thank you so much for being in conversation with me today. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

Chris: Lovely to chat with you as well, Nathalie.

Nathalie: So the journey of your career is very rich and fascinating, and you’ve worked in the world of chartered surveying, and you’ve led the real estate enabled organizational transformations of some of the world’s major corporations like the BBC and Walt Disney. And I’m sure that your perspective on how we might build more resilient businesses is going to be very intriguing.

But before we dive in, given your storied experience within the corporate property sector and the challenges that we face now, I’d love to start by asking you what I ask all my guests. And that is, from your perspective, what do you think might be happening in the global human psyche right now, if we can use that framing?

Chris: Wow. What a great opening question. I think as human beings, we’re all facing a complete upheaval of the norms. Many commentators talk about a return to the new normal. I think we’re facing a new reality, and lots of commentators describe the evolution of society and business over the last couple of hundred years as various phases of the industrial revolution. And yet that’s a bit of a misnomer given for the last 20 years, we’ve been embracing ubiquitous technology.

But I think after this, given the dreadful experience we’ve all experienced across the world of losing loved ones and seeing others suffering, I suspect we might be entering into the age of human, where there is a return to core values, there is a return to a greater emphasis on a much more caring society, and that’s driven by actually a harsh economic reality. We have been putting off, for too long, the reality that we only have one planet. It’s a very precious one, and unless we do something about it now, we’re going to be in real trouble in the not too distant future. So it’s got to be all about the human being and how we feel, how we behave, how we interact with one another.

Nathalie: It’s so interesting hearing you speak about returning our focus to the human being and to these qualities that maybe for a long time have gone overlooked, and especially given your work within the buildings that house humans and the way in which it influences how we relate and work and collaborate. And you recently published a fascinating book with Bloomsbury titled, Where is My Office? Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century, which explores the significance of corporate real estate, especially at a time when the value and role of the physical and virtual office is going to be really important as we build out of this.

So given the extraordinary challenges that we face and the large scale adoption of remote working that we’ve seen with the pandemic, and the changing needs of a dispersed workforce, in your wildest dreams, how might you envision the role of the future workplace?

Chris: God, you certainly are throwing difficult questions. I think there are many, many people trying to figure that out. And I fear that we’re trying to figure stuff out looking at it in the wrong way. I’ve always been a great believer in trying to find fresh perspectives, because when I started in the world of real estate, certainly for the first five or 10 years, I suffered from the disease of tunnel vision, in that I didn’t realize there was a world outside the deal, the lease, the building, the construction. And my world, as some might say, my former world, is a very introspective one. And there’s probably a lot of other segments of the economy are also introspective, but we all have to look back and realize that everything we do is connected and the things we do has an impact.

So take the future of the workplace. My industry would say that it’s all about place and people. And I’ve been very fortunate to learn about looking at things differently, to meet people, like my friend, Caroline Waters, who’s former HR Director of BT. And we talk about people in place. What’s happened in the last year is that us human beings have gone through a very, very big behavioral shift. And for those who work in the traditional offices, they’re asking themselves, ‘What is the purpose of the office?’, which was the core question I asked in the book. And the other one they’re asking now post-lockdown is, why do I need to go into a central business district to a big anonymous building to send emails?

So there’s some existential questions for the real estate industry, but also for business. So business leaders are very aware of the fact that they have been living in an environment where the war for talent has raged. It’s going to get even more challenging post-COVID, because the talented people they wish to hire and keep, are thinking, ‘Do you know what? I’m not sure I want to do commuting’, and that’s happening across the world. Whether it’s here in Europe or even in the US, people are saying, ‘Having one, two-hour commutes, and mainly in a car, what’s the point?’”

So people are going back and asking questions, which are forcing their employers to have to respect that. This is all about, you would say, consumer behavior. So I would say that anyone trying to forecast the future and say, “This is the way things are going to go,” I think it’s flawed thinking.

I’ve just finished writing a paper with a couple of very diverse collaborators from the world of anthropology, from personal health, from HR, from philosophy. And we concluded that it is impossible to point in one particular direction, this is the way we go. The classic leadership role of, this is where we’ve got to head to, folks, because we’ve all been in the 20th century accustomed to homogenized thinking, whereas the 21st century is truly the century of digital. But it’s also where a one-size-fits-all mindset just doesn’t work. Because if you look at the shift in consumer preferences over the last 20 years, we’ve moved very much into customization and on demand, so the workplace is also going to have to shift from fixed to fluid.

Nathalie: That’s so fascinating and thinking about ways in which the qualities that we’ll have to incorporate into the way that we do business, they’re going to be around flexibility and adaptation and really listening and being able to ask the questions that are going to give us answers to be able to meet people’s expectations and needs.

You mentioned the purpose of the physical office and this being one of the important questions. And I wonder what purposes you might feel workplaces could fulfill in terms of the needs that we’ve seen, for instance, alongside the desire for no commuting and the rest of it. But there’s also a desire for having a place where we can gather for maintaining organizational culture. If you’re thinking about ways in which an office could have some form of purpose or purposes, what are the key things that might come to mind?

Chris: Well, once again, I would try and encourage people to think about the office as being in a number of areas and office activities being spread across a number of time dimensions. But fundamentally, the office needs to be somewhere where people can congregate and socialize. And lots of thought has been given to how office workers congregate and socialize and the water cooler moment you have when you’re all together as a wide group of people.

But who’s to say that that activity has to be exclusively in a big city center office building? Maybe you can spread those activities to suburban locations, alongside city center, and maybe another raft of new working opportunities might be more localized work. So the office, I think, is going to be distributed for some companies, not all, because certain financial services companies can’t be as distributed as they may like to. But you look at the recent announcements by Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, and the way they’re approaching having their banking, their 75,000 people working not in the office or home, but in a variety of places.

So this all goes back to choice. And my key thesis at the moment is that the consumption of commercial real estate has been very restricted. You either had to buy a building or lease it, and in recent years, we were made more aware as business leaders outside of the real estate world of the availability of greater choice in the form of the WeWorks of this world. And what’s happened post-2020 is an even broader range of choice. And that’s also then forcing businesses to reconsider their workforce strategies. How are they going to be the employer of choice in the years ahead? How are they going to give their employees this different flavor of working? And also, how are they going to encourage their managers to give up on what I call the principle of presenteeism? But also there’s going to be a complete re-skilling required of people to be able to work in this mixed mode of part virtual and part physical, and the part physical being, not just in one place, but it could be in multiple places.

So in writing the book, I came across many challenges around how to describe this multi-dimensioned workplace, and little did I realize that… I finished writing the book in February of last year, but it was around… So what I came up with was the concept of omni-channel working, which was based on omni-channel marketing.

Nathalie: You talk about this in your book. And you talk about how we’ve got to find ways to join the dots between property, people, and technology, and you devised a smart value formula in order to help organizations create business value and benefit society, and maybe adapt. Can you tell us a bit about what the smart value formula is and why it’s important?

Chris: Well, it was driven by a need to solve a problem about 10 years ago, when the BBC had an intractable challenge, in that there’s a large piece of real estate in West London which was impossible to sell, according to the market. And the BBC was also in a dilemma, in that it needed to reduce its cost and its property footprint, but it also had public purposes and it needed to protect its legacy of 50, 60 years of broadcasting from this particular site known as Television Centre. To explain how all the dots, if you will, could be joined up of efficiency and effectiveness and user experience and wellness and all of those, and how they applied not only to the building, but to the surrounding neighborhood, we came up with a smart value formula, which delivered value in the millions of pounds to the BBC in that case.

But I think from a social value, it has capability to deliver value in the billions. Because if you really look at this, how many thousands of people commute into city centers last year? Will they ever come back? Will we ever need to plan for infrastructure on exponential growth? Will we be really needing to invest all these millions of pounds in extra transportation when the people are not commuting. They’re saving on travel costs, but the cost avoided then could be reinvested in better social provision in towns and villages where these people live, therefore equaling up the economic divide that exists in Britain or in many other countries.

So there’s something big here that could be seen as a positive outcome from COVID, which the smart value formula can, in a simpler manner, explain how all these various constituent parts go up to give you something where the sum value is greater than the sum of the parts.

Nathalie: And you mentioned about this idea of maybe creating greater equality economically, but also, I think, socially in terms of returning people to their local hubs, and I’ve seen in quite a lot of the papers that I’ve read, the value of that, of creating a greater sense of belonging, allowing them to stay in their local vicinities and working there. Do you feel that concerns around social responsibility, sustainability, and inclusion are changing the ways in which we’re starting to think about what workplaces could be?

Chris: Yes. I think there were the smoldering flames of change up to COVID, and COVID for a variety of reasons has thrown rocket fuel on that. Even the large financial investors, like the BlackRocks and all of these are saying, “We’ve got to get serious about sustainable and ethical investment.” You see the huge shift in the fossil fuel discussion, but also you’re seeing now a massive shift to say, “How can we make sure we’ve got reasonable healthcare and education opportunity across the board?” And there’s a genuine concern that the more equality we have, the better life will be for everybody.

Nathalie: Yeah, indeed. And I think one of the interesting things as well, alongside the quality of life is this growing desire to find purpose and meaning, not only in our personal spheres or in our hobbies, but also at work.

Chris: Yeah. That goes back to my earlier comment that a lot of people have woken up to something that many of us have taken as a given, that you have to go into a town or a city and sit in a big office and sit at a desk. Asking, “Why do I need to go there to send emails?” 15, 20 years ago, technology enabled office workers to become untethered from their desk. And I think COVID, the 2020 lockdown, will be seen as the time when office work was untethered from one fixed location. We have to be very careful though, in falling into the binary thinking trap here of either or. It’s either and, and there are multiple ands.

Nathalie: One of the things I’m particularly excited by, and this is in the realm of the fantasy and the imaginal, is what we might do to transform or potentially repurpose commercial real estate properties. So if I’m thinking about places like Canary Wharf, okay, well, that’s in the financial sector, so maybe they will go and return back to those places. But if there are these massive office buildings that are not going to be used at the same capacity or in the same way as they were before, it leaves this wonderful scope for re-imagining what we might use those buildings for. Is that something that peaks your interest as an area to explore?

Chris: Yeah. I think that there’s going to be change. It may not be as dramatic as some commentators are saying, because you take the latest new building that’s coming on stream in the city of London, 22 Bishopsgate. That, due to the foresight of its investors, already was moving something towards what I think office buildings will be like in the years ahead, which will be more of a social hub rather than a place where people go to sit at desks. It will be somewhere where people congregate to do joint work, to solve problems, to be creative.

I’m sure there will be certain buildings which will have a shift of use. It was interesting to hear recently that in New York, in Midtown Manhattan, they expect that up to 20% of the office towers there will be changed over to residential. For many countries, Britain included, there is a housing shortage. Maybe some offices might be changed or there might be changed to other purposes.

What I think is probably most likely is that the definition and functionality of the office has evolved beyond our wildest dreams. So you’re not going to see rows and rows of people sitting at desks in the meme anymore. Even the big trading floors in some of the banks, one or two of the big American banks have said, “We don’t need 200 or 300 people. We only need five people on a physical floor. The rest can be distributed elsewhere.” So big, big change. This period in time is not like the global financial crisis or the 1990 recession. This is something big, it’s significant, because it’s impacted everybody. As they say about the COVID and the vaccine, we’re not safe until we’re all safe.

So that implies we’re all in this together, and that’s where companies, countries, governments, bodies are going to have to think about a much more human-focused agenda going forward, rather than traditional geopolitical thinking. If you look at the power of the oil agenda over the last 50, 70 years, that’s now changing. If you read that people are now more concerned about electricity connecting Britain and Norway or Germany and Morocco, it’s just remarkable what’s happening. And it’s happened at such pace and such scale over a very short period of time, who would have thought that big companies like BP are going to have to fundamentally re-engineer their business.

Nathalie: It really is extraordinary. And I think there does seem to be some kind of really foundational shift, even from the top, from these large monolithic companies about seeing the ways in which we are connected as much more systemic, much more of a nodal approach than something in which one domain can operate by itself and to hell be damned with everyone else. There is a sense of acknowledgement of our interconnectedness, whether on the human level or the systems level.

Chris: Exactly. And that’s all underpinned then by your world of behavioral psychology and how people, where their perceptions are and what perspectives they’re based upon and how they’ve seen others behave and what’s the way to go and all of that. And I think a lot of people are breaking out of old behavioral norms who explore things that they never thought possible.

Nathalie: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think sometimes it requires something of a circuit breaker in order to create the space for new patterns of behavior to be able to emerge, and at least for visionaries across all sectors and in all forms to be able to outline other ways of doing things and diverse ways of doing things, so that there’s not just this, as you mentioned earlier, this binary way of thinking of, it’s either one or the other. No, there can be some emergent ways of thinking that create something which is much more rich and interesting to look at.

And I think within that, there’s also the fantastic opportunity of the technological support that we have now. So I’m curious with your work and your experience, are there certain technological solutions that you’re excited about that you think could play a really vital role in facilitating a more flexible workforce of the future?

Chris: No, is a simple answer, because there is such a rich choice out there, from the Zooms, the Teams, the Trellos, the Slacks. What I think is really exciting and challenging is whether we could re-engineer the human system of management. Gary Hamel’s book, which came out recently about humanocracy, his attack on the world of bureaucracy, you see a lot of other books and thinking coming out about, what’s the human aspect to all of this?

I would suggest this. People are saying, “Get some technology.” Well, most of the technology that’s been around for the last 20 years… Take Microsoft Excel. Fantastic piece of financial kit, but most people only use less than 10% of its features. And you look even today with Microsoft Outlook and there are many people, including people in senior leadership positions, who just don’t know how to use some of the features, like scheduling some time, booking a meeting, or whatever.

I’m sure there are few and far between now, but it wasn’t that long ago when I was seeing people having their PAs download their emails in hard copy so they could read. And there’s lots of that. So it goes back to behaviors, and that’s what underpinned the title of the book, Where Is My Office? I put myself in the shoes of a CEO I was working with at the time. And he was asking, having got to the big job, the executive parking slot and the corner office, “What’s it all about? And what do I need to be an authentic leader?” And to his credit, and this was in New York, he changed all the corner offices to make them shared spaces and moved elsewhere, and it was very open rather than having the access being guarded by a very protective PA. And that signal encouraged significant behavioral change in his team. So it was a hugely beneficial thing, but he said, “It was all driven by me asking, ‘Where should my office be or where is my office?'”

Nathalie: It ties into another area that interests me very much, which is around motivation, and what happens when we reach those extrinsic goals that we think are signifiers of fulfillment and success. So the corner office that you mentioned, the parking space. Do you think that we’re starting to see a shift in terms of what people value, not only just from the workplace, but also from life in general? Is it that we’re seeing a move away from the desire for the corner office and these external signifiers of reward and authority?

Chris: I would hope so. And you’ve probably heard the phrase already that we’re already starting to shift away from worshiping at the altar of shareholder value to one of a greater focus on stakeholder value. And as I said at the outset, I think we’re in the age of human. Actually, there is, on LinkedIn, an age of human movement starting to grow, and it’s fascinating to watch who’s joining that and what sort of conversations they’re having.

And there’s a whole raft of other movements. I think we’re very much now in the world of people starting things. You look at the recent phenomenon of Clubhouse and how that’s growing and how it’s being used in China to facilitate open discussion there. So there are some big societal and behavioral shifts already in motion, and I think for a lot of leaders, they ignore this stuff at their peril because there simply isn’t a return to any sort of normal in the scheme of things, in my view.

Nathalie: That’s so exciting to hear that. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things to come out of what has been a very painful and difficult period. I am keen to ask you a slightly different question though. So, you write in your book that you belong to the third generation of a family whose roots lay in land management and property in Ireland. And I’m curious to ask, maybe from a more ancestral perspective or personal perspective, what does placemaking and a sense of belonging mean to you?

Chris: Ask any Irishman. It’s all about the land. Our history is peppered with pain, suffering, a whole raft of things around possession and place and land. And there’s quite a famous John [Fore 00:25:24] film called The Field, which epitomizes this. But having being brought up in rural Ireland, where how many acres you owned determined your standing in society. And it was around the amount of land and where it was and its quality. And I suppose it gave me an appreciation for that, in terms of the importance of place from an ownership perspective, which was, I suppose, personal in one way, but it wasn’t until I really got to think about it when meeting one of my mentors, Frank Duffy, and he talked about how can you justify place in an increasingly virtual world?

And there is this dilemma there, of people want to be associated with somewhere. Are you from London? Are you from New York? Are you from Dublin or whatever? And yet we have this ability over the last 20 or 30 years to be in multiple locations, whether they are physical or virtual. So the philosophy of this, I guess, is still being evolved. And I think we’re going to see how we cope with being displaced by technology in one respect, but yet from a behavioral point of view, wanting to cling to community. Like you take COVID and Britain and the NHS Claps, it brought out a greater sense of community and people volunteering to help their neighbors and actually talking to their neighbors. So, yeah, it’s a very interesting topic, which is one that I’m really thinking about maybe for the next chapter or the next book. It’s all going to be people in place.

Nathalie: That’s such a rich and fascinating topic. Especially as you’re speaking, and I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, the idea of our relationship to land outside of our thinking around ownership, but also in terms of belonging with, and in terms of having stories connected with land. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day, given that this is mostly focused on business.

But I think there is something about where we choose to spend time and how we develop histories and stories with people that are tethered to place, that have a sensory context, and there is such a vital aliveness to that. If you have a meeting in a specific area where you’re eating beautiful food and the sun’s out, or it’s stormy, or what have you, that becomes part of the story of that meeting, of the relationship, of the history of the group. And I think that’s something that maybe we crave even more now, given that we’ve had to be virtually in contact with one another.

Chris: But there are two dynamics to that. One is the value of human interaction and how you associate it with the environment in which that takes place is absolutely right. But also, would you agree that what this pandemic has also caused us, I suppose, a pause for thought, to say, we’ve been doing say commuting on an automatic basis for decades, and we’re now rethinking the purpose of that. And whilst we’re going to a place, is it for a utility or is it for pleasure or do you get something out of it?

And people are now, I think, weighing up how they spend their lives. And sadly, as we’re living in pandemic times, as I called it, in contrast to the past where it was a case of you had to go from a utility point of view just to earn money to pay the mortgage, you now also have to take into account the risk and the fear factor. Because fear won’t disappear, I think, for some considerable amount of time yet.

Nathalie: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. And I think you speak to something very important there, which is about really thinking intentionally, well, if I am commuting in, or if I’m traveling, what am I doing it for? Is it worth it? Is it valuable to make this commitment?

Chris: Exactly. And opening up the psychological aspects of how… Going back to your earlier point about purpose, but also at a tactical level, do I need to go in on the train, the crowded train, the crowded tube line or whatever, and run the risk of being infected? But also people are saying, “From a comfort point of view, I put up with being squashed in like sardines. I’m not prepared to do that anymore.”

Nathalie: Yeah, I think you’re right. And so I’m curious then, if you had to choose one or two qualities that you felt were key to the long-term success of a business, and of course every business has its own context, so maybe this is a tricky one to ask, but what qualities might they be?

Chris: I think the key quality is going to be authenticity. The days of leaders disappearing up onto an executive floor and being closeted and kept away from people, certainly for the younger members of the overall workforce, it’s just not acceptable anymore. And if you talk to anybody under 30, 35, as a leader, you’re going to be lucky to having hired these talented folk, to keep them for more than two years, because they just won’t stay. And they won’t even go to you if they feel that A, your company is not worthwhile.

It’s not about the money. This is the funny thing. It’s more about how they’re going to spend their time. So there’s something strange, if you want, and it’s probably a poor adjective, happening in the nature of the workforce.

Nathalie: Yeah. It’s not just about how much, but it’s about why. So in all of the work that you do, when you speak with people, is there a question that you wish people would ask that they haven’t?

Chris: I think people should ask why more. I suppose the classic is, why are we doing it this way? It’s surprising. And I know it’s, for many of your listeners, may seem very simple or overly simple, but we’ve accepted so many things as a given. It’s custom and practice, whatever. So many people now are trying to apply 20th-century thinking and mindsets and playbooks to a 21st-century problem exacerbated by a global pandemic, which probably is not unlike the Spanish flu or indeed that the plague in the Middle Ages, in terms of its intensity and impact.

So that’s where you really have to be much more searching of ourselves and have the courage and conviction to ask the question why. It’s a bit like, I mentioned the book about the Emperor’s New Clothes and there are many circumstances and organizations where that metaphor could be applied. And that’s why the why word is one of the most important words in the English language.

Nathalie: And it is a simple question, but it opens up so much possibility for really complex, deep conversation. And I think that’s the magic of it.

Chris: Yes.

Nathalie: So I have two last questions I’d like to finish with asking you. And the first one is as equally open as the first that I started this conversation with, and that is, what kind of world do you want to build?

Chris: I think a world that is… The words that come into my mind immediately, which is fair, equitable, and sustainable. We have gone through some amazing times over the last 50 years of tremendous growth, remarkable discoveries in technology, in the world of science generally, but yet we’re living in a very unbalanced world where… I’ve had the good fortune of visiting villages in Africa where the excitement of using empty water bottles and getting them to use was just striking to… You walk around Britain’s cities and see how many homeless are on the streets. You see the same in North America, you see lots of angry people. How can we solve some of this inequality, share things out in a equitable fashion, just to give everybody an equal chance to go forward.

You look at the nature of the composition of the world’s economy and whatever it is, 90% of the wealth are owned by less than 10% of the populants and all of that. So that’s what I mean by fair. And I think equitable is around the rule of law. I’m a Democrat, so democracy prevails. And if people in the main want to go one way, then everybody else needs to go because that’s what’s whatever.

And I think the key thing then is we’ve got to stop ruining our planet. I used to say that in my world, buildings account for 40% of greenhouse gases. So for those of us involved in the built environment, we should see ourselves as stewards of such, and we’ve a duty of care to the generations that follow us to leave them a sense of a legacy. Sadly, because we’ve screwed things up so badly in the last 50 years, that’s no longer a legacy issue, it’s actually impacting us, as has been witnessed with the fires in Australia and the West Coast of the States, the flooding here in Europe. And I could go on. So we’ve got to get serious about moving our planet as a whole to a better place.

Nathalie: And so if you’re thinking about something that people can do or engage in to start moving in that direction, in any of those core themes that you just described, what might you suggest?

Chris: Start with having open conversations, ones that are rather than ones full of soundbites. Really try and tease these issues out collectively. The old adage, a problem shared is a problem halved. Widen the discourse around how can we make things better for all of us, rather than the selfish view of, I want to look after my bit and I don’t care about anybody else.