Leeds expert’s wise words on the dangers of the ‘digital leash’

Eamon Fox.
Eamon Fox.
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Eamon Fox, head of department at property firm Knight Frank, writes for Digital City on The Office, New Technology and Work Life Balance.

The advent of new technology has revolutionised the way we work and live.

This dramatic transformation has destroyed the 9-to-5 office culture, creating endless possibilities and, if we are not careful, endless pressure.

Whilst enhanced communication 24/7 can make our lives easier, we can equally fall prey to the ‘digital leash’, a leash which ties us permanently to our job.

Some enlightened firms are already putting measures in place to ensure that their employees can escape this treadmill.

No e-mails out of working hours or on holiday; no staying at the office outside normal hours, unless absolutely necessary; no video-conferencing outside 9-to-5; and work-sharing, ensuring employees have a healthy and productive work-life balance.

These measures are eminently sensible as the perils of digital burn-out are all too evident and destructive.

Stress takes a tremendous toll – at work (where too much pressure hampers productivity and sensible decision making) and at home (where family life takes a hammering if one or both parents cannot switch off from work). The digital revolution is a double-edged sword.

How many times do we bring a laptop home and work on Saturdays and Sundays, instead of playing with the children, lunching with friends, watching a film or going for a walk?

How many times do we switch off from our partners in the evenings, because we just need to “finish this crucial report”?

In the ‘old days’, before the arrival of laptops and smart phones, wouldn’t we have finished that report in the office the next day?

We forget, far too often, that we need proper downtime – for ourselves, our family and our friends.

The blurring of the lines between work and life is well illustrated by a new generation of ‘digital nomads’, who have no office or who work from a bedroom at home.

Just visit some of the trendier bars and coffee shops in Leeds and you will see these nomads at work.

Their virtual offices have no or very limited overheads and technology enables them to work where they want, when they want. It’s tempting to envy them – especially if they know when to switch off.

But if they can’t escape that digital leash, they will find themselves on an unforgiving treadmill.

If you aren’t a ‘nomad’, but work in an office instead, it is reassuring to learn that the more enlightened employers, especially cutting-edge digital firms, are creating space which is exciting, different and fun, thereby making the workplace stimulating and productive and, at the same time, clearly differentiating it from home.

That puts the work-life balance into sharper perspective.

Creating a cool office space can and should reflect a company’s culture.

It can be a sense of pride for employees and an attractive selling point to recruits.

Depending on how you design the workplace, it can offer a host of benefits. For example, an area with video games gives employees a chance to decompress and not focus on work for a little while, or a meeting area that’s filled with colour and interesting structures could help stir up employees’ creative juices.

We have clients in Leeds who are actively considering installing music rooms, some are considering allowing employees to bring pets to work, and some are installing pool tables, table football and even pinball machines.

Humans are a social breed of animal and we need places to meet for collaboration and connections with clients and colleagues. Those meeting places are fast becoming closer in look, feel and comfort to where we live, rather than where we work.

Cool office spaces tend to be more common among tech companies.

Why? It’s a part of the industry’s culture. And, given the intensity around recruiting, tech companies often come up with a myriad of ways to attract top talent to their company.

One way is by creating an aesthetically inviting workplace. This is happening in Leeds; with the demand for trendy office space in Leeds increasing sharply.

The example of the pioneering Round Foundry, which transformed a historic, but derelict area of the city into a thriving 21st century business location, has fuelled the desire for cutting edge office space, combining a heritage setting with modern technology.

Recruitment and retention of talented staff is not just about the benefits package. Having an office that is both an inspiring and enjoyable place to work is now a critical, cost-effective way to successfully attract the most talented employees.

Our future offices must break the mould of the past two decades. If organisations want to attract the best and keep their workforce, they need to create spaces that their staff will want to work in.

The Round Foundry, with its ground-breaking mix of the ancient and modern, has led the way in Leeds.

Now the newly-refurbished Concordia Works in Sovereign Street, close to Sovereign Square on the banks of the River Aire, is following suit, as is Platform, which is located above Leeds City Station.

Concordia Works is a unique and striking property, set over five floors and situated just a short walk from the station and the main retail heart of the city.

Built in the early 20th century, this former yarn and cord warehouse has been refurbished by London-based developers Boultbee Brooks with modern businesses in mind, whilst maintaining its existing structure and original period features.

The refurbishment, now complete, is a fusion of original features and modern design, creating a dynamic hi-spec loft-style workspace.

The interior design respects the integrity of the warehouse’s industrial past.

Exposed brickwork, trusses and cast iron columns will play a major part in the building’s new look. The result is a contemporary working environment for dynamic and creative businesses.

It would be unwise to claim that a stimulating working environment will loosen the ‘digital leash’ at a stroke, but it should help to increase productivity and differentiate more sharply between work and home.

Ultimately, of course, it is down to each and every one of us to make sure that we achieve a satisfactory work-life balance in our pressurised hi-tech age.

Bruntwood’s 120,000 sq ft redevelopment of Platform will complete in 2017.

Platform is an expression of Bruntwood’s wider vision for the future of workspace, incorporating the needs of both large businesses and smaller, growing companies across a shared building.

As part of Bruntwood’s evolving offer in the Leeds market, Platform will look to incorporate principles of a diverse community of like-minded people shaping a place together, connected environments: digitally, physically, socially, but within a design-led, tech-savvy quality space for occupiers to work in.

Productivity in the workplace is key to supporting a firm’s balance sheet.

That is why we are all in the jobs we are in, doing our bit to make a difference.

What is very clear, however, is that the way we approach creating a balance between nurturing success with happy employees is changing and changing fast.

In this context, flexible, fluid and customisable exciting workplaces, which offer the comfort we know at home, are going to be at the forefront.