As the modern economy grows more technologically interconnected, a new phenomenon has emerged: a growing number of people who feel isolated and disconnected. Technology connects us, but it also divides us. The ‘always on’ generation is particularly sensitive to the moments of exclusion, not least as ‘always on’ ignores the benefits of the unspoken inference of body language in face-to-face interaction.
This is not just a challenge in our personal lives, it’s also a particular challenge in the workplace. Over recent years, organizations have embraced hot desking, remote working, and mobility as a means of improving productivity as well as saving on expensive real estate costs. But has this gone too far? Have we lost the connection with our co-workers? Can we properly collaborate if we’re all in different spaces – and has multi-tasking won the day over focus in online meetings?
It’s clear that how we work has changed dramatically over recent years. Our grandparents had a job for life, with clearly defined parameters and opportunities, sometimes a uniform, a clocking on- and off-time, perhaps a desk and a mug for tea, and a set of rules as to how the workplace should function. The incoming generation of employees is entering a world where none of this holds true.
Future workspaces present an opportunity to look at how we want to interact with our colleagues in the future, and reverse the divergence between connectivity and connectedness. The question is, what sort of workspace will best support the future of work?
Human beings are social by nature. In our history, our evolutionary biology, we have always had an innate need to connect, create social rapport and cooperate with others to thrive. And this is isn’t just anecdotal – it’s supported by medical science: human connection and empathy is critical for our health, wellbeing and longevity.
Through modern technology and digital ways of working we are now more connected than ever before, yet there is a growing awareness that the quality of human connection in society and in the workplace is declining, and loneliness and isolation are on the rise. In its Global Risks Report 2019 the World Economic Forum cited technology as a major cause of loneliness, social isolation and diminishing empathy with wide ranging implications for society.
This is probably particularly so in the context of work. We are in an unprecedented era of technology-driven change. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, business needs are changing rapidly as organizations look to how they can thrive in the digital economy. They require greater agility and flexibility from their people, their systems and their processes to deal with the everyday unknowns. Diverse teams need to form rapidly, perform effectively, and dissolve periodically. Physical and virtual working needs to combine seamlessly. E-mail, instant messaging and global video connectivity have enhanced productivity, but they have also created an ‘always-on’ culture and diminished in-person interaction – and ironically diminished time to think, due to information overload!
This has also lead to a change in the way that businesses use physical space. The rise of e-commerce, social media, online working and automation have created economic opportunity, but also diminished the opportunities for physical commerce and social interaction upon which our communities have historically been built. We’ve all seen this impact on the high street, where empty premises too often define what used to be the centre of the town.
So, work is increasingly an activity, not a location. And if that’s the case, we need to consider if ‘the office’ needs to exist at all – or certainly the office as it exists today. What do organizations need to consider to create a workspace which supports productivity – and attracts the best talent? For the workspace is increasingly a key factor in job choice. Given how much time we all spend at work, no one wants to have to spend that time in an uncomfortable location, which is difficult to get to, and hampers their ability to live the rest of their life.
Over the past few decades, we’ve already seen transformation of office space – from the city centre to the out of town business park to save on real estate; from the owned-offices to the open plan, and hoteling; from the dull but functional location to pool and table tennis, collaboration spaces, free food, slides and sleep pods. But open plan is noisy, and people like to be able to ‘own’ their space. Slides are a gimmick, not a benefit. And the out of town business park is not necessarily where diverse talent wants to be.
So, the first thing organizations need to think about is who they want to work for them – and what do they need? Diverse talent is a goal for just about every organization today, to enable diversity of thought, create innovation, and drive business success. And diverse talent has different needs. For example, in our office, the young people really appreciate the free breakfast and lunch – who wouldn’t when starting out at work? Parents appreciate the dry cleaning service. We all like the onsite massage. Tuition assistance is a great bonus for all. And of course, healthcare, pensions and employee assistance programs are good for everyone.
But the out of town campus is not appreciated by younger employees who don’t own a car. And the London campus is not attractive to older employees who live in the country. So perhaps the main takeaway is that one size doesn’t fit all. And flexibility is key to the workplace of the future.
Flexibility also means flexible hours, mobility and trust. Why start meetings at 9am, which necessitates a 2 hour journey through rush hour, when you could start half an hour later, or hold virtually instead? Why insist on having the whole team in the office when the work can be just as easily done at home? But you also need to create the opportunities to bring the team together face to face. As said previously, people are social animals. An in person meet up is still the best way to get to know someone, and can do wonders for productivity.
In the future of work do we still need an office environment with four walls, or can you harness people power from wherever they are? It would seem we need a bit of both. We need a workspace of the future that can enable collaboration, support those who want to be there, enable easy connectivity for those who don’t, offer quiet spaces alongside interaction hubs, and also offer services to make it easy for employees to work there. And that’s not a traditional office. The rise of the collaborative work space in recent years shows this – as does the transformation of just about every office block in town. We need to dissolve the idea of an office, and instead create a space where business can be done, where employees can thrive. It needs to be flexible, fully tech-ed up, and supportive of today’s hectic, 24/7 lifestyle. But it still needs the traditional supporting functions - the IT department, HR, legal.
The challenge is, if you dissolve the office, what does this mean for society as a whole? ‘The office’ is at the centre of societal construction today – roads lead there, people travel there, service industries from food to parking to dry cleaning grow around it. And what will happen to business parks, city centres, transport infrastructures, support services, in the city of the future? Again, people are social animals and, until technology arrives at the point where face to face interaction is indistinguishable from interaction via technology, business will potentially be less rich.
Recognising this divergence between connectivity and connectedness, there is potential to change this dynamic, by developing inclusive, human-shaped workspaces and experiences that re-connect people. Holistic thinking about activating community spaces, new models of ownership and use, applications of technology, and a greater common purpose could yield new concepts of the future workspace.
The future workspace will be dynamic, agile and interesting. But it will also be built to meet my needs – and yours. Only then will business be able to get the best from its people.
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