A few years ago it looked like an inevitability – better connectivity, better remote-working solutions and collaboration tools combined with the drive to save money meant the office was finished. The daily commute would become as rare as telephone boxes or eating your hamburger with a knife and fork. So, with the end of office working looking like a safe bet for futurologists why are the most technologically advanced and disruptive companies now spending billions on flagship buildings?
Maybe because although software solutions have matured and developed and high-speed Internet access at home is now ubiquitous, face-to-face interactions remain far and away the most effective way to collaborate. It also turns out that people like being around other people (mostly) and the more time we spend at home the more we notice the jobs we’ve been prevaricating over. So perhaps the office isn’t dead, but it will need to look very different from the current offerings before we maximise its potential.
Today’s open plan offices were designed to enhance teamwork and encourage the exchange of ideas but the reality is somewhat different. Modern office designs are blamed for everything from reduced job satisfaction and productivity to increased stress and sickness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has decided to stay at home because I’ve had some work to get on with. Google and Facebook (to name just two) recognise that getting people to work together effectively means giving them an environment that enables it, that they enjoy being in and which creates a culture that drives them. Cynically, some may say, it is also in their interest to create an atmosphere that encourages and facilitates people to spend longer at work.
The speed at which new ideas can be turned into profitable services is critical to success and relevance in the digital age. The buzz words now are all about activity-based working. The new spaces are not going to look like the offices most of us have spent time in. They offer a range of spaces that allow you to be effective whatever the type of work you want to carry out be that an impromptu meeting, a private phone call or a workshop. Match those spaces to technology and workstyles and it all starts to make sense.
How does it support Digital working?
As much as technology can be a barrier to good user experience so can physical workspaces. By offering different types of spaces people are not dictated to about how they should work or even where they should work. The role of the modern office is to allow people to access the spaces required for the tasks they need wish to carry out. Making these changes has other far-reaching effects.
Brand perception – A clean, modern website can pique interest in a company but that can disappear if the offices don’t match the image. Disruptive and innovative companies, more often than not, have disruptive and innovative office designs that represent the type of company they are and their culture.
Improved collaboration and communication – Modern workspace design is about enabling better collaboration and communication. Being able to socialise at work can build stronger relationships and improve the network you can draw upon through contact with colleagues outside your immediate circle.
Create or drive culture – The types of spaces you create can drive certain behaviours and motivate employees to try new ways of working and thinking, thus allowing the company more input into establishing or building on the culture it is striving for.
Maximise productivity – The open plan office is efficient in terms of space but a common complaint is the number of distractions, which can impact productivity. The latest office designs are about creating multiple types of spaces that mean people can find the place to work how they want.
Attract talent – Companies are fighting to attract and retain the talent. The balancing act is offering the technology to allow them to work effectively from wherever they want but also a physical environment that offers collaborative and social elements to balance work and life.
Boost staff morale – Once you’ve attracted talent you have to keep it. Time away from work can enhance the time at work so there’s a balance to be struck between areas designed to be productive in and those designed for pure fun. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules two hours of uninterrupted thinking time per day. Bill Gates reputedly took a week off twice a year just to reflect without being disturbed. Think micro breaks though not half a day sitting round a swimming pool.
What’s the future?
The direction set by digital disruptors will no doubt be taken up by the corporates to some degree. For smaller companies and start-ups more innovative working styles have already started to emerge. Coworking is a style of work that involves a shared environment that contains people from more than one company. Believed to have begun in San Francisco in 2005 the number of seats has roughly doubled every year since. The concept began with tech start-ups looking to work somewhere other than coffee shops and home workers looking for more human interaction during their working day. People are seeing them as more than just a physical space now but as a way of networking and building a community of likeminded people.
There seems no slowing in the growth of co-working fuelled by the gig economy and the predicted rise in the numbers of contractors employed by companies. People will always want the social element of work and the networking opportunity that working alongside people from other businesses is a bonus.
It’s also likely that other industries will start to make use of shared working environments as they look to collaborate outside their own sphere. Businesses focusing on science, robotics and AI will move from out of town to make use of the urban tech hubs that are developing in areas like Old Street.
So, the Office is not dead!
Even with technology’s exponential rate of development there is no substitute for physical interaction. It is crucial to consider the human element of why we work the way we do and why the social side of that is so important to our overall health.
However, the reality for most companies is that office space is shrinking. Nearly all new designs have fewer desks than people and so rely on remote working to an extent. This only increases the need for whatever space remains works as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Not all companies are going to build Olympic-style running tracks on the roof of their building or full-size basketball courts in a bid to draw people into the office. The reality for most is that a certain amount of home working is now enforced as the ratio of desks/people decreases. The potential outcomes are the same though. By putting more thought into the spaces that people need for work the time they do spend there will be much more productive and enjoyable. Until then, if you need to get on with something and don’t want to work from home just put your headset on, listen to some calming music and pretend you’re on a conference call. You didn’t hear that from me right?
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