The Changing Role of the ‘Workplace’ image

The Changing Role of the ‘Workplace’

08 July 2020

The way we work has changed a lot over the years, from the glass buildings of the Industrial Style that became a global symbol of modernity, to the cubicles that allowed businesses to fit more people in. Then, the Dot Com Era changed everything when tech companies began tearing down those walls to cultivate collaboration, hoping that it would inspire innovation. When those companies made billions in revenue, more and more businesses followed suit. Today, we still have those glass buildings, and about 70% of companies have tech-inspired open-plan offices. But today, 12% of office spaces in the US are vacant, and even as builds continue and businesses create jobs, demand for office space is not growing along with it. 

For three years, I worked in San Francisco, a mecca for tech entrepreneurs and home to the tech boom that created its industry. If you want to know what the next new thing is for workplace innovation and productivity, it’s here that you’ll find insights. But underneath San Fran’s big dreams and big ideas persona, there is a downside. As people move as one to meet the 9-5 schedule, it results in a work and life imbalance. Flexible hours exist to combat traffic, not to encourage wellbeing. San Fran kicked off open office plans, collaboration spaces, and shuttles to work, but is it working?

There seems to be a disconnect between the way we work and the environment that supports us. With COVID-19 requiring more people to work from home, we start to question the workplace’s purpose. In New Zealand, AMP Wealth Management’s 350 employees are not returning to work post-lockdown. The reason? They didn’t want to return to the ‘normal’ way of working. The reality is most people like working from home. Bigger businesses continue to lead the way in its adoption. It leaves one to wonder what the future holds for the workplace. 

What does research tell us about the way we interact with the ‘built world’? What is the purpose of office spaces today? And how could we use what we have - better?

When Assumptions Lead Design 

When the average employee spends 2,000 hours year working, it begs the question: what roles do offices play anyway? In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval discusses how we went from working in small and intimate spaces to the large shared workspaces we see today. Interestingly, Germany already had open-plan workspaces in the 1950s. Hence, the cubicle was a sort of liberation into a new way of working. The only problem was, it quickly became a symbol of oppression. 

To Saval, workspaces of the past reflected the way power operated in the workplace. It communicated the hierarchy. 

Open-plan offices and the appearance of flat structures were moves businesses made to encourage quicker innovation, rather than to support the work people were doing. Even though cubicles seemed like the enemy, open-plan office appear to have caused more harm than good. Research shows that open-plan offices create more stress and less productivity than layouts with more privacy. 

It seems that with the rise in popularity, businesses applied a one-size-fits-all approach to their detriment. While open-plan offices are great for companies creating new products, like the tech companies who first adopted them, they are not as good for interaction between teams. In one study, face-to-face interactions between groups decreased by 70% in open-plan offices, and putting them close together didn’t seem to help. 

So, why the disconnect? Why aren’t people utilizing their environments the way that business owners and management intended?

The Purpose of a Workplace

From a management perspective, workplaces act to support productivity, collaboration, teamwork, and innovation. It’s a place that reflects the culture and brings the company together. While this perspective is relatively new, encouraging teamwork is not. With technology, we can continue to collaborate anywhere. 

However, the glue that keeps us together, team cohesion, is more challenging to foster without being together. This is because culture is a fundamental ingredient in cohesion, and both require a space that reflects it. 

For employees, a workplace to spend eight hours a day, five days a week, is no longer necessary. COVID-19 has proved it, but researches have studied productivity for years. A well-known one was Nicolas Bloom’s two-year study of 500 employees from the Chinese company CTrip. His findings showed that telecommuters actually do work a full-day and find it easier and less distracting. Plus, employee attrition decreased by 50%, meaning fewer employees left their jobs. 

In general, people like to work the way they want to. How to provide the space for it depends a lot on the kind of work a company does. It depends on the people. 

One thing is for sure, one size doesn’t fit all. 

Bringing Data to Design 

Although we can be as productive working remotely, it doesn’t seem to bode well for teamwork. A 4-year study of a major technology company found that remote workers communicated 80% less about their assignment than their in-office colleagues. They even found that 17% didn’t communicate at all.  

It begs the question, what do teams need? If businesses design workplaces to encourage interaction, how do they know if it’s working?

Sensors are one way to utilise data to understand how employees use workspaces. Data may enable employers to make better design decisions. In the past, putting sensors in the workplace was a move to increase productivity, but it can do much more than that. Data can shed light on how employees interact with their environment. Examples include how often employees use particular rooms or how long employees stay at desks. While assumptions tend to dictate workplace fit-outs, having real-time data will likely give employers a reason to remain flexible. 

Businesses no longer have to apply a one-size-fits-all approach because now, workplaces do more than house workers. Gone are the days of crowding employees into buildings. We simply don’t have to. Today, work is no longer confined to the workplace. 

A New Way of Working 

These days, we can work from anywhere. With technology today, ‘working from home’ comes to mean ‘working from anywhere’. In fact, with the office’s changing role, the term ‘remote working’ may not fully capture what it means to work today. 

If flexible work schedules increase in popularity, workplaces may serve as a physical space to keep teams connected. The foundation of any company, its values, is reflected in the design. How a particular office collaborates, how individuals work, and the culture is imperative in understanding how best to use a space. 

Preference for flexibility across the board can already be seen in co-working spaces, which take up 5% of the commercial real estate market. The popularity of co-working spaces with a sense of community sheds light on a more deep-seated need. Even though people value flexibility, they also value community. Therefore, a culture, complete with its values, must exist in a space. 

Aside from cohesion, workplaces of the future will continue to serve teamwork. In The Anatomy of Collaboration, Dr. Henry Kippin and Bill Fulford note that collaboration happens organically. In other words, companies can’t force it. However, the way we work is shaped by beliefs, assumptions, and values. 

To create an office space that serves employees, companies must first define their culture and understand how their employees work. It’s something that requires setting aside assumptions and preconceived notions of the workplaces of the past. 

It takes an understanding that workplaces are no longer required for the reasons it once was. We can use data to understand our workers, and instead of building new, we can repurpose what we have. The office space of the future will serve the needs of a new kind of worker: one that can work from anywhere.