Into the maze: forecasting the next steps for workplace strategy
From challenging long-standing assumptions to building the bionic workplace, this discussion between the co-founders of WORKTECH Academy explores lessons learned from the pandemic and where organisations are heading next
The workplace is currently undergoing its biggest shift for 70 years and there is no longer any place for old-school thinking. This message becomes abundantly clear in a candid conversation between workplace experts Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross.
Myerson, director of the Academy and Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, and Ross, a futurologist and CEO of UnWork, were interviewed by the BBC’s Torin Douglas as part of WORKTECH’s Workplace Innovation virtual event.
The discussion, called Crystal Maze: predicting next steps for the work-from-anywhere model, explores the new terrain of workplace innovation and the lessons we have learned so far from the disruption of the global pandemic. As companies begin to navigate their way back to the office, this discussion calls out opportunities to redefine key elements of the workplace and invites us to reimagine the landscape of the office in a future hybrid model.
One of the core outcomes of the discussion is that organisations are currently in a period of exploration and experimentation. Organisations are cautiously experimenting on the margins of their businesses before they boldly commit to new workplace strategies. Some of the new emerging themes in the changing workplace are outlined below.
Purpose of the office
Before the pandemic, there were engrained assumptions about the need to be in the office in order for productive work to occur. These ideas around presenteeism have been challenged and turned upside-down by mass working from home over the past year.
The first assumption that was challenged during the pandemic was the idea that people are more productive working from the office. Countless surveys over the past 14 months have found that worker productivity increased initially but has not been maintained while employees work from home. Productivity seemed to thrive in the first few months at home particularly – but then stalled.
This has shown that, for the short-term at least, productivity can be maintained with a remote working model. But in the long-term the underlying value and importance of the office is becoming increasingly important. There is a strong appetite for employees to return to the office on a flexible basis, and the expectations for what the office should provide is shifting as a result. This prompted the all-important message from Myerson who said, ‘we need a change of mindset about what the office is’.
Interaction and social capital
Ross and Myerson discussed why people want to be back in the office. Myerson believes the office is a social magnet which invites employees to interact with each other and build social capital, whereas Ross challenges the idea that social capital can only be built in the office. Ross points to social media influences as an example of building individual brand and social capital through digital platforms, physically removed from other people.
While, indeed, it is possible to build social capital outside of the office building, interaction and serendipitous encounters remain a unique and important USP of the physical workplace. This is where we will start to see the collision of face-to-face interaction with technology. ‘People will be expected to track others to engineer serendipity, similarly to how Generation Z use Snapchat to track their friends’, says Ross. This idea uses digital platforms to track the location of colleagues that individuals may want to collaborate with.
Myerson referenced Digital BCG’s concept of the ‘bionic workplace’ which uses digital screens to connect people who are virtual with those who are physically present in the office. The app can track when a colleague you want to meet is in the room and project an individual onto the screen in the office to facilitate an impromptu chat. Myerson went on to say that the ‘patterns of work are going to become very complex and technology will be critical to this…’
Rethinking the corporate HQ
The idea of the corporate headquarters becoming a hub for interaction and collaborative activities has been widely accepted by many organisations looking to rethink their workplace strategy. However, in a hybrid model the occupancy of employees becomes more unpredictable which poses challenges for managing real estate
Some organisations such as HSBC and Lloyds Bank have made bold claims to reduce their real estate portfolios. Myerson commented that ‘real estate may shrink but there will be more investment in high calibre design and sophisticated technology’. Ross was in agreement, stating that the ‘corporate HQ is up for grabs to be redefined.’
Before the pandemic, the average occupancy of a workplace was 48 per cent. Now, if employees spend even two days a week at home the office has the potential to be completely devoid of life if this process isn’t managed effectively. Rightsizing and managing office occupancy will be key in the post-pandemic workplace.
Working from Anywhere
‘The office is no longer the container for systems and data, it’s all in the cloud’, said Ross. For the past decade the workplace has been pivoting towards laptops and portable devices as the main portal for work. Employees now carry their ‘end point’ around in their bag, which is facilitating a work-from-anywhere model in its truest sense.
A key ingredient to the work-from-anywhere model is data. Organisations need the mining of data to understand and predict needs and behaviour. Data and machine learning can predict what people are doing and nudge or make suggestions about where they should be or what type of work they should be doing based on different variables that day. In the work-from-anywhere model, the workplace app will hold an increasingly important position.
The discussion between Ross and Myerson concluded with the recognition that people who get their digital workplace strategy right will have an exciting and rich journey as they return to the office of the future. Both experts conclude on the optimistic note that the time is now to catalyse change and create workplaces based on experience, culture and fact-driven data to provide the right strategy for each organisation.