I like to think I’m a pretty open-minded kind of guy. I enjoy being surprised by some unexpected twist or new way of thinking.
That’s what makes Worktech New York so great — my head is still spinning from the discussions there.
Many of the presentations looked forward to what the future holds.
For me, the best part was they represented different perspectives and did not always agree.
The experience made me stop, step back from my daily routine, and think about my own experiences with the workplace and where we are headed.
Generalists like me typically have designed workplaces and interior office architecture. We collect the information and specific requirements of a business. Then, we develop organizational concepts, space plans, designs, and documentation, and see it all through the construction. It used to be pretty simple.
Formulas were simple, too: count the number of people, determine the size of the workstations, sort the people accordingly, and voila: A space plan!
The biggest question we had was: “Do managers sit together with other managers, or do they sit with the people whom they manage?”
We had weeks to figure this out and develop the design, then send it off to the engineers.
More recently, however, the amount of information that penetrates and flows through the office has grown exponentially. The speed of that information was critical to business success and anything that impeded that flow was generally eliminated. Walls came down, middle management was weaned, and space opened up. Privacy was not part of the job description. You needed to see who was in the office, and serendipitous interactions were stimulated. The water cooler, copy machine, and coffee maker became the center of the workplace.
Things continue to change, and technology is the prime driver. Wireless has a strong impact, but now the Cloud is the biggest radical change to the work environment.
Given technology’s ability to enable remote working, people can work any time and any place. Telecommuting is common. In fact, Nancy Froggatt’s book titled “Working Naked” reflects more common (almost mainstream) degrees of freedom than we are traditionally accustomed to.
The way people are managed has changed to match this speed and distribution. People do not see their manager with the same frequency as was common in the past.
Why? Because of choice.
Sure, while some management styles may be outdated, it’s pretty clear that we don’t need to go into the office to get our jobs done. People choose to work remotely because they can, and people choose to hire remote workers because they can.
After all, when faced with a 45-minute drive twice a day, the worker must have a compelling reason to be there! In truth, just because your boss expects you to be present, doesn’t cut it anymore. We can work at Starbucks or at a shared office, coworking center, or anywhere conducive to the task at hand that provides the support that enables us to do work. You can grab another cup of coffee and work from home, too.
Worktech touched on the options and how they are being incorporated into the workplace.
Social media is just in its infancy relative to the office, the tools are changing the way that we communicate. We are still learning how to use them.
One of the most interesting perspectives was presented by Sherry Turkle, an MIT Professor and author of the book “Alone Together.” She said that we would rather text than talk; we feel a risk that we might expose too much of ourselves in conversation, where we can edit the text.
Our communication is being reduced to 140 characters thanks to Twitter, but the concern is that we don’t participate in deeper levels of conversations. If so, then intellectual discussions and emotions are left out. We are denying our full attention.
As an outcome of this shift, it becomes more imperative that older generations share their legacy. There is concern about the future generations being able to understand the meaning and reasons behind actions taken and make the historical connections necessary. This poses a challenge for innovation and collaboration.
One of the ways many organizations are trying to mitigate the social-media-driven communications behavior is by measuring the amount of email that is sent – the goal being to reduce it.
Work is becoming more focused on collaborative, thought-sharing, creative functions. Effective interactions require quiet non-distracting spaces to foster high levels of retrospective thinking, concentration, and the ability to delve more deeply into the issue.
People perform better in a discussion when they have the ability to quietly process their thoughts. These functions are controlled as much by behavior as the physical space.
Ryan Anderson from Herman Miller made the point that we should be designing for the interactions that are occurring in the workplace. These interactions are now being more and more defined by the social-media tools.
In contrast to discussions about embracing in-person communication, Ryan said the space should embrace these tools and parallel their interactions. Different social media tools have different purposes, and the amount of time that we use them varies considerably. We should understand these and how people use them to better integrate technology and place.
The most compelling case study was the Credit Suisse Smart Working Pilot Program. Phil Kirschner, a relatively new addition to the Credit Suisse workplace team, leads the program in the Americas — which is planned by an internal consulting team rather than the real estate, IT, or HR departments.
Their pilot program investigated alternate workplace design, and it was completely supported and used by top management — no assigned seats and no reservation system. And while it is currently less than 15 percent of Credit Suisse’s portfolio of office space, the initial success and its continued implementation looks very promising.
As John T. Anderson from PeopleCube pointed out, many organizations are not effectively tracking the utilization of their office space. They’re still spending enormous amounts of money on long-term leases.
Those who do make the effort to track the space quickly see that it is not being used. It is not uncommon to see the utilization of traditional space to be well below 50 percent. Many C-level leaders are simply unaware of the numbers.
There is generally shock and disbelief when the performance is first presented, but then that performance is driving change to new, more efficient and better workplaces.
Office space continues to be tracked as an operating expense and as a result, any cuts flow directly to the bottom line. Many of these new strategies in work are gaining significant reductions in cost and are coming with increases in performance at the same time.
The realization is that it is not just real estate. In order to effectively improve the work place performance, groups like HR and IT must be fully integrated and actively involved in how these places function and support people.
The office has become more complex. Phillip Ross pointed out that the collaboration and integration of people, departments, and ideas is critical for an organization’s success. The one thing that is apparent is that the office space must provide for a variety of working conditions. And while flexibility is important, the variety to support different working conditions is paramount.
Today’s office space must attract the people that use it, otherwise the utilization numbers will suffer considerably. People will choose where they work. Work is what we do. Work is a verb; it is an experience and the place that we choose to do work either supports and reinforces the experience or inhibits and distracts from that action.
The workplace is changing at a frightening pace. While we can’t predict the future we can create spaces that support change and adapt.
It is also apparent that there is not one answer, but rather an ability to understand the organization, its drivers, value, people, brands, and message. Those elements must be woven into a place that embraces people and change.