Think Flexibility: Adapting to the New Workforce Norm

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Chair Of The Month

Janice Linster, FASID, LEED AP
Janice Linster, FASID, LEED AP
Janice has focused her more than 30-year career on the design of interior environments. As a Principal and Design Leader, Janice guides client and project teams in articulating aspirations and inspiring the development of innovative design and strategy solutions.

Designing for a modern office life of diverse cultures and workstyles.

There was a time when full-time office work meant logging a 40-hour workweek between 8-5 in an office environment where everyone was assigned a personal workspace, which was often designated based on hierarchy; 5:00 p.m. and after was reserved for “personal time.”

Our work norm today looks much different. Modern office life is a broad composite of cultures and work styles, with people working in the office, out of the office, and around the clock. This ongoing shift in the makeup of our workforce has had dramatic implications for both employees and employers.

As we look to the future, business success will require a work environment and corporate atmosphere in support of today’s multi-faceted workforce. Understanding the characteristics of our evolving workforce and the elements stimulating this transformation will shed light on how the corporate workplace can be designed to support a blended talent pool. Organizations that get it right will focus on a talent-driven experience, inherent flexibility, fostering workplace culture, reliable technology, and striking an intentional balance between real estate cost and employee amenities.

How and where employees work continues to evolve, supported by integrated technology. @9 Amenity Center, Fifty South Sixth in Minneapolis by DLR Group. Photo by Brandon Stengel.

A Snapshot of Today’s Workforce

In the past ten years, every industry has experienced a shift in workforce composition. Influenced by many factors, workers today fall under a variety of classifications, stretching far beyond the simplicity of the full-time and part-time labels of the past. Our workforce is now a blend of traditional and non-traditional roles commonly identified in the following categories:

  • Mobile/Telecommuter/Nomad: an individual who works outside the office, some or all the time.
  • Contingent/Freelance/Free-Agent: a non-employee, non-permanent worker, or consultant.
  • Free-address/Unassigned: individuals who work anywhere, either within or out of the office and who have no permanent desk.
  • Shared Address: employees, often mobile or on the road, who share desks, offices, or cubicles.
  • Resident/Assigned Address Worker: an individual who is primarily on-site with a dedicated workspace.
  • Coworking: a curated, touchdown community, typically free address, comprised of individuals, groups, or companies.

How Did We Get Here? Drivers Influencing the Shift in the Workforce

The workforce evolution in the United States has been enabled through several factors. An understanding of these drivers helps us to predict patterns and ease challenges.

  • Real Estate Cost. Years ago, shrinking the real estate footprint to reduce overhead cost was a big instigator for alternative workplace strategies. While real estate cost is still a point of focus, today’s model balances “right-sized” personal space coupled with a variety of shared settings that offer choice in where and how work is performed.
  • Technology. Before high-speed internet, WiFi, reliable VPN, and portable technology, the practice of working anywhere, anytime was a challenge rather than an expectation. With processing speeds doubling every 18-24 months and devices reducing in size from boat anchors to pocket-sized computers, technology, more than any other factor, has enabled the non-traditional workforce of today.
  • The Pursuit of Life Balance. According to a study by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc., the United States tops the charts for overtime hours in comparison to other countries, with 49 percent of full-time workers clocking in more than 40 hours each week. Separating work life from personal life – or rather, learning to balance the integration of work life into personal life – has been a difficult task for most. There is a renewed emphasis on quality of life, spawning a movement toward flexibility in hours, superior technology, and creative culture.
  • Generational Shifts. Stereotyping people solely based on age is a dangerous game, but there are traits, attitudes, and aptitudes each generation possesses that have influenced many aspects of our working culture. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to have a 50-year age span between workers within one company. While most of our current workforce is composed of the generations we refer to as Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, there is a great focus on the newcomers just entering the employment field: Generation Z. It’s anticipated that Millennials and Gen Z combined will make up nearly 70 percent of our workforce in the next four years.
    In pursuit of purpose, balance, flexibility, and freedom, these two generations will continue to drive variety in work modes, variety in work settings, and flexibility in working relationships. But the younger generations aren’t the only age group redefining work culture. Baby Boomers have contributed greatly to our part-time workforce, whether they are working longer because they can, because they must, or because the workforce needs their talent and expertise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a growing percentage of Baby Boomers working beyond Social Security age in full-time, part-time, and consultant capacities.
  • Economy. The economy too has influenced worker habits and practice. An up economy brings confidence and extends a bit more rope for taking risks; a down economy causes some to shift from the independence of free agency to the security of employment and benefits. However, there are still longer-term work patterns that emerge despite the health of the economy. In other words, as the pendulum of the economy shifts from up to down or vice versa, worker habits will not necessarily revert to those of the past.

Embracing the Change: Tactics for Workplace Success with a Blended Workforce

The influx of this non-traditional workforce has presented both benefits and challenges to employees and employers. For employees the benefits are freedom, flexibility, and time savings; for employers, benefits can vary from access to an expanded workforce without necessarily expanding real estate, attraction and retention of talent who are looking for flexibility, and the ability to tap into a broader contingent talent pool. Challenges exist as well. For employees, there is risk in finding consistency in workflow, lack of benefits, and a lack of socialization and interaction. Similarly, for employers there is a loss of face-to-face communication, challenges with corporate culture, and a heightened need to cater to individual needs rather than a one-size-fits all approach.

As with any progression, there are evolving tactics – environmental, social, and behavioral — for corporate America to consider as it looks to impact both business and individual success.

Attraction and retention remain key challenges for businesses, pushing employers to create flexible, convenient and collaborative environments that support employee well-being. DLR Group Studio in Denver by DLR Group. Photo by Ed LaCasse.
  • Focus on Talent. As the composition of the workforce continues to evolve, attraction and retention will remain a key challenge facing businesses. In most industries, there’s longer-term anticipation of worker shortage. This unrelenting competition for talent necessitates that organizations provide an overall work experience. Beautiful workplace environments or a robust amenity package are not enough to achieve this goal – employers and their offices alike must support flexibility, convenience, collaboration, and overall well-being.
  • Overall Flexibility. Studies have shown that employees are motivated to do their best work when they have flexibility over when, where, and how they work. This means companies that offer flexibility in schedules, benefits, and work venues will have greater appeal in the eyes of a growing majority of workers. Work, by nature, involves differing personalities, work styles, and different modes of concentration and interaction. Providing variety in work spaces within the office that offer employees choice – a quiet spot to get away, a social setting to integrate with colleagues, a variety of meeting spaces that encourage collaboration, activity-based work, and knowledge sharing – caters to diversity in job tasks and workstyle in both assigned and unassigned environments.
  • Advanced Technology. Working anywhere requires superior technological infrastructure. In-office equipment that supports streamlined video conferencing and live interactive working sessions, up-to-date mobile tools, easy remote access, and cybersecurity protocol are all expectations. Companies continuously investing in the latest and greatest will receive high marks in a workforce growing in technological aptitude.
Companies that invest in and embrace advanced technology will receive high marks with an increasingly high-tech workforce. Center for Advanced Professional Studies in Overland Park, Kansas by DLR Group. Photo by Michael Robinson.
  • Emphasizing Well-Being. In recent years, there’s been a rise in the focus on health and wellness, including the role of corporate participation in supporting this pursuit. There are several certification programs such as WELL and Fitwel® that guide business leaders on how best to encourage a healthier culture around fitness, activity, eating, healthcare, stress, and overall mind and body wellness. Investments in environmental enhancements such as ergonomics, daylight, indoor air quality, and acoustics have shown an impact on overall employee performance and well-being, as do the choice and variety in work venues mentioned above. In fact, when employees get time to take a break, they are shown to be more productive, creative, healthier, and take fewer sick days. From a benefits standpoint, vacation allotment, flex-time, and sabbaticals are becoming a factor in long-term recruitment.
Leading companies continue to place employee health and well-being at the forefront of decision-making, whether it’s selecting real estate based on a building’s wellness amenities, seeking out third party certifications, or including bike racks within the office environment. Publicis Hawkeye in Dallas by DLR Group. Photo by Alayna MacPherson.
  • Investing in Culture. Creating a cohesive office culture can be challenging, particularly for employees entrenched in electronic communication, or who are infrequently in the office, or for departments whose roles are highly focused. To create a cohesive and positive company culture, organizations can encourage interaction and face time by incorporating “destination zones” within an office environment that encourages planned and serendipitous encounters. These venues may be at key intersections, occupy the best views, serve the best beverages, incorporate recreation, or provide greater variety in furnishings. For those in the office less frequently, leaders can consider tactics such as set dates for department meetings or specifying days where all mobile workers are in the office, thereby shifting the focus to the quality versus the quantity of personal interactions. For mobile or unassigned workers who are not able to personalize their own space within the office, companies might consider areas for employee highlights and recognition.

Bigger picture, small and large gatherings, educational opportunities, community service functions, and open communication all come together to build and reinforce culture. Each company’s characteristics – the level of formality, the type of dress code, allowing office pets, provided snacks and beverages – vary by business and industry, yet all contribute to office culture. An “always-on” focus on employee engagement is essential for a diverse workforce.

Our shifting employee population is looking for more purpose, meaning, and balance in both their personal and work lives. As the makeup of the American workforce continues to evolve, flexibility and choice will continue to be a priority, driving employees to gravitate toward job opportunities that provide greater freedom of where to work, when to work, and the type of work they take on. In turn, employers will be provided access to a broad talent pool and the ability to hire specialized expertise for specific needs. For businesses to adapt to this shifting workforce paradigm, they must not lose sight of the big picture, nurturing both “me” and “we” within their organizations and their work environments.

Janice Linster, FASID, LEED AP
Janice Linster, FASID, LEED AP
Janice has focused her more than 30-year career on the design of interior environments. As a Principal and Design Leader, Janice guides client and project teams in articulating aspirations and inspiring the development of innovative design and strategy solutions.
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  1. This article is great. Technology has played a huge part in making today’s workforce what it is. Overcoming the challenges of the modern workforce will help employees perform to the best of their ability.


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