The Next Workplace to Bring People Together

WDM’s Bob Fox shares how to create a workplace that supports our individual lifestyles. 

Studio at Rock Center – Image by Workthere

This article was inspired by leading workplace thought leader and friend Ryan Anderson, VP of Global Research & Insights at Herman Miller, who recently posted a CNBC article on LinkedIn titled CEOs are at their wits’ end — they don’t know how to get their employees back in. It started as a response to his post and grew into something much more. Ryan and I have had a few great discussions over a drink or two about workplace issues and I wish we were able to discuss this in-person because it’s a deep, messy, complex multi-dimensional problem.

The only thing that we know about the future is that it will be different.

Peter Drucker

Let me be clear, we are talking about the office and the type of work that we traditionally did in the office, but since the pandemic we now work from multiple locations, including our homes. The type of work that technology supports and enables and where we have remained productive. There are many jobs where the workforce has no choice but to show up and be present. This is not about those workplaces.

The Problem

I’ve been perplexed, people are going out to concerts, sports games, bars, and other densely packed venues, but not to the office. When you think about it, with all the necessary precautions, the office is one of the safest places to be.

The numbers show people are slow to return. Nationally, 30% of people are back in the office at some point during the week, in San Francisco its about 20%. If you just look at Mondays and Fridays, it’s less than 10%. It’s starting to become clear that there is a larger underlying issue that we don’t fully grasp – a misalignment of people, work, the workplace, and the company.

People matter and the design of the workplace is about people, our wellbeing and our mental health. We are designing spaces to make things safe, more attractive, comfortable, and flexible. As Adam Grant notes the shift occurring has more to do with us aligning our lifestyles and our personal choices are starting to dominate the shift in our priorities.

Convene Terrell Place – Image by Fox Architects

People and their talent are critical to an organization’s success. Every organization, in every market is challenged by finding good talent. The workplace has always been central to attracting and supporting that talent and while a few organizations disconnected that premise during the pandemic; a part of the workplace is central to an organization that embodies and communicates, the vision, culture, values, purpose, and mission of that collective group of people.

What the pandemic has revealed is that way that we work, the tools that we use, the interactions that occur and the support required have changed. There is a fundamental disruptive shift that is occurring, and the workplace needs to adapt. We need to think about our workplaces differently.

Few of us are ever criticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be our measure of success. There’s likely a place in paradise for people who have tried hard, but what really matters is succeeding. If that requires you to change, that’s your mission.

General Stanley McCrystal

The Search for Real Value & Performance

Organizations need to consider what the fundamental purpose of the office is for their organizations. The answer to that will be different for each organization. Each work environment must be tuned for optimum performance, with the right tools, types of support and infrastructure, service, and technology. The metrics for each organization are different.

We are in a period of realigning work, technology our workplaces and our lives. Traditionally the office has been driven by cost and efficiency, maximizing the number of people in the least amount of space, it was more about a real estate deal and managing overhead expense, but that doesn’t work anymore, the ground has shifted, and the game has changed.

Image via CNN

Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is?

To try and better explain, The 9-5 5-day 40-hour week is an outdated Tayloristic management concept that is inconsistent with our technology and how we work. We take it as a given and apply it across the board, it is agnostic to the market, industry, profession, company, teams, and organizations. How does a 40 hour week apply to the work that you do – It doesn’t.

The pandemic has shown that for the most part, we can work when and where we want, take care of life’s tasks, and remain productive. Many of us are dealing with national or international relationships that cross multiple time zones, further skewing our work time.

We need to be together to perform some of our work. This is not a diatribe to support remote work, which is the antithesis of what I am describing. As we emerge from the pandemic, most organizations are faced with trying to figure out who is coming back and when are they coming back; still thinking in terms of a 40-hour work week. We live in a complex world that extends to many different levels, we are rebalancing our priorities.

There are two types of interaction, scheduled and spontaneous. Most activities are scheduled. Training, learning, exchanging ideas, sharing stories, creative problem solving, and innovation are critical to a healthy growing and profitable organization and a physical presence is still required for maximum performance. Part of the question becomes, how often we are actually interacting in those capacities during the week and when do those activities need to occur?

Spontaneous interaction is valuable and also needs to occur, this is the unscheduled time or time with no specific agenda, it includes social interaction, bonding, and getting to know your coworkers, sharing stories and discussing urgent issues that arise on short notice. Some of that time can be scheduled or it can be serendipitous time moving between other meetings or locations.

Unscheduled serendipitous time requires a place – a central place that actually attracts and incentivizes people to be there. A place that we like to be and supports all aspects of our lives. It should be the default location for those in-between scheduled interactive times. Much like the town square or Main Street or a coffee shop might be. A multi-dimensional place that supports people and our lives as much as the organization. But it is also a place where we can go to see our friends, hear about their weekends and learn about what’s going on.

Image by Raleigh Magazine

Where Do You Do Your Best Work?

That was about time, now let’s think about location – another dimension and part of the puzzle – often included is remote work. Where you work will depend on what you are doing. Chances are you will go to the place that is most convenient, and best supports the work that you are doing, with the best tools and the least distraction. The pandemic opened the door and offered many of us the freedom to choose better places. Our options look quite different.

The combination and flexibility of time and location is now the Hybrid office. We have more options and choices for when and where we do our work. It should provide for a broad array of needs for different types of work .

So what’s wrong with the office?

What’s the Problem that the Office Solves?

If you only have a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow

Let’s add another dimension to the conversation – our tools. In 2007 the iPhone (only one example) set a new standard as a tool that we use. It is ubiquitous, we all have one, they fit in our pocket, are intuitive, collect data, store our data and information, make it easy to share and can find the answer to any question that we might ask. It is infinitely customizable and nuanced with apps for what each individual wants or needs. It can be set up so that we can control it and we can choose how to use it. They come in many sizes, performance models and forms such as iPads, surfaces, laptops, watches, etc. Last but not least, we can use it anywhere! It is easy!

One important aspect of a tool like the iPhone is that it is a tool we all use for virtually everything we do – not just our work. The iPhone and the corresponding apps successfully integrates who we are, what we do, our family, friends, co-workers and clients.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

With all that freedom of customization, convenience, choice, personal preference, flexibility, and individualization therein lies the problem when we now look at the workplace. The workplace needs to support that same level of service. The Pandemic has given us a taste of how we can live and exposed the limitations of our workplaces policies and health issues that surround the way we work.

Nikil Saval in his book “Cubed”, underscores the Tayloristic bureaucracy and hierarchy that was created with the purpose of improving efficiency and the need for office space grew as a result of managing production. This was before we had modern tools and labor was cheap, the work was repetitive and mundane.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently, what shouldn’t be done at all.

Peter Drucker

Today’s work is much different and continues to evolve. Technology eliminated the mundane and repetitive tasks, now our work is much more creative, requires interaction and is focused on problem solving. There is lots of technology and tools. We are trying to solve more contemporary and much more complex problems.

Our work environments, if they are to remain valuable, have little choice but to follow suit and align themselves to support the same level of service, customization, choice, personal preference, flexibility, individualization and everything about who we are. Otherwise the workplace will become further separated and outdated. The office is only a part of a set of tools that we now use.

We often think about the work environment in traditional terms as the office and if the workplace creates friction or is not aligned with the tools the workplace will continue to suffer and hinder our ability to perform. Convenience matters. The office environment, as we think about it today, does not support, nor will it enable the individual to achieve the same degree of individualization, nuance and service.

Image via MarketWatch

Compare the experience of the iPhone and other technology to the experience of the workplace. What is happening now is that people are creating their own versions of the workplace an eco-system of workspaces, analogous to the iPhone. They are working where they want, when they want, how they want. There is a reason they are not coming back to the offices like they are to other venues. They still need space to work, meet and interact.

We need to pay attention and look closely at how people are working. What are the tools they are using? What type of support do they need and what services enhance how they perform. We need to expand our definition of the work environment and break down the outdated management concepts that were used to drive machine like assembly line productivity. Today, our economy is much more fluid and depends on creativity and our ability to innovate and grow. That can often be a messy process.

We all need a place to work, but the way that we use the office has changed and each organization needs to look at how they are using the office and decide how to make it a valuable high performing tool that serves the purpose and mission of the collective individuals that make up the organization and contributes to the ecosystem of their work environment.

If your work environment doesn’t meet that standard, you have wasted money on an anchor inhibiting performance.

Ask yourself the question: Is your workplace using and supporting the most effective tools? Or is it stuck trying to conform to outdated management concepts that do not support your purpose or mission? Your talent already knows the answer.

Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical and it is becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together.

Walter Isaacson

Start with the purpose, mission and vision of your organization and the strategic goals. Your workspace is the the environment necessary to support the training, communication, activities and interactions that are critical to achieve your organizational goals. This should clearly define the fundamental purpose of a valuable tool to accomplish those aspirations.

Then look at the various types of work required and how that work is supported, that includes everything from the furniture, lights, HVAC, and other tools like technology to transportation and parking. Eliminate any friction or inconveniences that hinder, or distract people. There should be nothing that interferes with them doing their jobs.

Photo credit L.L. Bean

Then there are services that your people need to improve the quality of their lives. These are the amenities and services that ad to social interaction, food, health and well being, shopping and added conveniences. Don’t confuse these with simply providing food and entertainment in the office – These should be focused on improving peoples’ lives, comfort and performance related to your goals. Its the wow!

Your talent needs to interact with others to share their ideas; they want to achieve your goals and be part of a successful team. They want to be treated as respected professionals and learn, grow and be exposed to new opportunities.

And finally, most important, is that it must accommodate our lives with all of the nuance that makes us human and who we are as individuals. That is where we will do our best work.

Provide the right environment for your team and they will show up and succeed.

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