The office is dead long live the office

Broken office chair shown in grey scale on a bright pink background.

Just 3 months ago the office was a bustling hive of activity. In offices around the world printers and photocopiers clicked and clunked whilst employees sat at row after row of hotdesks, tapping away on banks of uniformly arranged workstations. The glass goldfish bowls which often occupied the corners of these large open plan spaces hosted meeting after meeting as small groups of employees who had managed to escape the gravitational pull of their hotdesk enjoyed a temporary release by chatting about the weekend, weather or latest Netflix boxset whilst standing around bubbling water coolers, boiling kettles and pinging microwaves. But one day in the spring of 2020, all of that changed quite suddenly and with little warning. On the evening of March 23rd, office workers in the UK decamped. Just 12 hours later, as the same water coolers bubbled and automatic doors primed themselves for the 08:30 onslaught, no one came. Once a bustling hive of activity, offices were now eerily quiescent; the scattered artefacts left on desks suggesting that the exodus had not been meticulously planned. At the same time throughout the UK, millions of employees were waking up to the first day of a new routine, their morning commute replaced by mass participation exercise and the sudden realisation that they were going to have to try to fit in a full day’s work alongside caring duties and homeschooling.

Over the past three months, everyday life has been abruptly turned upside down and inside out. But from those first unfamiliar and uncertain days, we have come a long way. Under the most adverse of circumstances, we have done something inherently British and pulled together, hunkered down and got on with it. In lots of cases, the impossible has been proved possible; organisations have pivoted their service offers, often doing over a number of weeks what would have taken months or even years to achieve in the ‘old world’. One of my favourite articulations of this came from an NHS General Practitioner who shared his thoughts on — “I did my first GP virtual Nursing Home ward round yesterday and it went well. This time last week I had never done a video consultation before. When CoronaVirus is all over we will reflect on how we have achieved 20 years worth of NHS transformation in only 6 months.”

With offices and other shared spaces now posing a health risk, employers are understandably starting to rethink the way in which their organisations do work and the spaces their workforces have to work within. With the majority of workforces currently working remotely, It feels unlikely that things will ever return to exactly the way they were. The way we work, and the office, in particular, will rapidly evolve as employers make sense of what they have learned over the past three months. But before the rush to change, it is worth reflecting on the history of the office and the evolutionary steps that have got us to where we were at the start of 2020. Whilst the old office may have been stuck in its ways, we shouldn’t take for granted that everything about it was bad, nor should we imagine that everything about the last 3 months has been good.

In the 18th Century, the emergence of large bureaucracies like the East India Company changed the way people worked, bringing them out of their homes and coffee shops into grandiose offices designed as much to showcase wealth and prosperity as spaces to administer business. This came with some benefits for the employers. For the first time, employers could closely monitor their workforce, introducing measures to keep their employees in the office and accounted for and in doing so pathed the way for presenteeism. For the next two hundred years, the office evolved alongside the world’s economies. As organisations grew in number and size, so too did the office space they occupied. In the early half of the 20th Century the way offices were designed started to change and by the 1980s whilst the open-plan office of the 1940s/50s prevailed, technology was starting to change the type of work that employees were occupied with. But, despite the technological advances of the 20th Century, arguably the working culture at the beginning of 2020 remained much the same as it was for those first office workers almost three centuries earlier.

It has taken a global pandemic to kickstart this latest workplace revolution. However, the enforced home working that we are all currently experiencing is quite different to ‘remote working’ for which there is currently much excitement. True remote working affords employees agency over when, where and how they choose to work. Right now, under lockdown conditions, working at home isn’t that flexible. However, the events of the past few months have afforded organisations around the world the opportunity to test technology that in many cases had already been invested in but never previously used to its full potential. If this global experiment has taught us one thing it is that on the whole, the technology works but in most cases, it’s actually corporate culture that is struggling to keep up.

Employers are now faced with a huge opportunity to reflect on their hastily and dynamically implemented lockdown strategies in order to design new strategies and policies to guide novel ways of working which will result in a step-change in the evolution of the office as we move forward. It is, therefore, important that as we make plans to emerge from lockdown we also ensure that the new normal is well designed. This means, considering what is desirable, feasible and viable whilst always maintaining a focus on outcomes and the overall impact of any change on customer experience:

  • The needs and wants or all stakeholders;
  • What the organisation can do to support this;
  • How changes will impact on both staff and customers and therefore the performance of the business as a whole.

6 Considerations for designing a new workplace strategy

These considerations can help inform new workplace strategies whilst also helping to ensure that the changes that organisations make are considered and well designed. You don’t need to have all of the answers at the beginning; it is OK to start with ‘just enough’ insight and validate your hunches through an iterative process of prototyping and testing. Inertia is innovation kryptonite so the important thing is to make a start by using the insight you will have already uncovered over the past 3 months of working under lockdown.

1.Agility

Working under lockdown has proved that most roles that were previously thought of as fixed can be done remotely. It is, therefore, important to resist the temptation to default back to categorising individual roles or teams as fixed office workers. In the new world fixed is simply a mindset. Given the right support, most office work can be done remotely. However, in order to ensure that as you move out of ‘enforced’ remote working your new workplace strategy is sustainable outside of lockdown, consideration must be given to three key areas:

  • Communication: Are there robust communication channels in place to enable remote workers to feel connected to their teams, colleagues and the organisation as a whole, whilst also ensuring that they have space, time and trust to get on with their work without constant interruption or the risk of Zoom fatigue?
  • Collaboration: What mechanisms are in place to enable employees to collaborate efficiently without software hangups or other blockers?
  • Coordination: Do your employees understand the expectations being placed upon them when working remotely? Are you as an employer clear on what you expect from your employees in terms of required actions, availability and working hours?

2. Trust

Whilst technology is often the focus of any remote working policy, it is actually the workplace culture that makes the difference between thriving and surviving. Remote working is only possible if the technology is available alongside a trust-based culture. Organisations must, therefore, ensure that as well as having the technology to work from anywhere, employees must also feel confident and trusted to work without constantly having to check-in, or feeling like leaders are breathing down their necks. Managing the odd working from home day for some members of a team is entirely different from managing remote working for an entire team, so the challenge for employers is how to ensure that remote managers can understand what employees are working on and how remote employees can highlight what they are working on without entering into overly bureaucratic admin processes. It will be difficult for leaders used to being physically present to become more agile as their teams disperse and the traditional 9 to 5 disappears. It is, therefore, more important than ever to ensure that leaders and employees are able to set clear expectations and manage workloads in order to ensure that those expectations are met without resorting to micromanagement. It’s important to keep in mind that productivity is not about doing more or being present at a desk from 9 to 5, it’s about working smarter.

3. Empathy

Whilst it might currently feel like the whole world is excited about working differently that doesn’t necessarily mean that every person has a cohesive vision of what that looks like. Not all employees will be thriving whilst working remotely and not all customers will feel that they have received the level of service they would like to have had under business as usual. It is important to have empathy for all stakeholders by engaging with them in order to understand their individual needs. These might be support to equip a home office or dedicated space to work, flexible hours to fit around childcare or training to develop new skills required to work remotely.

Consider asking yourself: How might we ensure that our principles and policies are designed from the ground up and are inclusive of the needs of all employees whilst also being feasible and viable from a business point of view?

4. Serendipity

The popularisation of platforms such as Zoom has often meant that whilst being physically distant, teams have been more social than usual under lockdown. Whilst it is relatively easy to set up a regular social event such as a Zoom based team quiz or using Skype to sing Happy Birthday to a colleague, it’s the unstructured, unplanned and unorganised social interactions that take place during a walk down a corridor, whilst stood at the drinks machine or when sat having lunch in a communal area that is missing. Organisations require serendipity to build relationships and to innovate, so alongside the structured social activity, it is important that employers find ways to recreate some of this happenstance when teams are distributed.

Consider asking yourself: How might we create space for serendipity within remote working communities?

Consider asking yourself: How might we use our office space to do what can’t be as easily done at home or elsewhere?

5.Communication

If lockdown taught us one thing in terms of the way we work it is that people always find a way. Without formal communication channels in place employees will find informal or unofficial ways to stay in touch with each other. It is, therefore, important to embrace this by balancing the provision of official channels and supporting the use of unofficial channels. Technological developments outside of organisations move faster than the adoption of technologies within them. There will always be a new app that will trump what you put in place internally. The key is to provide the principles and policies to guide the safe use of both and keep the use of unofficial channels in the open.

Over the past 3 months, it is likely that your employees’ perceptions of what does and doesn’t have to be done in person or face-to-face will have changed. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that those perceptions are correct. It is, therefore, important to understand what stakeholders value and design delightful experiences around those values, rather than defaulting back to how things have always been done or scaling up what you ‘think’ is currently working.

Consider asking yourself: How might we ensure that colleagues who work remotely are able to feel connected to their team and the wider business?

Consider asking yourself: How might we ensure that the technology we provide meets the requirements of the employees who will be using it?

6.Wellbeing

Whilst the old ways of working may not have been perfect they were at least familiar. Lockdown has shattered any separation between work-life and home-life and as we move forward and employees regain more choice over how they spend their downtime, it is important to keep in mind that ‘flexible working’ means different things to different people. For some, the commute or time in the office was an essential part of life that has been severely missing for the past 3 months, for others not having to spend time travelling or sitting in an office has provided freedom. In terms of employee wellbeing it is, therefore, important to think about two key factors; supporting the balance between work-life and home/family-life and mitigating the loss of human contact for those working remotely.

Whilst the old idea of an office might prove to be dead, we are unlikely to see the mass abandonment of the skyscraping cathedrals of power and success just yet. However, we will undoubtedly see a reduction in corporate office space. To be sustainable the space that remains will need to be quite different to what it was before, providing employers and employees with something they are unable to get from their homes, coffee shop, park bench or anywhere else with laptop or smartphone connectivity. Employers will need to reconfigure and reinterpret spaces to capitalise on human contact, to foster serendipity and grow novel ideas by facilitating overheard conversations that prompt discussion. The corporate office of the future will be a catalyst for ideas, but not somewhere to plan and oversee their execution.

If you aren’t currently looking at the way you work, why not? If you think your workforce can’t work remotely, I would suggest that you take another look. As Paul Taylor said in his recent post, to go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before would be a collective failure. The global pandemic of 2019/20 has the power to influence the way we work in the same way that bureaucracies like the East India Company did back in the 18th Century. If we want any chance of helping to shape that in our own organisations, we must act now.

Originally published at http://simonpenny.wordpress.com on May 27, 2020.

Human-centred designer | Innovation @Citizen_Housing. Formerly led design @BromfordLab, Local Gov & NHS. Founder @CheekyGuerrilla & @GSJShrewsbury.