The future of the workplace | S1 E15

First published: 15 September, 2020

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Series 1
Series 1
The future of the workplace | S1 E15

The future of the workplace

In this episode of Engaging Internal Comms, The Big Picture People’s Craig Smith talks about the future of the workplace with Tracy Brower who is an author, speaker and a work environment sociologist as well as Principal at Steelcase (a company leading the way in designing workplaces that allow people to deliver their full potential).

Tracy is a contributing writer at Forbes and Fast Company and the author of ‘Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organisations’.

The office is essential

Tracy is a huge believer in the workplace having something very important to offer us, something of a contrarian view in the middle of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to forecast working from home as being the way forward in the world of work. She wrote about this for Forbes, in an article titled, ‘Why the office simply cannot go away: the compelling case for the workplace’, in which she highlights the office as a place that is critical for:

  • Innovation
  • Humanity
  • Talent
  • Engagement
  • Wellbeing
  • Organisational culture

Craig uses the analogy of living indoors for a few months, but after a while the lack of vitamin D will start to affect your health. Working from home, the chronic effects of desocialisation eventually sink in – and there are many things we can’t do when we aren’t in the office.

In her Forbes article, Tracy sums this up when she says, “We can do so much from home – and do so relatively effectively and productively – but it’s just not ideal. We’re better when the office is part of our holistic work experience – in addition to working from home. The workplace had a place in our businesses, our society, our communities and our lives – a place we must maintain.

What do we get from working in an office?

We can do so much work from home,” says Tracy, “but we can’t do everything effectively.

Tracy eloquently describes how we crave variety and stimulation, saying that work is important also because of the way in which we “thrive on face-to-face relationships.” She concludes that work and the office are fundamentally social.

We all need time alone and time together – the workplace offers a space where we can be in community with others and feel that we are making positive contributions. The office is not simply critical for businesses, it is critical for people and communities. It also provides a way to delineate between work and home – a healthy boundary to separate professional and personal.

The office provides connection to others, something that many people have been missing during the lockdown. When teams work together, the individuals within them have a real line of sight of how their work impacts others. “Place has a role in individual, team, and organisational roles.

Why do we need an office space?

With so many tools and so much technology available to enable home working, the question may be, what is it that the office offers that we can’t simulate online?

Tracy notes that social isolation of working from home is producing mental health issues we didn’t realise existed. She cites a recent study that concludes 64% of companies are struggling with morale in terms of working from home. One of the reasons for this is that workers are always available, always online.

Tracy says that we also don’t remember as well when our work is compressed into one space – in front of a screen in our home office – and we struggle with cognitive dissonance.

The workplace is “kind of the body language of organisational culture,” says Tracy. “We understand how much does an organisation value collaboration? How do we work together? How do we show up together? How much does the organisation value our privacy or our opportunity to rejuvenate? In what ways is the organisation supporting our wellbeing? All of those cues are such an important part of our overall experience, and when we’re away from the office we don’t get those cues.

The office energises through shared experiences

In the workplace, we also get cues from people around us, causing us fatigue and to be less effective. Having things in common and the shared experience is extremely difficult to assimilate online. Being together cements a common sense of purpose and what we have in common with our colleagues and the organisation.

Being in the workplace allows us to hear what is going on. We run into people at the water cooler or in the lobby, and have conversations that enable us to stay in touch with what is happening. It is difficult to create that magic when staring into a camera and seeing a sea of faces.

Collateral damage of working from home

Tracy believes that there is more collateral damage to be tackled from the period of enforced working from home than organisations realise. While she knows that we will come out on the other side of the COVID-19 lockdown, she says, “In the moment, it’s really hard. I think engagement is something that is suffering. You see brain drain. People are more likely to have a side hustle when working from home. The more they have a side hustle, the more they are likely to go off and do that full time. People are more likely to be multitasking, so they are not as engaged.

I think we are moving less, which makes us less physically healthy. But we also know that movement is correlated with memory… so you literally don’t learn as much or remember as much when you’re not moving.

Tracy also describes how a lot of people have become worried about basic physiological security, and how this damages our creativity when we are in self-protective mode. Our perception of threat and the fear some people have are limiting potential.

What might be the future of the workplace?

The most significant reinvention of work in our experience,” is how Tracy describes what we may witness now. The opportunity is to create work experiences that we never realised possible, and make the workplace a destination where people really want to be. But there are many barriers to get there. Workplaces must be made safe and compelling.

The future of the workplace will depend upon rethinking the purpose that it needs to serve. We may find that some of our work is done at home, some in hub locations, and some at satellite locations. Organisations are likely to need to prioritise people’s need to focus, collaborate, learn, socialise, and rejuvenate.

Organisations may also need to give people a choice of where they do the work they need to do – and that could be individualised choice: people perform differently in different situations.

In the workplace, we are likely to be doing the things that we cannot do as well via technology – co-creating, shadowing colleagues, building communities, and so on.

The pandemic can be an accelerant toward great work experiences,” Tracy concludes.

Experience vs expectation

People will be more focused on values and purpose of an organisation, and how these align with their own. If their expectations are not met, they will be disappointed and more likely to become disengaged.

As we plan the workplace of the future, it will be necessary to create tools and space to help develop a sense of belonging. However, if you haven’t accounted for other elements, it won’t be successful. “So, top half of the circle,” says Tracy, “are things like process and culture. The takeaway message is you must take a holistic approach, paying attention to culture, and process, and tools, and space to have a successful work experience that in turn drives people’s beliefs, which in turn drives their behaviours, which in turn drives results.

Where do you start to create the workplace of the future?

Craig’s final question asked Tracy how she thinks organisations should start on the creation of their future workplace. She believes that leadership should envision their ideal future, figuring out where they are today and how to close the gaps between the now and the destination. It will be critical to get people onboard with the project. She discusses three steps:

  1. Start with business, and what to innovate and reinvent.
  2. Support new work processes that have changed.
  3. Develop the culture you wish to create and that connects to the work experience you wish people to have.

Within the conversation, Tracy uses an analogy of not being able to hear the birds chirping. When you listen to this episode, you’ll learn just how spot on that analogy is to the situation that many organisations have found themselves in.

Useful Links

Tracey’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tracybrowerphd/

Company website: https://www.steelcase.com/

TedTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hX9991PwbWI

Twitter handles: @TracyBrower108

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