As the owner and founder of The Big Picture People, obviously I am interested in workplaces, changes in working practices and the challenges involved in engaging workforces. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the future of the workplace, with many pundits saying we can do without it. I have to say, I disagree. I had a fascinating chat recently with Tracy Brower about the future of the workplace and why it is still an essential part of our lives. You can listen to the full interview on our podcast. Tracy is currently a Principal at Steelcase, an organisation leading the way in designing better workplaces. Her background includes working for some of the world’s best-known organisations, such as Mars. She is also a contributing writer at Forbes.com and the author of numerous publications aiming to improve the world of work. Her latest article on Forbes explains “Why The Office Simply Cannot Go Away“
Is the future of the workplace in doubt?
Whether we like it or not, a great many of us have been pushed out of the workplace and made to work from home in recent months. And just when we thought we’d turned a corner and could go back to the office, we’ve been sent home again. During this time, I’m sure you’ve seen and heard a great many commentators saying that we can be just as effective working from home. Maybe we don’t really need to go into a workplace at all. Is this really true?
The future of the workplace may be very different
Of course it isn’t. It does seem certain that the way we work is going through a profound change. We will, undoubtedly, expand our ecosystem of working spaces to include our homes and smaller hubs. We may think we have a better work life balance because we spend less dead time commuting, but the workplace is still a critical part of the overall experience of work. A workplace has something very important to offer. It is a place that can help foster talent, engagement, innovation and personal wellbeing.
It is ironic that I should be saying this. I’ve worked at home for 15 years – but when I work with my clients, I can really see the difference that physical workplaces make to them, their workforce and their organisational culture. After a few months of being out of the workplace, we are already seeing the chronic effects of desocialisation. It’s a bit like living indoors for a long time. At some point, the lack of Vitamin D will start to affect your health. The workplace is that Vitamin D. It gives a boost to our energy, our mood and our sense of self worth.
What can we get from a workplace that we can’t get online?
What is the secret sauce? The magic ingredient that we cannot replicate in an online relationship within a team? It’s true that we can do so much from home now. We can shop, eat, exercise, learn and work at home. Technology allows us to meet up virtually with friends, family, colleagues and clients. However, I’m sure you will agree that the overall experience is not the same. Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. We miss so much when we work in isolation. As human beings, we crave variety. Neurologically, we need stimulation. We need people. Work is a really important place for this because we thrive on face-to-face communication, coming together, sharing ideas and experiences (even just a chat by the coffee machine about last night’s TV). Work is a social experience. Human nature needs that socialisation and suffers without it. The future of the workplace is vital to our wellbeing.
A sense of reward. A sense of belonging
In a workplace, we come together, we form communities, we understand ourselves in relation to others, and our role within the group. We feel we are making a contribution and understand how our work impacts on those around us. We have a greater sense of purpose when we are in a community with others. It’s something we have said many times before – the workplace strengthens our sense of belonging. I would expect clear extroverts to struggle with their enforced isolation but Tracy pointed out that even committed introverts need the opportunity to interact and share with other people. Someone said to her recently that one of the things they get out of work is relationships and feeling connected in a meaningful way. They are missing that sense of reward. We are better when the workplace is part of a holistic work experience, in addition to working from home. Workplaces play a critical role in our society, our communities and our lives.
Work life balance
I touched briefly on work life balance earlier. You would think that working from home would be a brilliant solution, but that is proving not to be the case. For so long, the work/life literature has focused on leaving work at work, having that distance. Now, we’re hearing desperate pleas for space and distance away from home. It is far more difficult to switch off at the end of your day when work is still staring you in the face, but it’s important to maintain that work/life boundary. A workplace helps to do that. And now that we’ve seen how all-consuming work can become when it’s at home 24/7, we are finally starting to have more respect for the division between the two.
A mental health time bomb
Since the first wave of lockdown, we have started to see a significant increase in mental health issues. The longer people work from home, the more socially isolated they feel. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management showed recently that almost two thirds of companies are struggling with staff morale. People working from home are hitting a wall. The fatigue of always being online, relying on technology to connect with others, is having serious side effects.
Cognitive dissonance / Limbic resonance
Not as complicated as it sounds, thankfully. Tracy explained that working alone at home, constantly focused on a screen with no real human interaction, means that we don’t remember things as well as we normally would. We don’t cement our learning. That’s cognitive dissonance. As humans, our instinct is to connect with others. A neurological process called limbic resonance means that, subconsciously, we want to sync with those around us. We echo their body language, their facial expressions, we laugh together, even yawn together. In the real world, we read micro-expressions and gain a lot from non-verbal sources. On screen, we miss all those vital signs and nuances. Being in a workplace with our colleagues gives us a much better insight into their ideas, mood and emotions than we can ever hope to get online.
The future of the workplace
So what does the future hold for our workplaces? In a post-Covid world, forward-thinking organisations will have to change the way they expect their staff to work. Unless employees have to be on the premises every minute of their working day, many may well elect to work from home at least part of the time. They have proved they can do it throughout lockdown, and the lack of commute can certainly help with work life balance and productivity. But there is still so much to be gained from gathering together with colleagues in the workplace. The benefits of socialisation cannot be underestimated, not only in terms of mental wellbeing but also for business outcomes. The workplace can not, and should not, simply go away.
My thanks to Tracy Broward for her very valuable insight and for sharing her knowledge of people, workplaces and limbic resonance. It’s been truly eye-opening.