Designing the workplace for your future

Burke Turner

We’ve all seen the photos of beanbags, foosball tables, swings, slides, and snooze pods, set between new-age open plan designs (wooden benches and picnic tables replacing cubicles) but is that the answer to building the workplace of the future? Make sure your interior designer is wearing fashionable jeans and sneakers?

Not being the best dressed dinosaur at the mall.

Open plan (and more recently flexible working) are entering vogue with big corporate, but often for the wrong reasons. Remembering that these approaches scream cost savings, that is often the first mistake. You don’t see many startups operating with rigid working and separate offices, after all, they don’t have the money to be that inefficient. Of course it is cheaper, but if it were that effective, why are so many struggling to see real results when updating their office?

Startups don't have the money to be as inefficient as big co.

In a form of corporation ‘reverse mentoring’ it’s the agile and lean disruptors that are influencing the incumbent. Even the more traditional world of finance is beginning to appreciate that, as both employees and customers change, those more rigid approaches to workplace culture need to learn to relax (such as dress codes that include heel heights and mandatory socks for men). A dinosaur is an awesome creature, but appears instantly out of date stood at the shopping mall. Look at your workplace next time you arrive, how does it make you feel? Is it exciting? Energising? Creating the opportunity for great things to happen?

Amidst the melee of ideas it is important to truly consider your objective. People are changing, work is changing, and therefore the environment in which we work needs to adapt. If cost is dictating your investigation of modern ways of working, you need to take care. Decisions made on cost reduction purposes can be very expensive in the mid to long term.

What’s your objective?

To unlock the next phase of productivity your objective’s need to be hinged upon collaboration and efficiency. If it doesn’t enable collaboration and create efficiencies, you are missing out. We have not had a major bump in productivity since the 1970’s, (read more about the Solow paradox via this interesting Economist piece) despite Moore’s law, leaps in global communications infrastructure, and an ‘always-on’ psychology with regards to work and life. Technology is simply not delivering productivity commensurate to the investment. Add open plan and flexible working to a long list of broken promises unless you are careful.

The working environment needs to evolve to become the tangible manifestation of a people strategy that inspires and unlocks routes to sustainable corporate growth through collaboration and efficiency. It’s not about beanbags and free coffee; it’s trust, flexibility, creating the right environment to enable good people to collaborate and deliver great work, with a minimum of hurdles and barriers. With this in mind, open-plan and beanbags can become a question; what do our people need to deliver truly great work, and how do we want to influence the way our people interact and the interdepartmental working relationships that are formed within our organisation?

At a recent senior roundtable we convene, a delegate shared a story about the impact on departments after moving part of the company to another building. Where previously, each department was segmented by a floor each with it’s own kitchen, the new arrangement saw several departments move to a larger building with shared facilities. The interdepartmental interaction and subsequent exchange of ideas led to new initiatives and a more positive experience for many, having the chance to build relationships with their counterparts in other departments in the workplace. Tellingly (perhaps expectedly) the department that did not move building became further isolated and the work that depended on cross-department cooperation suffered.

It’s not rocket science.

Facilitate interaction and people will… interact. If marketing is not interacting with sales (bar the weekly reporting meeting) how could you possibly expect to compete with the hungry junior company in Shoreditch where the entire management team practically live together?

Relationships are built through time and exchange of information. Your workplace environment needs to facilitate human interaction, in a relevant and meaningful way according to the needs of your customers and employees.

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