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The Future Workplace: The role of the office, productivity and wellbeing

We recently staged a webinar featuring four of Europe’s most prominent and knowledgeable workplace experts to unpick the lessons we are learning about work in these extraordinary times and how we might apply them now and in the longer term.

360 Workplace's Co-Founder Aki Stamatis was joined by globally recognised speaker, advisor and writer on proptech and space-as-a-service, Antony Slumbers; publisher of Workplace Insight and IN Magazine, Mark Eltringham; and Karen Moran from Disruptive HR.

The conversation was understandably wide ranging but shaped around three important issues; the role of the workplace, productivity and wellbeing.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise to discover that engagement actually seems to have gone up since the crisis,” says Karen. “And I think a lot of the reason for this is that we placed a lot of emphasis about culture on the physical office. Whereas, actually, even though that's still important, what is most important is good leadership. We've seen through this crisis how leaders stepped up and really made a difference.”

Antony Slumbers agrees. “I think culture is much more to do with management style and attitude as well as the mindset of companies. I think the office is often a bit of a proxy for culture. We're all in the office so we must have some culture. When you act in a more distributed way, you actually have to communicate a lot more.”

“But the office is still really important and will become much more of a fun environment for innovation or social gatherings,” says Karen. “Rather than sterile desks and meeting rooms with no windows it will be a nice environment. So the people who prefer to be in the office from a culture perspective, if they like being around other people, then they have a choice.”

Mark then raised the question of the type of technology that firms are adopting, including the growing use of productivity apps that measure in real time people’s activities when working remotely.

“Well, I'm not going to sit on the fence here because companies that do that are evil”, says Antony. “I think it is a terrible thing. If you're in a company where your management measures your keystrokes then get out.”

“I always liked the definition of culture as what people do when you're not looking”, says Aki. “And therefore it's on the basis of you having to ask, ‘do you trust your people or do they have to earn that?’ If your business is a community, the office is the community centre to that and there is a social capital that's been built into it.”

Karen agrees that trust is key. “So many HR people for years have been saying, ‘we are desperate to move to more flexible working, but our managers just don't trust people’. They're really worried if they're working from home, they're not doing anything. Now I think that a lot of leaders have been forced into it and are now really embracing it.”

Karen then raised the issue of how firms are looking at a much lower utilisation of offices. “We’ve known for twenty or more years that offices have only been used at forty percent of their capacity,” says Mark. “It's interesting to see firms waking up to things like this now and they don't really have to shift as much as they think to work differently. They can give people the tools to use the office in a better way. It's not just about design. It's about how the office integrates with technology as well.  Therefore, people will know where their colleagues are and where they should sit if they want to communicate with them.”

“We have to assume that it's not going to be the same for everybody, so give people choices”, he continues. “The biggest problem people have always had with their working lives is the commute. So build a flexible culture that gives them the choice of their times and places of work, including local offices as well as home and a city centre HQ.”  

“Wellbeing is an important factor to consider when creating such distributed work cultures”, says Aki. “When it comes to the office we have to consider how it helps the human experience of being in the physical space. Why would we come to the office if it’s not good for us? It's going to be less about what colour the wall is and more about air quality. This is where the issues of productivity and wellbeing start tying together.”

“There’s some great tech already available that addresses such issues,” says Mark. “You have personalised tech that will allow people not only to find each other, but also find the right spaces for themselves. Some allow people to monitor and change lighting levels and so on depending on their preferences, and even some systems that will recognize individuals and adjust the environment automatically.”

“It is this kind of thing that is expanding the role other professions have in making decisions about the built environment”, says Karen. “I'm a big fan of Jacob Morgan, who talks about employee experience and its connection to three things - culture, workspace and technology. HR, IT, and workplace managers are coming together to say, how can we create the best environments for people to do their work?”

Mark raises the issue of firms’ obligations to their staff regardless of where they are working. “I think that’s a really interesting point we are beginning to face”, says Aki. “We design and construct workplaces, but when we think of a workplace, we’re not thinking of someone’s front room. The question is who is responsible for the work setting if people are choosing – or being asked - to work from home three days a week?”

“Switzerland recently passed a law that if you ask your staff to work from home, you have to pay a percentage of their mortgage or rent,” says Antony. “Should companies be paying for stuff at home? Absolutely they should. And the best ones are because they still want people to be productive.”

“I think it's about the leader, getting to know his or her team,” says Karen. “And they know them so well in terms of their health and wellbeing, that they know which member of the team suffers with anxiety before a presentation. They know that someone’s mum is not very well. They know enough that they can do the right thing.

“They can be that bit more empathetic, tell people to take a breather tomorrow, ask them to take a long weekend, ask if they need some help or see if the team can take some pressure off. Some people find it easy to go into their home office and switch off at the end of the day but for others it’s not like that.

“Sometimes in an office, it’s possible to abdicate those responsibilities to the facilities. But managers have to step up now. We’re all humans and it's actually really lovely to see those barriers come down. I think we've often chucked money at initiatives like gyms and massage and yoga but that’s all very parent-child and instead we should empower people to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. For some people that I'm working with who are desperate to get back to the office, their stress levels are higher because they're at home and that will probably release a little bit when they're able to be in the physical office again.”

As well as developing a new approach to empathy, Antony also believes the current lockdown will improve communication skills. “One of the interesting things about distributed teams is they write a lot. People say to themselves I've got to try harder to communicate with you and so we're getting skilled at understanding communication and empathy and the rest of these things.”

“I’ve seen a recent survey which looks at the most important leadership attributes for coming out of lockdown,” says Karen. “Unsurprisingly, they are things like trust, compassion, stability, hope and teamwork. We will focus much more on empathy and emotional intelligence. These will help us resolve so many of the problems we have at work. The genie really is out the bottle and it's not going back.”

“This will mean a continuation of the vital role of the office”, says Antony. “This is the space where you treat people like adults, where people can learn, can get support, can help, can mentor, can imagine and design. It’s a space designed for all this really high-quality stuff.”

“When you come to the office it will be with a sense of purpose,” says Aki. “That purpose will be to create and be part of a community. To enter the building with a sense of belonging to a culture.”

“We've known about this stuff for years and we understand the thinking behind it,” says Mark. “We understand how it works in practice. We’ve got all the research about productivity, wellbeing and the ideas that go with it. What's happening now though is more people are talking about them. We can go back twenty-five years and find early examples of this kind of conversation taking place. So all that is happening right now is that we are being forced in the space of a few weeks something that would have happened anyway.

“People have grown very fond of saying that this is an experiment. My view is that we won’t be able to process the results of that experiment for at least three years. By then the novelty, the upheaval and the Hawthorne effect will have passed and we’ll know things with a lot more certainty.”

“We don't need to go off and have a commission for two years to work it out,” says Antony. “We can do it now. It’s a positive future.”

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