The Future Of The Workplace – Part 1: A Short Term View

The way we work is evolving, and so is the workplace itself

Offices are changing. New technology, the evolving business landscape and the demands of 21st century life are impacting the habits of workers and the kinds of tasks they are expected to complete. The physical space of most modern workplaces is also radically different to those of the past. Gone are the days of individual offices with names and job titles engraved on the door. Today, it’s all about open offices and collaborative working practices.

As technology has a greater impact upon the way we work and employees increasingly seek flexible ways of working, what is the future of the workplace, and are these changes necessarily for the best? In this two part series, D/SRUPTION looks at what we can expect from the future of work in both the short and long term. Part one focuses on the digital workplaces and flexible working practices emerging from current organisations.

A generation game

In the modern age, it is possible for organisations to be made up of several different generations of workers, from the youngest members of Generation Z all the way up to the Baby Boomers. Whilst diversity in business is something to be celebrated, having workers of different ages can result in a wide disparity of digital skills. This provides businesses with the significant challenge of unifying technology policies across the organisation. It is inevitable that some employees will struggle to get to grips with technology which others navigate with ease. Some older employees might still find it difficult to operate a smartphone, whilst younger generations of workers are likely to be tech savvy digital natives.

Together with this digital divide comes the inherently different working habits of members of different generations. Younger people – used to being constantly connected – tend to flit from one task to the next amongst a host of distractions from websites, music, digital gadgets and social media. This marks a significant diversion from more traditional working practices, where focus is maintained upon one task at a time in a largely tech free zone. When employees holding such conflicting preferences have to work together, especially in the same space, it is easy to see how difficulties can arise.

Flexibility is strength

Improvements to technology – and to modes of communication in particular – have meant that it is increasingly viable for employees to adopt flexible working methods, spending time away from the office and working in ways to suit them. Telecoms company Powwownow found in a recent survey that 70 per cent of workers found jobs with flexible working possibilities more attractive. What’s more, 50 per cent believed that working away from the office would make them more motivated and more productive. This raises the question of whether or not it is necessary for members of an organisation to be in the office at the same time.

On the one hand, it has always been clear that hours spent at a desk doesn’t necessarily equate with levels of productive output. Sitting at a desk from nine to five is a waste of time if you don’t have enough work to do during that period, or if you are simply not productive during those hours. Offering employees flexible working options can not only help them to work more efficiently, but it also grants them a level of personal responsibility for getting their work done on their own terms. This signals a level of trust on the part of management that workers don’t need close supervision to complete their tasks. More responsible, happy and productive employees can only be good news for business.

This being said, permitting employees to work away from the office can have its downsides. Even if workers stay in touch with other members of the organisation digitally, this can never adequately replace face to face contact. More communication doesn’t always mean better communication, and working in the same physical space is important not only to monitor employee productivity but to also keep track of their motivation and wellbeing. This means that flexible working is only a viable option up to a point. The negative aspects of communicating with employees remotely will ensure that the collective office space will never become obsolete.

Feeling good, working well

The physical space of the office is increasingly being adapted to suit new working philosophies. The offices of the future are being designed around the principles of flexible working and collaboration, to support the various needs of employees and to foster innovation. Encouraging employees to work flexibly away from the office can have a negative impact on cooperation and networking, so office architects need to make sure that these features are maximised when workers are in the same physical space. A move towards more relaxed and open workplaces is embodied by Dropbox’s new office in Sydney, Australia, which was expressly designed to feel like a home. Where spaces are mostly open plan, the importance of silent areas is being recognised to counteract productivity issues in open plan offices. It all comes down to providing employees with options: spaces to socialise and relax, spaces to work collaboratively, and spaces to concentrate properly on individual tasks.

The future of the workplace will be defined by a complex intersection of different factors, but will be heavily influenced by the varying needs of employees. Balancing employee requirements with business objectives constitutes a significant challenge, which – if realised – can ensure that the workplace becomes a more fulfilling and productive place for us all. However, the most disruptive forces to act on the workplace are likely to come from innovations in AI, robotics and automation. In the long term, this will result in working cultures which are unrecognisable from those of the past. Follow part two of this article to find out more…

What is your business’s policy on flexible working? Are there any significant constraints on developing the workplace of the future? How can businesses support individual working preferences whilst pursuing common overall objectives? Share your thoughts and ideas.

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