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Mix Roundtable: Workplace transformation – what have we learnt in the last 10 years?

The basic ingredients of daily life have stayed (pretty much) the same for decades, in a way that our grandparents would no-doubt recognise.

15/06/2019 9 min read

Being born, educated and going to work…relatively little has changed – they’re just ‘dressed’ differently today. Aren’t they? Maybe not. Younger generations (together with advancements in technology, of course) continue to push the boundaries of how, where and when we work. Workplace designers are increasingly being f reed/challenged (depending upon how you want to look at it!) to create agile, flexible, functional space for a whole host of generations, personality types and changing roles. So what are we starting to see in workplace transformation that is so different, innovative and sustainable – and how has the past decade informed those decisions? 

We’ve gathered together a panel of industry experts – who have escaped the hustle and bustle of CDW for a couple of hours – at Workstories’ fantastic Northburgh Street showroom. We settle into the calm of the impressive boardroom and, despite the stream of visitors heading through the showspace, focussed on the job in hand. We begin by asking our panel to name something they take for granted today, that their parents or grandparents would not have experienced. 

Mike: Google Maps – how on earth did we cope without them? I can remember wandering around, never far from an A-Z! My family’s business was in the motor trade, and we used to sell a vast amount of A-Zs. I still have one in the car, to be honest.

Kristoff: The thing I take for granted the most are communications. I grew up with a rotary phone – if your finger slipped, you had to start all over again! I remember my mother being so excited when we got a touchtone phone. It blew her mind. Now I don’t know whether to look at my LinkedIn, email, text, WhatsApp, Slack…there are so many modes of communicating. It’s sped things up – but it’s definitely double-edged because you can’t really escape it. In saying that, it’s been great for us, as a start-up business, to be in touch with people across the world, instantly. 

Natalie: I was going to say Google Maps, but I also think that social media has changed things – being able to keep in contact with people over such a long period of time, in different countries and being able to maintain those relationships and friendships. 

Dieter: This is fairly topical! My folks were from small northern towns and I recently discovered that my mum was restricted from an education. They felt that women shouldn’t have an education and they stopped them from taking their exams – they locked them in to stop them! That was quite consistent in a lot of those small northern towns at the time.

Pernille: The thing we really take for granted now is good coffee!

Jamie: For me, it’s travel and the ability to book a flight and fly off anywhere at any time. Also, I now have all the information I need about where I’m going at my fingertips – rather than just booking something on Teletext!

Stefanie: The thing we all take for granted is simply consumer goods. My mum is Czech – she grew up in communist Czechoslovakia – and anything she wanted, she had to queue for. If she wanted shoes, for example, she would queue for them and hope that they still had some shoes. Today, you can order anything from the Internet – and can get it delivered within hours. As a result of this, I do think that this has made us extremely wasteful. 

Anna: I’d say food. We can now have any nationality’s food at any time. Everything is so much more international now.

Linzi: I think this relates to what a number of people here have been saying – instant gratification. It is a real challenge for all of us, because we’re so desperate to have everything on demand – we can’t imagine a time when we weren’t able to. I have a 16-year old son and it’s really challenging when he says, ‘I want this and I want it now!’ That consumerism has completely taken over – and I constantly bore him with stories of, ‘When I was growing up…’

What we’re learning is that, if you give people choice, there’s a lot more that they’ll put up with.

So, what have we really learned in the last 10 years? If anything…

Mike: I think there is a lot of push for change – from one side, into the other side. I’m still trying to work out does design change a business for business’ sake – because everybody I try to ‘inflict’ this upon complains. I ask myself whether we’re doing the right thing. I’ve spent the last couple of months explaining to my bosses what activity based working means. I then talked to an extremely intelligent workplace strategy person – and she qualified what I was talking about by pointing out that this was non-territorial activity based working and broke down the difference between the two. My head was spinning – and I simply thought, ‘Everybody’s just going to complain that they haven’t got their own bit of space’. I can see the business case for it. I can sit in front of the CFO and point out that I can probably save him upwards of $15 million a year across the portfolio – that makes perfect sense. Then I sit with business leaders and the people team, and they focus heavily on attraction, retention and keeping people happy – and they start to shake their heads. It makes me wonder exactly who I’m supposed to be looking after. Of course I have a responsibility to the business, but I’m also tasked with building and running workplaces that set us apart from the competition and attract and retain and excite the best talent in the business. There are days when I think the best way to do that would be to build a workplace where everyone has his or her own office in the building. We’d make such a big noise!

Kristoff: One of the things that is really interesting now is that it is really difficult to quantify how much productivity you have at your desk – because that is the place people know where to find you. You can put on headphones or put a little flag up to let people know that you are busy or doing focused work, it does not matter, people simply won’t adhere to that and will interrupt. If you are in a different type of space – we’re building a library right now, for example – and there is an architectural cue, a social contract in place that says you should be quiet, and left alone. So we’re creating lots of different types of spaces. The idea is that, yes, you do have a desk – but it will be considerably smaller than you had before, with fewer bells and whistles – but what you do have now is choice. What we’re learning is that, if you give people choice, there’s a lot more that they’ll put up with. They can go somewhere else – do something else. It’s a pretty remarkable thing that happens when people aren’t forced to stay in one place. 

Anna: We’re working with a bank right now and they have a mandate from their head office in the Middle East that the CEO and the directors will have offices – but the UK CEO does not want an office. He doesn’t want to be isolated. So, what we’ve done is to adapt his office into a meeting space and he also has a desk by his PA – where he’s going to sit.

Kristoff: That’s clever – well done!

Dieter: We have a big legal client in the South West who, as part of their USP in terms of recruiting, is that all the partners get their own office – and they now say that this has become a struggle to recruit younger people because they don’t want their own office. So, they’re now in the process of changing that.

If you’ve got someone at the head of the company who wants presenteeism and doesn’t want to trust people, you’re never going to change that company culture

Mike: I do think that we’re right at that moment where the people who are writing the cheques have got one idea and the guys we’re writing them for have got another idea. Our CEO was a great advocate of the ‘Yahoo’ concept – everyone should be in the office – until someone pointed out to him that the person who put that in place at Yahoo got fired and the company very nearly collapsed. Now my CEO is a brilliant man. He’s very old school and still doesn’t want to talk about culture – he wants to talk about money. 

Stefanie: We’re all looking at activity based working, new ways of working for the good of the people – but there is always the motivation to save money and save real estate for your clients. The natural progression, therefore, is to give people flexibility, to shrink things down and to make people get out of the office – and that requires trust. You can’t do any of what we want to do, moving forward, if people don’t continue to move forward in terms of trust. That’s the thing that I think has changed the most in the past 10 years – or 20 years, maybe. If you’ve got someone at the head of the company who wants presenteeism and doesn’t want to trust people, you’re never going to change that company culture. 

Anna: Offices don’t change – people tend to revert back to standard behaviour. We have to change the spaces they work in to adapt their behaviour – and that then develops the culture.

Linzi: I think this is a generational thing. I’ve noticed that, in our own office, the graduates starting work with us are much more open to working anywhere. They happily move away from their desk – everyone in our office does have a desk and there are a lot of other spaces where they can to work too – but they choose to move away. I wonder if this has got something to do with their educational establishments. As educational environments evolve and become more collaborative, students are less likely to do individual, focused work in the library – instead they are more likely to be team working with their fellow students. So I think that is breeding this different way of working. I wonder what kind of managers these younger ones will be?

Kristoff: ‘How dare you not have a resident DJ in the office?’ Haha.

Mike: I do think that the definition of privacy has changed – and this is aided by technology of course.

Stefanie: Do these younger people even know what privacy is in its real sense? They’ve never had it – they’ve never really been in a cellular environment!

Pernille: Trust is an interesting subject – and I think it really depends on the type of business you’re working with. We’re working with some lawyers, for example, who are still very traditional. They want everybody to be visible – they want everyone in the room. A lot of financial institutions are the same – they want everyone to have a desk and they want everyone to be visible – especially if they’re traders, of course.

Dieter: There’s definitely still a sense that lawyers want people in, so that they can mentor them and train them. 

Pernille: It does depend on the firm – and these are information-heavy sectors, who still like that privacy and confidentiality, even amongst colleagues.

Kristoff: There definitely is a shift happening right now. There’s a massive shift in storage requirements, for example. We’re never going to go paperless, but it is tailing off. People are doing signatures and contracts online – so that’s making a massive difference not just in terms of the footprint of the office, but how they now relate to their work. 

Linzi: It was all about providing lockers for everybody for a while – but now we’re seeing that people aren’t even using the lockers because they’re always on the go. So the lockers are starting to stand empty!

Mike: We don’t give lockers – we give bags! People walk around with their own bag.

Always try to get that disgruntled person on the steering group! If you win them over, you’ll win the lot.

CONCLUSION

Inevitably, as our panel looked back over the past decade, the greatest changes and, indeed, the majority of the conversation concerned cultural and behavioural shifts, as opposed to changes in the physical workplace. This is just a snippet of a much longer conversation and our panel did move on to talk about the disappearance of certain trends (Google-style offices) and the introduction of new workstyles  (coworking). While productivity and money ruled the roost 10 years ago – today, people and wellbeing are considered just as, if not more important.

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