Workplace Design Implications of Emergent Worker Attitudes

Dr. Charlie Grantham shares the latest in professorial deep thinking about how the millennial mindset will change the workplace.

It is hard to argue that the workplace of the future will not be vastly different than the workplace of the 1970s or even the ‘90s. Shifts in technology, different business models, and increased environmental concern will all be actors. But the biggest driver will be a change in attitudes about work—with a major shift coming from the Millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000). Workplace designers and facilities managers will be directly impacted by these changes in attitudes because they will also change the way, the when, and the where these people work productively.

However, research has shown that these attitudes are not the sole possession of that millennial cohort. In fact, the shift in attitudes is shared by older generations—especially those impacted by the economic downturn and job displacements. Here are at few examples of those different attitudes.

Attitudes exhibited by current generations in the workplace.

Overall attitudes have moved from a belief in control oriented, formalistic, hierarchical work environments to more loose structures, where emphasis is on work as a secondary activity that needs to by synchronous with a person’s personal purpose. The experience of work will be different. That ties directly to the emergence of different ways of managing the work process and flow. Changes in work process then directly influence the physical expression of the workplace, which re-enforces the change in attitude.

The relationship between attitudes and management practices is what is getting all the attention now. But the linkage between management practices and workplace design principles needs to be explored now.

Attitudes and Management Practice

There are four major changes in workplace practices. First of all there is a shift in the nature of the social contract between “worker” and “employer”, what Dan Pink has called “free agents” and not employees.

There is also a move from hierarchical communication, power flows, and status differences to a more collaborative model. Small collaborative groups will combine temporarily for projects, break apart, and form new alliances. Emphasis is on teamwork and your rewards come from team member evaluation. The picture below shows a space where “C” level officers and everyone else worked together without much visible distinction.

Photo Courtesy Urquiza Group.
Here, “C” level officers and everyone else work together without much visible distinction. Photo courtesy of Urquiza Group Inc.

Commons Work Area with No Social Barriers

These first two implications give rise to the third one. We will need far fewer middle managers and more mentors. When people become contracting agents and communication goes from hierarchical to horizontal you can get by with 1/3 as many middle managers. Why? Because collaboration doesn’t require a constant re-framing of team goals.

Lastly, we need an entirely new conceptualization of what talent is, and how it contributes to team goals. They are called ‘artisans of thought’; they are the people whose ‘job titles’ haven’t been invented yet. Artisans are those in our society who continuously practice creativity and invention. They take what is inside their minds and hearts and give it expression. These people are the ones who will be the future primary “value adders” in today’s economic jargon.

HR Policy and Workplace

The last part of these proposed changes is the relationship between different work processes and physical design principles.

Principle 1: Relation in time and space. Talent engagement is on a project or ‘gig’ basis and temporary. Space must be reconfigurable so it can expand, contract, or increase privacy as work requirements change. Ideally it would fall from a ‘kit of parts’ which could be arranged or structured by its’ occupants with minimal requirement for outside vendors or large facilities management staff.

An example of re-configurable project workspaces. Image courtesy of Charlie Grantham.
An example of re-configurable project workspaces. Image courtesy of Charlie Grantham.

Principle 2: Essential principle of arrangement. All vestiges and symbols of power/status must disappear. No more walled offices; different furniture configurations go away. ‘Neighborhoods’ or perhaps ‘villages’ for large workgroups become more prevalent. Identity of the workgroup is used to signify the use of the space and/or its work product.

Principle 3: Open access must be provided. Easy wayfinding pathways and visual clues to find a neighborhood within a ‘work city’ should be provided. This could easily be embedded within a mobile technology application such as a building centric GPS.

Principle 4: Less entropy. Easy access to and display of information is key to this. That means ample display space like white walls, smart boards, and tackable surfaces. Minimal physical document storage and cloud storage in basic data and finished work products. Also, team ‘huddle rooms’ and quickly accessible spaces for impromptu interactions for all talent.

An example of maximized data display. Photo courtesy of Photo Courtesy Urquiza Group Inc.
An example of maximized data display. Photo courtesy of Photo Courtesy Urquiza Group Inc.

Principle 5: Aesthetics. This is a physical reflection of work group brand. Design and workflow must draw people into the space. This is the visualization of the work culture, which emphasizes collaboration and creativity. The motto is ‘one size misfits all.” Incorporation of works of art and changeable color schemes are excellent ways to provide a pleasing environment for our ‘artisans of thought’.

Principle 6: Cost of use. The best way to accomplish this principle is to shorten the return on investment timeline. If workplaces are designed for maximum agility and adaptability, planned obsolescence in the 18-24 month time range significantly lowers cost,. $1200 chairs and carpet refresh every 5 years are a thing of the past.

In summary, then, the workplace of the future must be designed on a set of “principles” which bring into alignment physical expressions of workplace, with new management processes and finally the beliefs and attitudes of those “emergent” workers. Bringing these attitudes/processes/workplace designs together will facilitate a more efficient and effective work environment. Now that you have seen a glimpse of the future, what are you going to do to make that happen faster than your competitors?

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