How the New Economy is Changing the Workplace, Part III

As the economy shifts, so do the spaces that best support the innovation and ideas necessary to sustaining a business. In this final installment of his three part series on the topic, and in support of our series of summer events exploring the workspaces of startups valued at over $1 billion, Bob Fox explores what this “new workplace” is all about, and how you can make the transition. Read part one here and part two here

A common space at WeWork Berkeley. The startup's valuation recently rose to a mind-blowing $10 billion. Image via  wework.com.
A common space at WeWork Berkeley. The startup’s valuation recently rose to a mind-blowing $10 billion. Image via wework.com.

Leading up to the book Change Your Space, Change Your Culture, the author, Rex Miller, and his research team, Case4Space, looked at the drivers that affect performance in the workplace.  They quickly realized the biggest drivers of organizational performance are people and how engaged they are in what they do. Rex and his team determined that the workspace was one of the most effective tools that executives can use to change culture and behavior. The space ultimately sets the context for the culture, which is a derivative of the behavior that is accepted in the workplace. The space communicates a message and clearly shows how leadership feels and if staff is valued.  If leaders sit in a big private office, and only select people enter into their realm, that sets an expectation and defines a behavior – nothing needs to be said. Likewise, if leaders are visible, engaged, and accessible, employees will react and behave differently.

But values, behavior, and culture can vary significantly from one company to the next. There has been a tendency in the past to mimic or copy standards for office space, as if we all wear the same outfits or shoes, or drive the same cars. We need to think individualistically about our businesses and consider how we work, the type of work and what really drives performance in each organization. Organizations must design and build space that reflects, reinforces, and drives their culture and values.

Value, behavior, and culture can vary significantly from one company to the next. We need to think individualistically about our businesses and consider how we work, the type of work, and what really drives performance in each organization.

Likewise, organizations must implement spaces that support the various work modes and styles of its people. Depending on  the type of work, task, or the location of our desk, we may need to move to a different type of space. We might need quiet to concentrate better or we might need vertical surfaces to pin up ideas. We may need more experts to be involved, or we may want to work in a high traffic area so that we can interact with other people as they pass by. Today, we need a variety of different types of tools: spaces and furniture that support getting our work done. Just considering our desk or our office as our sole workspace is like having only a hammer in your toolbox.

Four things to consider when putting together your “toolbox”

  1. How do your employees collaborate?

Collaboration areas are not different from desks in this respect, because they are also tools that have tremendous potential to drive performance and are often over looked. Collaborative workspaces have become the primary tools organizations are using to drive performance and need to be carefully considered. It is important to understand the exact type of collaboration that should take place and the tools that will be used. The following quote is from IBM‘s Global C-suite Study:

The benefits of collaboration have long been apparent. The “science” of collaboration is just emerging. We are beginning to better understand how collaboration works—how to foster human connections across complex networks, create new models of engagement and cultures of transparency.

Part of the challenge is that the workplace has changed so dramatically and so quickly that we simply do not have the vocabulary to accurately describe the types of collaboration spaces that are necessary to support all of the different types of collaboration that we are designing space for today. Designers could easily develop 40-50 different types of collaboration spaces common today, ranging from open to closed and minimal technology (i.e., whiteboard) to highly complex AV and conference systems. Degrees of privacy, openness, flexibility, and size impact our performance and our ability to communicate or think.

  1. Will desks be assigned or assigned?

Ownership of space is another issue that is rapidly coming to the forefront as a way to save considerable sums of money. Deciding to go with assigned or unassigned spaces is a hot topic for many organizations today. While we may not really need our own private office, we do need a place to work and interact with others. In many cases, technology has reduced the amount of space that we need.

As Gunnar Branson points out in his TED Talk, law firms require only 1/3 of the space that they occupied 10 years ago. Much of what we need is on a database in the cloud and can be accessed from an iPhone. The same holds true for our personal information. We are more mobile and carrying less stuff.

This has led to the ownership of space being called into question. Do we still need our big private offices? Does that office need to be “mine” or can I just use it when I need that kind of a tool? The cost is driving that decision for many, but it needs to be properly considered. Sometimes it as much a cultural thing as it is a business decision.

Another thing to consider is that, because of the speed of change and the amount of information that is coming into the workplace, we are seeing a trend toward much more creative, self-managed, autonomous work and teaming, even within larger corporations. For these workers and teams, post-recession companies provide the tools, training, and networking necessary for their success. Not unlike a Navy SEALs team, they are trained and supported to accomplish highly-specific objectives that are critical to the organization’s success.

  1. Collaboration is crucial to innovation, but you will also need to integrate quiet space. Where and how will you implement this?

While collaboration is critical, quiet space is just as important. There are tasks such as reading, writing, thinking, calculating, organizing, and planning where conceptual parts require quiet, non-distracting space. Deep levels of concentration are required for complex formulas, code, and numbers where it has been proven that a brief distraction can cost significant amounts of time to reassemble the thought or concept.  As an industry in the early 2000s, we went way too open and now we are still trying to determine the right balance. Private offices will probably not go away, but we will use them differently – they probably do not need to be assigned to one individual. But we still need those types of spaces in order to get our jobs and work done.

  1. Will you have a mobile workforce?

The mobile and agile workplace has opened up many opportunities to expand beyond the traditional office. People are working in an increasing variety of places outside of what we normally call office. There is a range of workspaces available, from cafés and co-working facilities to LiquidSpace technology that is readily available and can find you a space to work at a moment’s notice.

People will continue to move to the place that best supports the type of work that they do. It’s getting close to the point that for some businesses that there needs to be a reason to go into the office. People will ask, “Why would I get in the car and drive for 45 minutes twice a day, when I can pour another cup of coffee sit at my computer and be productive immediately?”

In a world where knowledge and ideas have significant value and build stronger companies, we will continue to invest in those spaces that foster that type of work.

The workplace is becoming more of an interactive, social, and communication tool and thus the increased discussion around collaboration. In a world where knowledge and ideas have significant value and build stronger companies, we will continue to invest in those spaces that foster that type of work.

The bottom line is this: companies can save millions of dollars on their space by cutting costs, but most have squeezed as much as they can, and if the cuts and reductions hinder work, cause frustration, and hold back the flow of valuable ideas, then it will cost the organization more in turnover, broken systems, or misalignment.

Our history is fraught with corporate failures and disruption that has derailed even the best-run businesses. Today there are many more things that must be considered in order to achieve a high level of performance. Spaces, systems, and people need to be carefully considered,aligned, and adaptable to significant and rapid change. We are aware and better prepared to manage that change. The workplace is one of the most effective  tools we have to support the new economy organizations and business models.

Join us for a live conversation about these same topics on June 23 in DC, Chicago on July 30, and/or San Francisco on August 11! Tickets and details for Chicago are available here, with more details on San Francisco to follow.
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