The future of the workplace

New technology, computer-savvy youngsters and environmental concerns are all forcing profound changes in how we work and the nature of our work environment itself. In association with Smart Technologies, MT explores the issues in a round-table debate hosted by the Royal College of Art.

Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

Matthew Gwyther: If we'd been having this conversation 10 years ago, it would have been called The Workplace of the Future and not The Future of the Workplace. That would have reflected the confidence there was then. But now, the idea of the workplace is in a state of flux, which is down to a variety of factors: cost, carbon, technology, sustainability and culture. People still accept that it's very important for an organisation to have a clear definition of what it is and how to go efficiently about achieving its aims, but how does the working environment play its part? The workplace is becoming more fragmented - people aren't working together under the same roof as they were even 20 years ago. What effect will that have on the culture of an organisation? Is it a weakness that people aren't communicating face to face on a regular basis?

Lynda Gratton: I run a research consortium on the future of work, involving 45 companies across the world, 20 of which are in Asia. In my new book, The Shift, I say that the world is changing at a pace equivalent to the Industrial Revolution. I don't believe that to be the case now - it's accelerating much faster. That's because of the combination of globalisation, technology and demography. But what will become more of a concern is CO2, which isn't a priority at present, as most executives are more worried about the price of oil. But by 2030 the carbon footprint will become a major issue. People will work more from home. They'll also be working with people around the world, in which case it doesn't matter where they are.

Ken Shuttleworth: I agree. As an architect, I've found that over the past few years there's been a massive change in the recognition of CO2 and climate change. We've been campaigning to get rid of the glass box - where there are too many windows in a building. Architects should avoid windows where you don't need them for light because they pick up so much heat. It's going to mean a complete change in architecture over the next decade, especially in office buildings in central London.

Bola Oshisanwo: I work in the area of BT that develops all our products and services. In the past few years, our focus has been on how you get people to collaborate in real time across different parts of the world. We now have a central point which integrates audio, video and white-board conferencing. We've also designed our office space to be more open to encourage greater creativity.

Jeremy Myerson: I think there's a danger, though, that office design driven by technological development ignores the human cultural dimensions of work. I'm against purely open-plan offices, and particularly the swing towards total collaborative environments, which leads to office life becoming like one giant brainstorm. Workers in poorly designed open-plan offices are unable to concentrate in the way they used to 20 or 30 years ago. We've had technology-driven offices and design-driven offices but what about people-driven offices?

Paul Morrell: I can see a parallel with the dotcom era - people thought everything was suddenly about to go online, but actually it didn't all happen at once; it was a much longer process. The same thing is happening with office space. There is a move towards more flexible working but it's not going to happen at once. A building is a demonstration of culture as well as the enabler of it. But the fact that people can work remotely is some kind of fellowship nonetheless and it's becoming more relevant when you tie it to carbon. What we're left with is the issue of how businesses respond. If all businesses are built as an accumulation of the experience and skills of their people, then what will happen if those people are never together? Does the business fragment? Does it break down from the corporate centre into a network of smaller offices, spread around?

Matthew Gwyther: Do you feel that's still in its infancy, then?

Paul Morrell: Absolutely. Carbon ought to be a big issue, but I don't think it is for people today. Starting with government downwards, there's a sense that something has to be done but maybe we'll leave it till we can afford it and have some money to spare. Affordability is a big factor. I work in the Department of Business and the Cabinet Office, which are both departments that really have to reduce their costs. One, because it's telling everyone else to and, two, because it's too expensive. They cut costs in two ways: by shedding people and reducing their space. One's an HR exercise, the other's a space exercise. There's absolutely no thought about whether those two things might clash with each other. So what happens is they set a standard, such as having one person per seven square metres - but at the same time they need to reduce staff. But they don't think about what you've got afterwards and what it'll do to the culture.

Matthew Gwyther: Joined-up government?

Paul Morrell: Kind of. Government is actually very joined up - in fact it spends too much time joining itself up and not enough time doing stuff. So it's not really about that, it's the fact that there's nowhere in government where people are thinking about business. Culture has a value, and it's a way of getting customers and demonstrating your message to the outside world. But there's no sign of that going on inside government.

Patrick Lelorieux: I head Smart Technologies here - a company which started to focus on collaboration 12 years ago. It was an accelerating trend but a complex one to grasp. People wanted to collaborate more but travel less because of cost and growing environmental awareness. Those two trends were going completely in opposite directions. So we decided to focus on interactive technology - bringing people together and using technology to do that. Strangely enough, it was difficult to get that into a corporate world, so we started in classrooms with the white-boards. Recently, there's been a surge of interest but there are still only a few early adopters. There's a long way to go and we're still not quite there with making it as personal as interacting with people face to face.

Despina Katsikakis: I'm the chairman of (business consultancy) DEGW. It appears there are two different strands when it comes to the future of the workplace. One is the changing nature of work and technology and the other is the built environment and how it is or isn't responding to that. I think the two are fundamentally in conflict. Our research suggests that office buildings today are used less than 40% of the typical working day, so why are we still building offices? We should be designing for a very complex network of virtual and physical places. Clients come to us and say: 'Give us some models, give us a template of how we're going to do that.'

Matthew Gwyther: So you have to say, it's not quite as simple as that?

Despina Katsikakis: Exactly. Because I think the template goes back to the funky layouts which mean nothing and the real question is what is the speed of change of human behaviour and how are we going to facilitate culture, organisation, a sense of belonging, and a sense of connectedness in a new set of environments. Everyone is stressed out and insecure and now they're not even coming into the office. So how do we manage that transition of behaviour?

Matthew Gwyther: Lynda, this is material you cover in The Shift, isn't it? The stress thing that nothing is ever switched off these days.

Lynda Gratton: Paul, you made the point that you need cross-functional disciplines, because it actually requires anthropologists, psychologists and architects. Work has got to a point where we're just layering technology to people who haven't got any means of increasing their productivity. I was with a group of executives in London yesterday and I said we have a view that 40% of work is now unproductive and they said no, it's much more than that. What gets crowded out is time for reflection. Ideas have got to come from somewhere so if you mash everybody together all the time, they don't have reflective time. I ran a one-week programme with my MBA group at LBS a few weeks ago on the future of work and we had the most amazing speakers - for example, on carbon. At the end, I asked my group: 'What's the number one thing that strikes you?' and they all said: 'We can't believe we've been at LBS for two years and we're only just beginning to talk about these big issues of carbon and globalisation.' They have been pushed out of the conversation because everybody's doing their emails all the time. The average person is interrupted every three minutes, and what that means is a massive fragmentation of psychological thinking around big issues. We're just about to start a research project on generation Z. We've got a video of a 13-month-old baby using the iPad - a baby that can neither speak nor read!'

Ken Shuttleworth: It's less than three minutes for me because I'm on Twitter. I try to go to a quiet part of the office and leave my BlackBerry elsewhere. We have sofas in our office. I tried to get them into my previous office and they wouldn't have them, because they thought it would mean people just sitting around and not working.

Patrick Lelorieux: When I observe people in schools, the interesting thing is I don't think they have the choice to switch off. They will never switch off, and creating an environment where we have to tell them you have to switch off to have some time to think is not going to work with the next generation.

Matthew Gwyther: Where did this fascination with a clean desk come from? Speaking as someone whose desk is a terrible mess, why would it make me more productive if I clean my desk every evening?

Paul Morrell: We had one partner who always had a clean desk. His theory was that if you hadn't cleaned your deck, when were you going to? The only alternative is falling further and further behind. But technology is an issue. I was talking to a director general in the Treasury about reducing numbers inside Business and he said, simply switch off the servers. Early in the morning someone would have an idea, he or she would bounce it around, three people would respond to it, then six people would respond with their responses, and by the evening you've got a full-blown 100-person project which should never have started in the first place. Most private offices are three times the size they used to be because of handling email. The government reacts by reading nothing - that's the only way to manage it.

Lynda Gratton: Nothing?

Paul Morrell: Nothing. I meet a lot of people who read nothing as the only way of managing. You go to a meeting and they say: 'I can't pretend to have read the papers', and you say: 'Well, at least pretend.'

Patrick Lelorieux: But aren't you assuming that reading is the only way to get ideas?

Despina Katsikakis: I find that impromptu meetings are what often leads to innovation. When someone sits in front of his computer and communicates primarily through email, the opportunities for spontaneous collaboration are dramatically reduced.

Jeremy Myerson: That's a really good point. At the RCA, people have been eating their lunch in our senior common room for years and we have some very strict rules: no cameras, no computers, no phones, so people are forced to talk to each other. That room is the most productive workplace in the whole of the RCA.

Lynda Gratton: But work has changed very dramatically - it's much more complicated now. I have a group which is in five different locations around the world and across different time zones, so even telecoms doesn't always work. And the understanding of virtual teaming is extremely low at the moment.

Matthew Gwyther: Ken, how wised up are your clients about these sorts of complexities?

Ken Shuttleworth: Not very - the people we come across are often still thinking in the traditional way of square foot per number of people. The only issue that's come on is sustainability.

Lynda Gratton: From what I understand, some larger organisations are building community hubs which will allow much more flexible working patterns. Employees can work from home, but use these hubs if they're in the location and need to use the technology.

Despina Katsikakis: A lot of our clients are doing that. We had a discussion with a very large UK bank about reducing its costs and recommended it should think about using the branch network as community hubs for employees.

Jeremy Myerson: Do you think people want to go into work rather than work from home?

Paul Morrell: For many, work is a social activity. Plus if workers don't ever get together, how does the organisation develop a shared culture?

Despina Katsikakis: Yes, the physical space sends enormously strong messages about the values of the organisation. It gives an indication of its behaviour, style and so on. I'm not sure how you would teach that without a shared space.

To read the entire discussion, please go to


Paul Morrell - Chief construction adviser, UK Government

Bola Oshisanwo - Programme director, Global Development Centre Programme, BT Innovate & Design

Lynda Gratton - Professor of Management Practice, London Business School

Ken Shuttleworth - Founder, Make Architects

Jeremy Myerson - Helen Hamlyn professor of design, Royal College of Art

Matthew Gwyther - Editor, MT

Despina Katsikakis - Chairman, DEGW

Patrick Lelorieux - Vice-president and general manager, EMEA Smart Technologies


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