What's the future of workspace?

ROUNDTABLE: Our expert panel discusses what the office of the future will look like.

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 16 Nov 2017

Why should organisations invest in creating physical workspaces where their employees want to work? It should be simple common sense. Employee well-being is strongly correlated to productivity and performance and one of the largest contributing factors to well-being is the physical workspace. But what kinds of workplaces should we be creating in the new ‘gig economy’ of remote and co-working? And how do we construct spaces that foster community, collaboration and innovation, yet respect neurodiversity?

In association with International Quarter London, the joint venture project between Lendlease and LCR, Management Today assembled an expert panel to discuss how best to approach the challenges and opportunities.

Ian Wylie, Special Projects Editor, Management Today: How has the purpose of the workplace changed and what will its purpose become?

Alison Webb, Head of Workplace (Europe), Lendlease: The role of the workplace in delivering on business strategy isn’t changing, but the priorities that need to be addressed are changing, in terms of speed, adaptability and flexibility. And I don’t think we've made the most of the potential of our workspaces to meet those new priorities. When we’re creating commercial places in areas like Stratford at International Quarter London, we're thinking about what’s the magic element that can bring a place to life – moving out of the four walls that define your workplace, into everything around you, from leaving the office building to arriving back home. 

Nina Jasinski, Chief Marketing Officer, Ogilvy & Mather UK: We've just undergone a massive transformation, moving from Canary Wharf into the amazing Sea Containers. We've transformed it into a very modern-day workspace and in just 18 months productivity has gone up dramatically. We're winning lots of business, and the biggest change is that collaboration has gone up. We have found that face-to-face contact is still really important, so it's quite interesting when we hear other companies saying they're getting rid of their buildings. I suspect smaller meetings are still happening, but they're having to happen in coffee shops.

Paul Wheeler, Director of Space and Workplace Management, King’s College London: By and large, the only organised sense of social structure that remains comes through work, and employers are responding by offering working environments that blend work and life. My interest lies in the function that work plays in society. And at King’s, there are interesting challenges, the sort we'd expect of a legacy estate that dates back to the 1830s, but with aspirations to be 21st century university. We’re trying to bring students into a community and environment where they feel confident, stable and have the mental space and capacity to devote time to thinking and learning. Without that foundation, you don't progress in work or learning. But I think workplaces are also important in driving cultures and establishing identities. How do you get that sense of belonging, shared values and motivations if you don’t bring people together?

Clockwise from front left: Paul Wheeler, Philip Ross, Alison Webb, Araceli Camargo, Nina Jasinski, Katrina Kostic-Samen and Ian Wylie

Wouter Sleijffers, CEO of Fnatic: There’s no better way to express our vision and get people on the page than by bringing them into the same workspace. We’re a professional e-sports organisation and we recently established our HQ in Shoreditch. It's very multifunctional – there are sleep pods, for example, because we’re a 24/7 business. But I see it as a physical manifestation too of our brand, and of what we do. For example, it also has a retail space, and a space where we organise community events and have gaming fans coming in on the weekend, just to hang out. We're now also negotiating with the landlord to see if we can also create a co-working space to bring in other like-minded people.

Philip Ross, Chairman, Worktech Academy: To meet these new priorities, employers need elasticity, but unfortunately buildings aren't elastic. Signing a lease to move into four walls is highly restrictive, especially for tech companies that grow at remarkable rates. I forecast the future of work and my particular interest is looking at high performing workplaces but most offices remain dumb containers that are mostly empty. There's a fundamental mismatch. If you look at the history of the office, it became a container for all the files, cabinets, and now servers that an organisation needed. But all that is vanishing as everything moves to the cloud.

Wylie: What is neuroscience telling us about where the workspaces people need or want?

Araceli Camargo, Director of the Centric Lab, University College London: It’s difficult to cascade neuroscience into industry because we’re dealing with a discipline that’s still relatively new, and we’re trying to understand the intricacies of the brain by viewing it with something akin to the first telescopes that Galileo had. I founded The Cube, a co-working space, in 2009 when I began to notice the relationship between the physicality of workspaces and how people behave in those spaces. We need to start not with the building but with understanding the neurodiversity you get in the office and that people are going to find things startlingly different. For example, if you are on the ADHD spectrum, workspaces that encourage socialisation, overstimulation and collaboration can be very difficult and uncomfortable places to be.

Katrina Kostic-Samen, Managing Partner, KKS Strategy: Absolutely – we just did some research on personality types and while much workplace design focuses on the extroverts, because they’re the fun, lively people, between 50% and 80% of the people most organisations employ are introverts, and we forget about them. I’m also seeing a shift away from co-working spaces. We’ve all been talking about it as the next big thing, and I think co-working is great for individuals or small group sessions, but when you get to a larger group of people, you need to pay more attention to the cohesion of the team, its team dynamics, and the brand identity.

Ross: So if we’ve got all these different personality types, why are our offices homogeneous? I still walk into buildings all over the world and find 5,000 identical desks.

Camargo: Architects need to be constructing workspaces for neurodiversity. Most of us now have a certain level of attentional disorders, and technology is having a huge effect on our attentional systems.

Webb: In Australia we’ve had a bit of a reaction against the activity-based working environments because of the unnecessary complexity. Some new workplaces are a lot simpler, and it's not about having lots of different shaped desks. It's about having a few simple things you can work with, but with that innately human connection at the centre. So yes it's great that we can have these collisions that can inspire collaboration and creativity, but sometimes my project team simply needs to get together and do some work quickly. In our Sydney office, for example, we brought our "neighbourhood" team down to just 10-15 people, working almost like a little studio, so that we could have that closer, more focused team dynamic.

Wheeler: I'd also like to see us leveraging more knowledge about things like lighting, noise and air quality. These fundamental issues of workplace are the base things you have to get right. 

Camargo: I agree that that’s a problem with some co-working spaces: they look fun but they can be very noisy with high levels of distractions. Because our space at The Cube is just 1,500 sq feet, we can mitigate those things. But co-working in a building of 10,000 square feet? Oh my gosh, it's horrible for the brain, people have no identity, no sense of belonging, but instead they have all the social anxiety that comes with not knowing where to sit.

Wylie: How do we get workplace strategies onto the radar of our chief executives, and make it part of the C-suite conversation?

Jasinski: Quite simply, if your people are happier and more fulfilled, they’ll be more productive, leaving you to actually concentrate on the business. If you don’t do that, you'll lose your best talent and your productivity will fall.

Wylie: But don’t employees just tell us what they want us to hear when we survey them about happiness and fulfilment?

Sleijffers: It's easier for me to do because I run a smaller business, but my advice to other CEOs is to sit with your people: feel what’s going on and experience it yourself. Find out the issues and then deal with them. Because as CEO, it’s your role to enable your people to do their work.

Ross: Too often these conversations and responsibilities are held too far down in an organisation, in facilities management or real estate. But Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us." If chief executives want to reshape their organisation, change its culture, improve teamwork, and increase speed to market, the easiest way to do that is with physical change. And there can be some significant cost savings. I’ve been talking to a bank that currently spends £80m a year on rent, but we know that they could save at least 30% by moving to agile working. That’s big.

Webb: I’d love workplace to be a more visible part of the strategy process, across the spectrum. If you're going to be more customer-focused, for example, what are you doing physically to make your people more customer-focused? How are you bringing your customers in, how are you pushing your people out, how is the physical embodiment of your workspaces driving your strategy? Or if your strategy is innovation, how can it be more than just a lab somewhere else where just a few special people get to play? Organisations can bring their strategy to life though some really simple physical tools.

Wheeler: I think that ultimately workplace design is about empowering your people, giving them a working environment where they can make choices. It can’t be a "one size fits all" approach – we should be offering choices and empowering and trusting our people to decide for themselves. 

Main image: daizuoxin/Shutterstock

Roundtable photography and videography: Tas Underwood