Immortalised in stone, frozen mid-conundrum; the unknown workplace strategist, slouched beneath the flags on the lawn of yet another anonymous behemoth shortlisted for the award for corporate workplace over 100,000 square feet, but not a winner. Notebook in hand, words struck through in frustration, it’s clear that amidst numerous small victories a host of enduring problems remain.
Of course, no-one ever thought to cast a workplace consultant in stone. Despite the potential positive impact on so many working lives, their work doesn’t define the horizon like architecture, or scythe through years of energy-sapping toil like technology. Yet perhaps with the solution of the seven problems, each its own Seven Bridges of Könisberg challenge, there might be permitted a muted celebration?
While there may be denial amongst the vocal post-pandemic cohort of workplace analysts, drawn to the scent of the demise of the office, the problems all pre-existed the arrival of Covid-19 by many decades. While it’s true that some have been exacerbated or re-shaped in the last three years, every workplace standing has had to face them head on and wriggle their way to a compromise.
Here, then are the seven enduring problems.
What the future of work will be like
Because every workplace must be ‘future-proofed’, which is of course a nonsense. The future doesn’t announce itself with bugles and bunting, it evolves, in threads of varying speed, each impacting the others. So, while we can’t plan for what we don’t know we don’t know, we can prepare.
As the wonderfully turbocharged Bernie Mitchell reminded me in a post this morning, the best way to prepare is to solve the more taxing problems of today — because the future of work is already here.
How to get people to want to come to the workplace
Purposeful, desirable, intentional — the prefixes abound. Pick one, whack it in front of ‘workplace’, post it and claim the IP. All hopeful ‘pull’ strategies, none of which have landed. Meanwhile some rattled execs, frustrated at the empty serried white desks before them, attempt to ‘push’ their people back to Mordor with a mandate, a futile gesture in even the short term, let alone the medium.
Workplaces were only 40–60% occupied on average pre-pandemic, half that on Fridays. Peaks were rarely above 70% midweek. ‘Full attendance’ has only ever been a theoretical construct, bizarrely used to plan how much space we need (our next problem, below).
The heart of the problem is that the physical environment can only ever be the canvas. It’s only ever been about getting the right people together at the right time — which means making it possible and easy, and the experience and outcome valued.
How much space we need
If we don’t know what the future of work will be, or whether anyone will show up, and when they do show up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays it’s everyone, how on earth are we supposed to arrive at an optimum amount of space? If it’s a case of ‘less but better’ (in pole position for workplace catchphrase of 2023) then how much less before it annoys everyone to the extent that they then don’t show up?
That we used fictional full attendance to plan for space needs pre-pandemic meant there was already a 20–30% surplus being carried in many workplaces. And is as at last becoming apparent, surplus space is waste, and is unsustainable in environment, organisational and human terms. There are at least signs that the conservatism of old is receding, and that we’re about to get bolder with our thinking.
How we can work without a desk
A sub-plot of the ‘death of the office’ has always been the ‘death of the desk’. I once called the desk the tardigrade of the workplace, as it’s survived for thousands of years and will likely survive all but Armageddon. That’s essentially because it works.
The desk is still the basic unit of currency in workplace planning. For occupants, it’s a landing point, a source of functional comfort. Designers and consultants still refer to them as ‘primary’ settings. In many workplaces, the antiquated requirement to book one is still required, as a ticket of admission.
I’d argue that the desk is no longer primary. It may even be the new ‘breakout’ space for when we need a break from interaction to catch up on things we need to get done. But to strip them all out and think everyone’s going to work cross-legged in a deckchair with a laptop is probably a result of having spent too much time on Pinterest.
Whether one size can fit all
The expression “one size doesn’t fit all” would probably get unanimous, animated agreement amongst workplace professionals. Just before they go and deliver the opposite.
The fanciful notion has emerged post-pandemic that the only way to solve our enduring problems is to fully understand the needs of every single occupant of our space and cater directly for them. Which would be amazing if we had a private space traveller’s fortune and a hundred years to deliver a workplace, and no-one ever left or joined.
Under time and cost pressure, and with a huge range of individual, team and organisational needs to meet that are ever evolving, the challenge with a workplace is always to create something that fits all, even those who haven’t joined yet. It just has to be the most flexible, elastic and adaptable space we can imagine, enabling occupants to choose when, how and with whom to use it. In the hybrid age, they need to be even more so. It’s not about denying one size, it’s about working out the components and properties of our one size.
How we can discover the people we need to work with
One of the tropes trundled out by senior business leaders since the pandemic, echoing the infamous Marissa Mayer Memorandum of 2013, stresses the importance of ‘watercooler moments’ in the office as if they somehow represent an organisation’s innovation strategy. They’ve regrettably survived the justifiable ridicule.
The late Tony Hsieh was so obsessed with ‘collisions’ as the ultimate determinant of business success, he set himself an annual target of a thousand meticulously measured ‘collision hours’. In 2012, he and several partners founded the $350m Las Vegas Downtown Project, an urban re-development of the Fremont East Entertainment District and surrounds designed in every detail to maximise human interaction.
All of which is because we instinctively know there are people in our organisation we need to get to know who we know can help us, and who we can help, we just don’t know who or where they are. We design spaces for collisions in our workplaces, but somehow, these connections often remain elusive. This is where smart, dynamic tech and physical space must align within an active organisation. There’s far more to come in this space.
How to create lasting change
Change managers aren’t magicians. The brief that translates as: “We’re going to do something really unpleasant and we want you to make people like and support it” isn’t a change challenge, it’s simply a hope that damage can be limited. There has to be something aspirational, even if it involves short-term sacrifice or discomfort.
Naturally, a new workplace can be aspirational. But we’ll seek out the desire lines, the shortest path between two points in physical spaces, systems and processes. It’s often interpreted as resistance or the emergence of ‘old habits’, but it’s simply our innate human desire to make life easy for ourselves. I once listen to a head of workplace tell me that he was going to “make people less territorial”, unravelling 300,000 years of evolution with a space plan.
In the course of my work, I constantly discover people fighting battles that aren’t worth it that they’ll never win. Creating lasting change means understanding and working to desire lines, making what we create simpler and easier than before, with demonstrably greater value from the outcome. We can put the pointy, star-emblazoned hat away.
It may have become apparent that the seven problems are interrelated. But just like the solution to the Seven Bridges of Könisberg puzzle, they require a different approach, not just more of the same. That they are still there to be solved makes workplace a fascinating field to be in. It’s probably never actually been so interesting as it is now. We’re not giving up anytime soon.