- 28 September 2023
- Professor Jeremy Myerson
- 4 minutes
As the world of work undergoes major changes, businesses around the world have found adapting to hybrid working anything but easy.
2023 was supposed to be the year when companies stopped experimenting with new ways of working and started adopting flexible models at scale.
After the inconclusive experiments of 2022, when many organisations were still undecided about how to repurpose their office space, manage a distributed workforce or deploy new technology, this year was heralded as the crunch time when the big decisions about the future of work were set to be implemented.
Instead, the uncertainty has continued as companies have first coaxed employers to return to the office with free coffee and donuts and then coerced them with HR-enforced mandates. Unsurprisingly, many workers have resisted the pressure. Worryingly, there is now a growing schism between what most company bosses want (everyone back in the office) and what most workers want (maximum flexibility to work from home).
According to new research from WHF Research, a consortium that includes Stanford University and the German thinktank Ifo Institute, a significant gap has opened up between the number of work-from-home (WFH) days that employees desire and the number of WFH days that companies plan for their workforce. While employees would like to work at home on at least two days per week around the globe, employers only plan 1.1 WFH days per week. This gap is present in all 34 countries surveyed.
Getting the balance right in hybrid work so that businesses can build their collective culture and carry out high-value interpersonal tasks such as innovation and training, all the while giving employees enough autonomy over their work to feel valued, is proving a challenge to achieve.
What is the new role for office space if people are not attending the workplace every day? How much space is needed and why? How can the workplace magnetise people to return instead of mandating them to do so? And what role can technology and data play calibrating the hybrid model so that it works for everyone? These are just some of the questions being asked of designers, architects, developers, strategists and researchers engaged in reimagining our working lives. In response, there is now a focus on finding a fresh perspective and developing solutions that were never part of the traditional repertoire of office planning and design – on bringing a more creative lens to the future of work.
In my new book with co-author Philip Ross, Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office, we discuss the need to unlearn certain fixed ideas about work and workplace. We define the term ‘unworking’ as ‘unravelling how we work, unbundling the assumptions that are baked into the modern office, and unlearning the habits, management styles and workplace cultures that have traditionally defined our behaviour at work’.
The purpose of ‘unworking’ is to reimagine what the future workplace could be like. It is a task that requires the application of creative imagination and strategic design thinking principles. Here are three key shifts and associated creative strategies to consider:
From process to experience
First, there should be a people-first focus on providing a better workplace experience for employees who now have more choice of where to work in the hybrid era. Organisations should stop obsessing about what people do (process) and give more consideration to how they feel about it (experience).
Already, we are seeing new job titles emerge inside organisations such as ‘Chief Experience Officer’, ‘Chief Heart Officer’ and ‘Head of Dynamic Work’, reflecting a greater focus on experience. Transposition of design techniques more familiar in hospitality, retail and entertainment to the workplace – a method known as cross-pollination – will help to create more people-centric environments. So will experience mapping and user journey mapping techniques, which again are more commonly seen in retail.
“There is little point in recruiting more diverse talent with a wider perspective and capacity for innovation if the workplace is not itself inclusive of their needs.”
From efficient to inclusive
One size does not fit all. It never did, but even less so now in the new era of work where effectiveness will be prized above efficiency. Company leaders have therefore got to wean themselves off an addiction to blunt economies of scale, universal planning, ‘vanilla solutions’, high density open plan and so on, to embrace a more heterogeneous approach.
Future workforces will be multi-generational and more diverse in terms of ability, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Workplaces will need to be inclusive so that everyone feels welcomed and valued irrespective of their differences. There is little point in recruiting more diverse talent with a wider perspective and capacity for innovation if the workplace is not itself inclusive of their needs.
The empathic and human-centric basis of design thinking techniques are relevant here to truly understand individual needs; ethnographic research among employees should be a key component of any workplace strategy or transformation project.
From dumb to data-led
Company bosses have tended in the past to view office buildings as dumb containers for work, a cost rather than investment. That is because they yielded little actionable data that could be useful to the business. The office of the future will be much smarter than before. It will provide constant data flows that can inform evidence-based decision-making on everything from HR policies and office redesign to corporate strategy.
Data analytics, spatial intelligence and sociometric technologies will transform how we measure performance and engagement in the workplace. Sensors and cameras will capture every move and give unprecedented insights into company behaviour. Dashboards showing real-time data on occupancy level and environmental conditions will allow managers to ‘fine tune’ their resources.
It is therefore important to assess what data will be captured and how it will be analysed on any future work project. Marrying up quantitative data with qualitative insights about user behaviour will be important to an evidence-based approach to design decision-making. Understanding energy use and carbon capture will support greener buildings and more sustainable work patterns.
In summary, the future of work is likely to be more experience-driven, more inclusive, more data-ledand more sustainable than in the past. To reach this new horizon will require organisations and individuals to reframe their thinking - ‘unworking’ all they’ve known in the past and bringing new creative strategies to the table.
Masterclass: ‘Creative Strategies for the Future of Work’
Jeremy Myerson will be leading a four-day live online RCA Executive Education Masterclass entitled ‘Creative Strategies for the Future of Work’ 2, 3, 6, 7 November 2023.
Developed in collaboration between the RCA and WORKTECH Academy to demonstrate how to apply creative and strategic design thinking principles to address future-of-work challenges with new tools and frameworks.