Photo: negative space

In an e-mail to his Tesla employees sent in April this year, CEO Elon Musk instructed colleagues to “walk out of meetings if you are not adding any value”. He goes on to say, that it is not rude to walk out of a meeting, rather it is rude to stay and waste somebody else’s time. He is not the only mogul introducing policies to help employees navigate the modern world of work with an intention to increase productivity. Jeff Bezos of amazon has introduced the “weirdest meeting culture you will ever encounter” and ended PowerPoint presentations, and now requires the employee to prepare a 6-page narrative memo, a sort of story-telling, which meeting participants spend 30 minutes reading and taking in at the beginning of the meeting – in silence.

At this stage we are just experimenting (perhaps without admitting it) with the different elements at our disposal, with the intention to drive corporate performance, foster wellbeing and engagement. What the issue really is: is that we don’t call it experimentation or testing, with every purchase of a new piece of furniture, with every new software we impose on coworkers, we fundamentally believe that we have found the silver bullet to hit all three targets, but in the often talked about VUCA environment, it would be much more honest and also reassuring, if we would get comfortable with the notion, that our workplaces are in fact in permanent beta, never totally finished, never “it”, but in a mere transition between the last “big thing” and the “next big thing”, which is actually just around the corner.

Our #workplaces are in fact in permanent beta, never totally finished Click To Tweet

Just as we have started getting used to ping-pong tables, sleeping pods, Slack and a number of new tools to help us be more productive, more happy and more engaged at work – a whole new wave of products and services are surfacing, confusing HR and Facilities managers even further. Not mentioning line managers, who are really at the coalface of the changing nature of work. There is a definitive danger of analyses paralyses, or the lovely German term “die Qual der Wahl” creeping in, and just as the term suggests, paralysing any decision making process about adapting the office to the new reality. Questions like “what is the return on investment of standing desks”, or “how do we manage a remote workforce” are all incredibly pertinent – the problem? Nobody really knows the answer.

Craving Connection and meaning

Now everyone has e-mail and a host of other communication tools on their phones - and we cannot put our devices down Click To Tweet

I vividly remember the time when I was desperate for a Blackberry. I wanted e-mails on my phone. I wanted to be able to read and write e-mails on the go. Now everyone has e-mail and a host of other communication tools on their phones – and we cannot put our devices down. Knowledge workers on average now work 2 hours longer per day, and spend anywhere between 10 to 23 hours in meetings per week. This got so bad, that some countries like France decided to put up boundaries using legislation, for the “right to disconnect”. Our work requires collaboration to drive progress, creativity and innovation, but we just haven’t yet figured out how to do it best. Our workspace as well as processes need to create opportunities to exchange information, to create meaningful connections and to foster our sense of belonging – but when is it too much? Employees want a sense of belonging from their work, as well as find meaning in their work. Now, if you have spent time in meetings recently – the latter is not always easy to identify.

The neverending flow of new

There is a never ending flow of research reports, survey findings, Human Capital reports to stay on top of the needs of the employees, the changing needs of customers, as well as the latest research on what drives productivity and performance. It’s hard to believe that the modern workspace is less than 150 years old. The open plan hype was also really not that long ago. Responding to the inefficiencies and underutilisation of space (basically a lot of empty desks) of standard single occupant offices or even cubicles, the magic bullet seemed to be tearing down all walls and partitions, and creating a much more transparent and connected space, where everyone can see everyone. However, it quickly became evident, that a fully open plan arrangement is not the right solution either. So, experimentation continues, including quiet zones, spaces to huddle and collaborate, individual work-stations, and so on. With the arrival of coworking spaces, the game has changed again, and another important factor was the smaller size of devices, and their memory capacity. Basically, in knowledge economy, employees’ workplaces fit into their backpacks and wherever they choose to sit for the day – that’s where their “office” is. With the growth of coffee culture, smoothie bars and the health and wellbeing sector exploding, catering to the needs of a consumer culture primarily driven by young people (but not only!), the most admired workplaces now boast their own cafés, cantines, bars. When you walk into these modern, fully outfitted offices – you may not even know you are at work – and that’s part of the attraction.

Most admired #workplaces now boast their own cafés, cantines, bars. When you walk into these modern, fully outfitted #offices - you may not even know you are at #work Click To Tweet

I fully empathise however with HR managers, managing directors, facilities professionals, who are losing sleepless nights over the difficulty of absorbing all this new technology, new knowledge, and not infrequently, contradicting reports about what works, and what doesn’t.

Follow the yellow brick road and find what works for you!

Just like in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, Toto, the Tinman, the Lion and the Scarecrow figure out during their quest, that they need to cooperate, and each has to play to their own strength, and this is how they will get to the Emerald City. There is a very important lesson in there for the workplaces of our times: there needs to be a lot more cross-functional cooperation to get it right. HR needs to speak to facilities, they need to check with IT and organisational health and safety, and definitely include marketing and brand management too. And of course, it all needs to support of top management, and at least the acceptance of line managers.


Photo: negative space

And so the three spheres that need to be in concert are the people responsible for the physical workspace, management and those in charge of organisational culture have to first do some soul-searching to figure out answers to questions such as “who are we as an organisation”, “who are our customers and employees”, and “what are we trying to accomplish”. It’s building from the bottom up, that will create an organic, authentic, positive workspace, that will work for the people. What are the needs of employees? How can we respond to those needs? Do we have too many inflexible meeting rooms? Not enough opportunities for employees to move around, to vary their positions, to build in intermittent active rest during the workday? Is our space signaling to candidates and employees that we are different from our competitors? That we value everyone’s contribution, in whatever shape or form?

I for one am very excited about the brand new space at the Zukunft Personal 2018 called Look & Feel of New Work spread out over 2,500 m2 in the Köln Messe, because I love to discover beautiful and functional space and design solutions, that enable us to be at our best at work, feel appreciated and make sure we raise our standards to match the environment. If the past 2 years are an indication of how this space will look like, then it will be amazing, ensured by Design Offices and Vitra among others.



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Email this to someone