Tomorrow’s Workspaces: It’s Time for a New Rhythm - Eight Inc.

Tomorrow’s Workspaces: It’s Time for a New Rhythm

By Steve Lidbury May 12, 2020

In the midst of a trauma, it’s natural to yearn for a return to how things were. But this way of thinking is blind to the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have to reshape how and where we work. If we can summon the ambition now, then the impact for businesses, employees and society could yet emerge as the most positive, most surprising outcome of these times.

Not back but forth:
flipping the narrative, to shape a better future

As we slowly adjust to the reordering of the world, conversation has turned to when things will get back to normal. While understandable, we at 8 feel there is a need to challenge the very idea of ‘back to normal’. Why? Because we see this current socio-economic reckoning as an incredible opportunity to improve our normal, by driving innovation (new ideas that stick) across sectors and categories. Many people are now re-evaluating their lives, their purpose, and the values they want to carry forward with them. We will perhaps never know a time when the idea of radical change will be so readily accepted, or even encouraged. It would be a dereliction of duty not to examine the doors—long closed—that now inch open before us.

As governments prepare their roadmaps for organizations to re-open practically and safely, it would be a missed opportunity not to build on this. Let’s flip the narrative and show how this could be the greatest accelerator for change, by allowing us to re-think, re-imagine and re-make the systems, services and experiences that make up our daily lives.

This mass work-from-home experiment has provoked interesting debate, and there is perhaps no better place to start thinking about the future than by focusing on the workplace. In this two-part article we explore how, collectively, we might design the next era of the workplace, with a better work/life balance and a happy, fulfilled, motivated and productive workforce to drive our economy forward.

The workplace challenge: new behaviors to accelerate workplace transformation

As Heather E. McGowan argues in Forbes, the past decade has seen much talk of accelerated change in the workplace, due in part to developments in technology, the economy and social norms. Yet the pace of actual change has been pedestrian as organizations struggle to adapt without the means or motivation to enact it. Compounding this has been a general deterioration of work / life balance for many employees over the past decade, driven partly by an ‘always-on’ culture and its effects on mental wellbeing and physical health. (A number of studies and reports have identified the workplace as the number one contributor to stress-related illnesses among working adults.)

We have been hypothesizing ‘the future workplace’ for years. Now COVID-19 has changed all that in the blink of an eye, leaving employees in lockdown across the world re-evaluating their innate desire for human interaction.

And while some more traditional commentators still caution this as a temporary shift before we slip comfortably back into business as usual, others recognize there will be long-term behavioral changes in how we live and work. As Susan Athey, SIEPR Senior Fellow and Economics of Technology Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says, “People will change their habits, and some of these habits will stick. There’s a lot of things where people are just slowly shifting, and this will accelerate that.”

To reimagine the workplace we need to recognize the new behaviors we are currently adopting, then understand what will stick, and why. Businesses will need to read their employees’ motivations—intrinsic and extrinsic—and what ultimately, will make them receptive to change. Will new ideas for the office inspire them and improve the way they feel? Will they recognize their needs and benefit them? Will they enable them to do their jobs better and more easily? Will there be shared ownership in decision-making?

The experimentation opportunity: a people-obsessed transformation

The type of work experience employees will transition back to as they exit lockdown, depends entirely on the decisions being made now and how bold leaders choose to be. While design can define human progress, not all design will. Indeed much design is, at best, iterative. At worst, it can be plain regressive.

To represent true progress, the new era of working life must be inspired by the changes being adopted now. Companies across the world have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on these current shifts in behavior and maximize the positive impact on business performance. It may seem counter-intuitive to talk of a pandemic as an opportunity, but we must look forward and innovate. It would be a mistake not to seize this moment in time for workplace experimentation, to test scenarios that facilitate better human interactions. Let’s try some new things, learn quickly, pivot if necessary, and move ahead—at pace.

In part II of this article, published later this week, we will build on this perspective with ideas for how we might re-think the meaning of the workplace and the role of physical office space. We’ve started to imagine ways of working that could fuel an organization’s culture, strengthen team spirit, boost morale and ultimately drive business performance. We also show how this, in turn, could generate a positive ripple effect for wider society.

This is our thought-starter that we hope will stimulate public conversation and provoke debate amongst friends, colleagues, clients and partners. We look forward to sharing the Rhythmic Workspace with you in part II.

Steve Lidbury is Executive Principal at Eight Inc.