Workplace Trends Conference 2018 – our conclusions and what we really need to focus on

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There were some fairly stark messages coming over loud and clear in yesterday’s Workplace Trends Conference, which was held at the aptly chosen Royal College of Physicians in London. Apt, because it’s a beautiful building exemplifying many of the virtues of modernist design in a leafy corner off Regents Park, a building designed by British architect Sir Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) and a place of important history and breakthrough achievement. An inspired choice of venue.

How many workplaces come even close to this quality of place? This question wasn’t raised expressly at the conference, but the answer came across loud and clear.

Unhealthy and unhappy workers

People who work in offices are generally an unhealthy bunch. 80% of them spend less than an hour a day outdoors according to Jonathan Brune, Durable. Coupled with this is the global trend over centuries which has seen work become increasingly sedentary. Office workers spend an average 70% of their day sitting down, and doing less than adequate amounts of standing up, moving around or exercise to compensate John Buckley, University Centre Shrewsbury told us.  Office workers aren’t happy about their workplaces either. 3 or 4 of the speakers referenced the same conclusion from the Leesman Report 2017 that more than 50% didn’t think their work environment enabled them to be productive.

So, a fairly unhealthy bunch, not that happy with their workplaces. As the morning’s chair Nigel Oseland put it – we’re like animals in a Victorian zoo, which is a far cry from the Regency Park savanna outside the building.

New cultural and competitive challenges

All this needs putting into context. According to James Woudhuysen there are some big trends storming towards us (fast, but not exponentially). The cultural and economic impact of China in a local as well as global sense. Another global financial crisis. The major crisis in confidence in all things establishment  – political, media, corporate and social. Above all, the erroneous fixation on all the things we need to stop, reduce, prevent instead of the leadership, innovation and productivity we can and should be striving for.

The other mega trend is of course digitisation and AI. Although not everything is, processing speed and power is definitely increasing exponentially, according to Antony Slumbers, Estates Today. This will change the nature of work, inevitably, and soon. Anything that is structured, repeatable or predictable is ‘old work that is going to be automated. This won’t make humans obsolete, it will create new work, in aesthetics, creativity, design, empathy, and inspiration.

So the same unhappy, unhealthy bunch, responsible for leading in an increasingly difficult global climate, with new cultural and competitive challenges, with a major shift in the nature of work. If that’s not a recipe for creative tension, what is? Good stuff.

Organisational change before trends

So what kind of workspaces are going to be needed? The words Cooperation, Collaboration and Communication came up as often as Leesman did. Some fascinating tech from Lorena Espaillat Bencosme and Philipp Siedler, Zaha Hadid demonstrated how access to daylight, co-workers and essential amenities could be modelled to design effective workspaces that foster collaboration, identified quiet spaces, and supported wellbeing. Other references to heat, light, acoustics, natural features and materials, plants and adaptable furniture were frequent throughout the day. Clearly, wellbeing is an important factor. But if Woudhuysen is right about our fixation on hype and Slumbers is right about the massive shift in the nature of work in the new age of AI, then there are other fundamental issues of leadership, culture and productivity to be addressed.

Activity based approach

The sessions that stood out for me were those by Itai Palti, Hume and Michal Matlon, HB Reavis. In their different ways they both alluded to detailed research which looked at what activity people actually did at work in quite some detail. Matlon’s conclusion was that productivity didn’t stem from collaboration but from individual privacy and focus. Putting coders who like working at night, on a 9-5 in a biophilic open plan office is not a stroke of genius on all counts. We are not all going to be coders of course, and maybe we need to do the collaborating first to define the problem and how we are then going to focus on it in private. However the point being made was that current over use of open-plan type spaces isn’t good for everything and everyone, and that more acoustic and visual privacy is necessary.

Conclusion

The overriding message? The nature of work is changing, we are going to need spaces designed for specific kinds of work, in the right balance. Spaces that both enable collaborative, creative, sociable and noisy work, AND ALSO spaces designed for privacy. There are new tools that enable designers and space planners to model how design impacts productivity. There is clearly the intelligence and capability to design workplaces fit for a new era, and we need to move the workplace on at pace to keep up with the evolution of work itself. I’m reminded of the point in Christine Kohlert & Scott Coopers book Space for Creative Thinking that a space is only as good as those who lead in it.

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