Making People Better at Work, Part Three - Contextually Appropriate Workplaces

productivity wfh workplace Feb 10, 2021
Making People Better at Work, Part Three - Contextually Appropriate Workplaces

Written by Chelsea Perino and Richard Claydon | image: @ianharber

The Largest Work From Home Experiment of All Time

Although many have voiced a desire to work more flexibly, working from home (WFH) was often believed by organisations to lead to decreased productivity.  Prior to Covid, less than 10% of workers in the U.S could perform essential job functions while WFH and even fewer had the means of achieving their usual office-based performance levels. (Wall Street Journal, As Businesses Shut, How Many U.S Workers Can Work From Home?).

Now, however, things have changed.

Although the data is not fully in, initial feedback from those suddenly WFH was that they were more productive and the WFH experience more engaging than being in the workplace. Many people were reporting increased levels of focus, freedom and flexibility. 

Such findings have forced organisations to rethink their workplace strategy.   They have had to re-evaluate their biases about the impact management and workplace culture had on the workforce.  Were these actually reducing productivity? 

Many organisations also realised that they were not prepared nor did they have the infrastructure to enable employees to work effectively remotely. This is not surprising.  Beyond Scandinavia, only recently have organisations really started to examine the important role that flexibility plays in a workplace strategy. 

It seems that the Great WFH Experiment was generating something unexpectedly engaging and productive. Some people were enjoying their newfound focus, flexibility and freedom, and, paradoxically, flourishing in a pandemic!

However, this is a partial reading.  

There are also worrying reports of other people experiencing overwhelm, social isolation and feelings of a loss of purpose and gratification, all of which could have a significant impact on their wellbeing.  

Further increases to overwhelm, which was covered in detail in the opening section, will be seriously detrimental to wellbeing and organisational performance. Likewise, the loss of purpose and gratification could result in the onset of apathy and depression. 

The feelings of social isolation are even more serious.  Feeling socially isolated and lonely is more predictive of poor wellbeing than obesity or heavy smoking.  If care is not taken, there is a mental health epidemic waiting in the wings of the COVID pandemic.

Those working in large companies indicted three core reasons for these feelings.

  1. Home/Office Setup - a lack of dedicated office space, non-ergonomic furniture and inadequate technologies combined with the struggle to achieve work-life balance is leading to people feeling physically and psychologically uncomfortable as they struggle to adapt their homes to organisational demands.

  2. Organisational Cluelessness - leaders, managers and teammates seem to lack a deep understanding of the socio-technological dimensions of other people’s jobs, meaning their behaviours and usage of digital technologies negatively impact how good work gets done.

  3. Communication Protocols - the loss of any sense as to what is actually going on in an organisation due to no longer being able to have a relaxed informal conversation, chat or banter with colleagues, and how attempts to replace it seem forced, superficial and valueless.  It also encroaches into personal time without providing any meaningful context in exchange, which, at its worst, makes leadership communication appear dictatorial and/or condescending.

There is no easy fix.  Some technology companies are already suggesting they can solve these problems in a way that will ensure that productivity and engagement remain significantly above the levels that can be achieved in the workplace.  Shopify, Atlassian and Slack, which all make online productivity and collaboration tools, have openly stated that WFH will become a permanent aspect of employment. GitLab, which makes digital DevOps tools, has stated that hybrid models don’t make sense, and all employees should WFH permanently. 

These statements appear to be strategic movements to eat into the CRE market while it is weak.  

If tech companies manage to persuade executives that they can solve the above challenges for them at a fraction of the cost of rented office space, and with increased engagement and productivity, then commercial real estate has a major problem on its hands. 

And if executives are so persuaded and a widespread take-up leads to significant levels of social isolation, then society has a problem on its hands. The already frightening figures on poor wellbeing will amplify dramatically. 

Towards a 21st Century Workplace Design Ethic

Workplace design is not a black and white spectrum anymore. 

When the office was first introduced during the 19th century, the stereotypical image was one of multiple cubicles in a row with management suites and a boardroom. This continued throughout much of the 1900s. Then Frederick Taylor coined the concept of scientific management and the idea of using space management to drive maximum productivity from employees gained popularity. This management system triggered the open-plan office design - a floorplate that maximised the number of employees and minimised the number of supervisors. 

There is an argument that this was an effective system at a time when people had one job and one task.  However, it has come under more and more scrutiny since the 1980s when the diversification of the workforce meant people needed multiple resources in order to do their job effectively. 

Fast forward to the 21st century and the birth of coworking. The concept of collaboration gained traction and gave rise to the fully flexible working model. Suddenly organisations were moving from one side of the spectrum to the other - from rows of cubicles and monochromatic offices to fully open concepts without permanent seating for any employee, regardless of their job title or function. 

The initial thought was that open spaces would be better for fostering valuable interactions, but it didn’t happen. To use a ‘Field of Dreams’ analogy, if you build it, they don’t necessarily come. According to the Harvard Business Review, when firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%, even though it was those exact interactions that it was supposed to encourage.  So where is the disconnect?

It turns out that spatial design only plays one part in the productivity and satisfaction equation. People are that other major factor, and people are different. 

This is where things get really interesting. 

For decades, most American organisations had followed a lean office policy of off-white cubicles containing desk, chair and screen, and no “distractions” such as windows or paintings to look at or out of. Power and status played a significant role, with elegantly decorated, view-tastic corner offices becoming the signifiers of the executive class, while dull rectangular boxes signalled how little the occupants and their work mattered. 

Corporate real estate, at executives’ bidding, built splendid corner offices and cubicle swamps without offering much useful advice as to what type of physical space enabled good work. 

There are two reasons why this needs to change. 

  • Enriched and Empowered Productivity: Research suggests that enriching an office environment improves productivity by circa 17%. An employee doing a reasonably repetitive and routine task, will do it faster and with fewer mistakes in an enriched environment.  In an era in which time-to-market can be make or break, workspace enrichment is important. The cost of sprucing up an office versus the value of +17% productivity across the workforce should be a no-brainer for most CFOs. 

If you empower the workspace by asking your employees to contribute to decor choices and decorations, and pick furnishings that fit their ergonomic requirements, then productivity further improves by 15%. 

Simply put, while all people seem to work better in enriched environments, if they are given the chance to impact the look and feel of their space, even higher levels of performance result. 

  • The Trouble with Talent: There is also the digital talent problem. Young, digitally savvy people are simply not going to work for an organisation that doesn't look cool. If you spend zero money or effort on the physical design of your workplace, then don’t expect high-quality digital talent to join. 

This frames the three core dimensions of future-ready workplace design.  

  1. Everybody needs enrichment.

  2. Digital talent is ultra-picky, because digital natives read about and see all the cool Big Tech and start-up spaces. 

  3. Some kind of empowerment, either in the availability of flexibility or in the cocreation of office design, further boosts performance. 

The trend that brought this into public consciousness was coworking, largely thanks to the media attention focused on WeWork. Unfortunately, due to the huge fall from grace that WeWork has suffered since filing for IPO in September 2019, there is a risk that people will stop taking this seriously. 

That would be a mistake. 

WeWork’s error was not in the initial design of the space. WeWork’s regular claims that productivity and engagement were higher than the norm in its enriched workspaces is backed up by independent research.  It can be trusted. 

WeWork’s error was in its scaling methodology.  It scaled vertically in the manner of a tech company, replicating its product in all markets at the lowest cost and fastest pace possible.  The idea was that the experience of a WeWork in Asia would match the experience of a WeWork in the US or Europe, attracting people everywhere to the brand, and that by scaling rapidly, it could achieve market dominance in coworking to the same extent that Google has for Search or Facebook has for social media. 

This created two challenges. 

  1. WeWork’s initial design aesthetic was New York chic. While perfect for New York, would it translate into other locales and cultures? Would the same enrichment effect be felt?  

  2. To make the spaces exciting to investors wanting to achieve the network advantages of scale, WeWork had to start packing more and more people into its spaces.  Its pitch deck compares its square footage per member (60) with Regus’s 130. In 2018, it was reported that WeWork was “targeting a density rate of 35-45 sq ft per desk for their new coworking spaces” in Central London.  While enriched spaces are causal of greater productivity, small desks in noisy, cramped spaces are highly correlated with poor productivity. Inevitably, the latter was going to overpower any productivity benefits of the former. 

At the time of writing, it seems WeWork’s strategy has failed. 

But that doesn’t mean it was fundamentally wrong.  Or that higher-end workplace design isn’t a great idea. It just means you can’t blitzscale real estate. 

Contextual Appropriate rather than Vertical Scaling

The problem with vertical scaling is a lack of awareness of cultural dissimilarities. If everybody is treated as a homogeneous mass, it doesn’t match reality.  Not only do national cultures differ hugely, but regions within nations also do.  Even within companies, it is not unusual to experience different cultural behaviours within different functions.  Salesmen tend to thrive in noisy, high-energy environments.  Coders and copywriters, not so much. 

At one level, workplace designers have already started recognising that a one-size-fits all approach does not improve performance.  The current solution is to design Activities-Based Working neighbourhoods, in which people can move into environments that suit the type of work they are currently doing.  This provides contextually-appropriate work settings without compromising the idea that people regularly interacting with members of other teams and departments improves performance. 

That begins to address the professional and functional challenges. But what of the cultural ones?  How can you make people feel they are both part of a company and of the local heritage? 

Enrichment is only going to be impactful if it possesses a cultural sensitivity that can enhance a person’s experience of the space.  Make the workspace as equally respectful of the community it is located in as the corporate culture.  Blend the two into something unique to the space that merges local and organizational sensitivities. In doing so, empower people to select their own decorations and furnishings as well, at least within a range, to enable further performative boosts.  This raises a few questions about workplace branding.  

  1. If the design focus is to make the company’s brand identity very obvious, what is that doing to the enrichment and empowerment effects?  

  2. Does branding the entire workplace in the company livery recreate the productivity-sapping experience of the lean workplace, just in a different colour scheme?

  3. How might you imaginatively inject the branding into a local heritage solution, so it complements rather than overpowers the whole? 

There aren’t any answers to these questions yet.  But note that heavily branded workplace environments may contribute to worse productivity and, as outlined in our next article, reduced learning. 

Beyond creating spaces that boost productivity and engagement to the level that many WFH reports claim, spaces are going to have to enhance wellbeing. Part of that will relate to post-COVID worries around cleanliness and physical health. That’s the base level. 

But the remainder has to be framed around social isolation, and the feelings of overwhelm and loss of purpose related to organisational cluelessness and the loss of informal communication. 

  1. Humans are social animals.  Remove social interactions and poor wellbeing follows.  We’re not talking about socializing but about the many daily interactions with others, from the briefest greeting to cross-table discussions in long meetings.  While some of these will boost energy and some will strip it away,  removing the opportunity for any interactions will be disastrous for the wellbeing for many. Further, it will be impossible for a workforce to do complex cognitive work, or, indeed, any kind of work, well, if the mental wellbeing of its employees is poor.

  2. Work-Life Integration.  The degree to which corporate life is peering into private life is unsettling for many. Inundated with digital meetings which can stretch from early morning to late evening, many people struggle to switch between their home and work persona, leading to family stress and poor emotional well-being. People want and need a division between work and home life so they can better integrate the two. Without meeting rooms and personal working space, this cannot happen. 

  3. A Sense of Coherence. Very few video or conference calls allow for any informal communication other than the barest of social pleasantries. This is problematic because much of the meaningful communication about work happens through informal channels.  Without such channels, the possibility of comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness diminish.  Not only that, but, as the previous and next sections illustrate, innovation, high-performance and organizational learning all require environments in which informal communication is able to flourish. 

There are no easy solutions.  But finding answers might be necessary in order to fight off the advances of tech companies selling permanent remote work solutions, especially if these result in worse wellbeing and reduced performance. If it wants to avoid massive disruption, Corporate Real Estate has to be armed with equally well-prepared behavioural data, and solutions to match. It has to catch up fast.



HBR: The Truth About Open Offices

Mini-Documentary: Open offices are overrated

Mini-Documentary: Open Plan Office

Lecture: Open Plan Is Dead. Long Live The New World Of Work

Blog: The Blitzscaling Basics

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Hofstede's 6D Model of National Culture - Simplest Explanation Ever

Deck: Voice of the Crowd 2



Read Part One of this series - Work is Killing Us

Read Part Two of this series - The Diseased Organisational Experience

Read Part Three of this series - Work Sucks! Escape Attempts and Coping Methods

Read Part Four of this series - Making People Better at Work, Part One - Salutogenesis

Read Part Five of this series - Making People Better at Work, Part Two - High-Quality Connections



Contribute to the Conversation -