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Thought: The Future of the Workplace

We live in an unprecedented age of disruption, with technology rewriting how we work, who we work with, and where we work. Inextricably linked with this hotbed ‘future of work’ topic, is the continued evolution of the workplace.  As computer portability and wireless technology have untethered us from the office cubicle, we have seen a physical deconstruction and reimagining of the traditional commercial office.  No longer bound by 9-5 work days, or a battery of office stalls, today’s emerging workplaces are an exciting combination of efficiency, positive culture, and creativity.

Australian Workplace Design on the World Stage

Australia has a strong global reputation for creating innovative workplaces.  At the prestigious INSIDE World Festival of Interiors 2016, Australia’s strongest category representation was “Office Design” (representing 5 of the 15 shortlisted entries), and the top honour was awarded to Woods Bagot Global Studio for Surry Hills’ shared space Paramount by The Office Space. This was in the wake of HASSELL winning best office design in 2015 for Medibank’s Docklands offices. Domenic Alvaro, Principal of Woods Bagot Australia, believes the positive correlation between design and economic outcomes is motivating this excellence. “Companies recognise the importance on the impact on company culture and on staff performance created by good design, whether large or small. For our clients, we focus on innovation, connectivity, materiality to create authentic experiences” It is also our uniquely antipodean approach that is being coveted by commercial firms around the world.  Angela Ferguson, Managing Director of FutureSpace, a highly-awarded design practice focused almost entirely on the workplace, believes “it’s a product of our relatively young built environment.  We aren’t encumbered by old buildings or centuries of tradition.  As a result we have a fresh eye and a uniquely collaborative approach which creates commercial workspaces that are deeply intuitive to the evolving nature of how people work, learn, live and experience the world around them.” This collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach is key to delivering spaces that aren’t just aesthetic, but intelligent and engaging.  Ferguson believes a successful space must balance and align technology, sociology and the design the company’s core goals and future direction. “We help organisations apply futurist principals to workplace design and its intersection with technology, people and physical space.”

Technology informing but not dominating workplace design

Digital innovation is having a profound effect on the 21st century organization. Physical hardware is increasingly sophisticated, flexible and connected.  Software is delivering countless touchpoints, big data analysis, and intuitive operating systems.  The pace and volume of workplace communications has increased exponentially from all directions, and systems and sensors all around us track operations and produce data as never before. Termed the “Internet of Things” (IOT), this vast and complex web of devices are smart and adaptive, anticipating our needs and automating countless tasks, from reordering milk to calibrating a workstation to fit your exact ergonomic requirements. With the current capacity of emerging work technologies, it’s tempting to assume the modern workplace is calibrated to the rafters with autonomous technologies and an all-knowing enterprise grade ‘Siri’ interface to meet our every need.  Not so, says founder of Digital Workplace Company James Dellow, a technology strategist and human-centred designer who works with firms like Futurespace or directly with the client. “It’s about innovation in workplace strategy using technology.  I advocate a much more human-led approach, determining what the core performance targets of the company are, and how technology can expedite and enhance these roles.” Much of James role centres around applying user research and solution architecture to help companies, and their people, to get the most out of the technology. So, whilst automation, digital platforms, and other hard and soft tech innovations are changing the fundamental nature of work, understanding what is helpful and what is confounding gimmickry is the crucial to a successful, and functional, workspace. This echoes strong sentiment from global IT and technology leaders amid the cautionary rhetoric of job loss and the redundancy of humans in the future. Cognizant, one of the world’s leading IT professional services companies, released a white paper in November 2017 entitled “21 Jobs of the Future” which concludes that “No matter how technological our age becomes, ultimately we, as humans, want the human touch. We want technology to help us, as a tool, but we don’t want technology for technology’s sake”.

People Power shaping the new workplace frontier

Intrinsically related to the workplace, is the workforce. As technology has allowed many people to work anywhere, anytime, we have seen the emergence of the gig economy, flexible working models such as job sharing, ‘hyphenates’ (someone working across multiple disciplines and multiple organisations), and ‘fissured work’ hybrids of a more fluid working style. Upwork, the world’s largest freelance talent marketplace, estimates there are 4.1 million freelances in Australia[1] (over 30% of the workforce), who generate $51 billion in earnings every year. Around the world, 37 percent of the global workforce is now mobile, 30 percent of full-time employees now do most of their work outside of the employers’ location, and 20 percent of the workforce is composed of temporary workers, contractors, and freelancers.[2] In their 2016 white paper, Transitioning to the future of work and the workplace, Deloitte predicts that this freelance movement will increasingly influence corporate culture.  “How we work in future will be more networked, more devolved, more mobile, more team-based, more project-based, more collaborative, more real-time, and more fluid”. Stuart Munro, Workplace Strategy & Change Manager at leading Australian Project Management firm Montlaur, says this creates an opportunity for companies to pivot their workplace to better support their key assets, attracting, retaining and engaging their staff. “As our clients push the boundaries of innovation in the workplace, there is an increasing need for Montlaur to not just manage the delivery of a new workplace, but the change that occurs throughout the entire organisation.” Montlaur also embodies the collaboration cascade, working with the client and industry partners such as designers, researchers, strategists, engineers and builders “to create inspiring and innovative workplaces that unlock performance.” In the workplace of the future, the satisfaction and engagement of the workforce will trump pure productivity metrics, as a way to optimise company success.

Intelligent design delivering a workplace that ‘works’

The call for workplace flexibility is not just a prime concern for workers. Companies seeking to overhaul their headquarters are looking to deliver physical space solutions that offer the whole organisation greater flexibility as their workforce and work function evolves.  They want return for their investment, seeking design that will deliver a more engaged and productive workforce, and have longevity and relevancy into the future. The challenge for today’s workplace designer then, is to fully consider all these influences – technology, the worker’s needs and wants, and the company’s legacy and outlook – and engineer a solution that delivers now, and in the future. In the past, the hierarchy of work and the constraints of technology dictated a relatively defined work layout, that only adjusted cosmetically. Now, designers are free to take inspiration from residential, hospitality, cultural, civic, health and education sectors with spectacular results. With options almost limitless for workplace designers, there is a greater responsibility for the profession to navigate all the workplace trends and gimmicks. 10 years ago, Activity Based Working (ABW) was devised as the best solution to optimise space utilisation and/or reduce a company’s rent roll, however enthusiasm has cooled towards such a fully fluid working style with workers reporting disconnect and displacement are counterproductive. Looking to the future, a Unispace report, Workplace 2020, predicts desks will be gone within five years, with a focus instead on co-working spaces and standing[3]. Today, workplace options include ‘biophilia’ (an abundance of living walls and green hubs), domestication (where the workplace is deliberately made more nurturing and homely), ‘workreation’ (think hammocks and rock-climbing walls), high-end sophistication, or playful design. “Ultimately great workplace design is about being 100% clear as to the problem we need to solve” says Clive Dale, former Regus Development Director, and founder of Workplace Consulting firm Bioom. Dale spends much of his time on the client side, advising on individual workplaces or large-scale precinct developments. He has travelled the world assessing commercial and coworking spaces, and has seen his share of workplace trends. Dale concedes there is no formula or blueprint for a leading office design, but rather “it is the careful consideration and deliberate shaping of all worker and client touchpoints, and recognising that a workforce is made up of introverts and extroverts, deep thinkers and collaborators, people who follow process and those whose day is different one day to the next. It is about truly understanding the overarching purpose or the company, the underlying intent of the workplace, and merging this into a place that workers love.”   Clever work spaces with a mixture of layouts, quite or collaborative zones, break out areas and meeting spaces, allow employee’s to customise their work style to enhance their output. Affording them choice helps them take control of the space, leading to greater engagement, job satisfaction, and in turn, collective company success.  Modular furniture and integrated joinery solutions can further support the workplace to adapt with the evolving nature of the business.

The Way Forward

Successful work spaces encourage the full spectrum of working styles, and reflect the company culture and direction.  Whether the emphasis is on structure or fluidity, inspiration or focused reflection, wellness or a convivial culture, the common thread is creating flexible, well-thought-out spaces that can cater to a range of working styles now, and in the future. In keeping with the key driver of this movement, the seismic shift in the nature of work, there is a whole new fleet of job roles specialising in marrying technology, human behaviour, design, and company culture within these emerging workplaces. With our nation’s innovative approach to work and design, Australia is well positioned to continue to lead the world in the future of the workplace.

Want to Hear More about The Future of The Workplace…?

This February Insight by The Office Space commences our 2018 program by Exploring The Future of the Workplace, and how technology, design and sociology are all converging to create new iterations of the workplace. Our special guest panellists are:

  • Angela Ferguson, Managing Director of Futurespace,
  • Stuart Munro, Change Director at Montlaur, and
  • James Dellow, Director at Digital Workplace Company.

When: Tuesday 27th February, from 5:30pm for drinks, ahead of the 6-7pm panel interview

Where: Golden Age Bar and Cinema, 80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills

Cost: Tickets $25 (include welcome drink and canapes) available at Humanitix

Article References [1] D Edelman, ‘Freelancing in Australia: 2015’, for Upwork, October 19, 2015. [2] Redwood, Holstrom, Vetter, Transitioning to the Future of Work and the Workplace: Embracing Digital Culture, Tools, and Approaches, for Deloitte, September 2016. [3] Unispace Workplace 2020 – Global Industry Insights, February 5, 2016   Photographer Nicole England Stay in touch, and learn more about our upcoming events. Subscribe here.

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