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Thought: The Future Workplace

Set in the year 2019, Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir film Blade Runner gives us a glimpse at how the future looked to a generation that had not yet been introduced to the Apple Mac computer or the worldwide web.  Thankfully Los Angeles, and other cities around the world, haven’t degenerated into a grid of darkened dystopian skyscrapers and we are not (yet) working alongside bioengineered android “Replicants”. Instead, our ‘modern’ workplace has been shaped by the rise of an increasingly agile, diverse and multigenerational workforce, and the recognition that keeping them happy, healthy and productive is the key to a company’s success.

The 5G Workforce

As The Office Space explored in our November 2018 theme The Multigenerational Workplace, we are on the cusp of the 5 Generational, or 5G workplace, which will see pre-Baby Boomers (born prior to 1946) through to the Alpha generation (born after 1997) working side by side. In a white paper co-produced with Raconteur “Workplace 2020: A Study of the Future of Work”, Google for Work predicts that “By 2020, digital natives, digital immigrants and digital exiles will need to work in harmony and be fully enabled by technology if they are to deliver on shared business goals, against a backdrop of new working habits”.  As a result of this diversity,different ways of thinking and acting across the five generations must be taken into consideration when designing working environments. The critical objective is to create ageless organisational cultures in which all demographics are supported. This more inclusive and diverse picture of the workforce is a welcome change in focus from the Millennial-centric rhetoric of earlier years that saw everything catering to this burgeoning population group which, according to population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, are expected to overtake Boomers in 2019 as the largest living adult generation (Millennial numbers reach 73 million in the US workforce, and Boomers decline to 72 million). Shifting demographics, digitalization, and the desire for greater job satisfaction is also redesigning the landscape of global employment into a freelance-driven model.  According to a 2018 report from Morgan Stanley Research, freelancers represent 35% of the total U.S. working population and could represent more than half of the country’s workforce by 2027.  And it’s not just Millennials that are embracing this new gig economy.  A study from PricewaterhouseCoopers from June 2016, shows that the desire to work independently increases with age, owing to a preference toward flexible work situations and a good work/life balance. The Future Laboratory’s 2018 Workspace Foresight Report describes this frontier as the “Flat Age Workspace” that includes “digitally native Generation I, socially conscious Millennials, and the last of the diligent Baby Boomers”. They predict work environments where “buddy desks” will ensure workers with complementing skillsets or knowledge are teamed up to boost intergenerational working relations. Age diversity, combined with a truly multicultural and global workforce, and increasing gender equality in the workplace create a true cultural melting pot in today’s modern workplace.  This drives the demand for workplace design and organisational structures that cater for all types of differences while creating underlying cohesion and inclusion.  As a result, workplace design considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.

The Invisible Technology

Rick Deckard’s flying company car notwithstanding, technology has completely revolutionised the cubicle office structure of the 80’s.  Cloud solutions and mobile technologies have made workplaces much more agile and allowed for a complete deconstructed of the traditional workplace layout. Since the 1960’s, the continuous doubling of transistors on a microchip has allowed us to shrink computers, so that today’s smartphones are far more powerful than the 20thcentury’s room-filling supercomputers. This phenomenon, known as Moore’s Law will hit its limit around 2020 when atomic-scale quantum effects start getting in the way. Technologists are already working on new ways to increase the power of technology, such as 3D stacking, which will increase speed by integrating chips for processing, memory and communication into a single unit. There are also completely new architectures, such as neuromorphic chips which mimic the human brain, and quantum computing which operates on the sub-atomic level. According to Forbes 2016 article “Why 2020 Is Shaping Up To Be A Pivotal Year”, the upshot is that the focus of technology will shift from chip performance to how the system functions as a whole, including not only the capabilities embedded in our devices, but also resources in the cloud. Intelligent software will help us to navigate between these capabilities instantly and seamlessly to optimize our devices for any given task.  Feeding into this, the Internet of Things (IoT) will also continue to influence our homes and workplaces, with over 20 billion IoT devices expected to be deployed by 2020 according to analyst firm Gartner, a doubling of 2018 figures. This opens up the potential for a whole new way of working, empowered by collaborative and mobile solutions, that will continue to radically alter the shape of the future workforce and workplace.  Kinnarps, one of Europe’s largest provider of workspace interior solutions,has coined this interaction between technology and architecture as “techiture”, and it is touted as a main driver in the next great design shift. So, unlike the futuristic predictions of film and novels that portray the workplace of the future as overtly computerised, extraordinary advances in technology have completely deconstructed the modern workplace to put people first.  What we are seeing (or not seeing) is ‘invisible tech’, which paves the way for a more nuanced modern workplace that is founded on the feel and function of a workplace. The working environments of the future are going to be characterised by workplaces customised with people in mind and not hardware.

The Employee Experience

In the competitive consumer marketplace, customer experience (CX) has been the core focus of product and serviced-based companies looking to optimize sales and success.  Now, in a competitive jobs market, employee experience (EX) is the new trump card for companies that recognize keeping their workers happy translates to increased productivity from which increased profitability and commercial success will ensue. Just as customer experience eclipsed customer service by engaging customers in more meaningful ways – such as rational, emotional, sensorial, physical, and spiritual, employee experience has gone beyond simple employee satisfaction to win their hearts and minds and, in turn, their loyalty and ‘best effort’ in the workplace. According to a Gallup workplace pollof almost 1.4 million employees, companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147%in earnings per share.  This is supported by the Globoforce Employee Experience Study which has found that EX is positively associated with work performance. The more satisfied and appreciated a company’s employees are, the more likely they are to work harder, ultimately resulting in greater performances. In his latest book, The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspaces they Want, the Tools they Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate” (Wiley, March 2017), author and futurist Jacob Morgan analyzes over 250 global organizations to determine how to create an organization where people genuinely want to show up to work.  He identifies three key factors that must be addressed to achieve what he coins the “Employee Experience Advantage”: culture, technology, and physical space. According to future strategy firm The Future Laboratory, in their 2018 The Future of The Workplaceforesight report, these three elements will merge to create a working experience for employees that may have once been reserved for a luxury traveler.  “Tomorrow’s Hospitality Workspace will be a one-stop urban flagship destinationfor the 5G workforce, a place where work, play and rest are combined under one roof, forming convenient destinations and innovative communities that will attract the globalised, footloose workforce of the late 2020s.” Importantly, the changes won’t be only skin deep.  Workers will be granted greater flexibility to dip in and out of active work, taking advantage of social hubs, communal kitchens, or sleep quarters, or to pay a visit the workplace gallery, gym and wellness centres. Increasingly flexible hours are yet another way for employers to create ideal conditions to attract staff. Innovative companies are learning how to master the employee experience, butthis is a substantial change in focus for many businesses. It will require redesigning the organisational structure and putting the employee, essentially the workplace customer, at the centre, rather than a top-down approach with the employee at the bottom.


The topic of future work and the future workplace have been dominated by talk of automation and AI, however, the future of work isn’t about tech. It’s about people.  The workplaces of the future will be places to encourage “soft skills” like interpersonal relationships, creativity, complex problem-solving, and critical thinking. Even still, time will tell on whether Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is any closer to our future reality.

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