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Design for a better work experience for individuals

In this guest post Mark Catchlove, Leader of MillerKnoll’s Insight Group, reflects on the new realities for the workplace, and the need to focus on supporting choice, flexibility and adaptability to create a great workplace experience

Knowledge workers were already demanding, or at least hoping for, an improved working experience before the pandemic. We know that many companies were not delivering this. Surveys carried out by organisations like Leesman continually showed that not everyone was having a great workplace experience. Many of the workplace features that were highly valued, like individual focused work, were not being well catered for in many organisations.

Whilst we can debate the reasons why companies were struggling to deliver a better workplace experience, they were suddenly faced with the reality that new ways of working are not as difficult to implement after all. The productivity arguments, the trust debate, the challenges of managing remotely, the ability to collaborate successfully – many unfounded assumptions made by leaders were suddenly being challenged because of the pandemic forcing so many people to work from home.

We’ve started to see a bigger focus on the fundamental needs of the individual – purpose, belonging, achievement, security, autonomy, recognition

In this context, the subject of wellbeing found its way into the boardroom and leaders across disciplines started to work together to ensure that the future is about creating a better experience of work. We’ve started to see a bigger focus on the fundamental needs of the individual – purpose, belonging, achievement, security, autonomy, recognition.

The new focus on autonomy

In many workshops run by Herman Miller, autonomy has featured very highly as one of the most important fundamental needs. This is where the future working experience is starting to focus. Autonomy is freedom, but it still has boundaries, unlike anarchy; the two should not be confused. Surveys have shown that people are now more than ever looking for the opportunity to determine when and where they work. This needs to be considered as companies start to review working policies – the hybrid working model can still constrain autonomy if you are telling people what days they must be in the office.

So, what does this mean for the places where people work? We were already seeing some organisations giving people choices both inside and outside the building. Inside the building we are seeing a larger variety of work setting to support the users and their individual preferences, as well as the variety of tasks that they are asked to do.

It is wrong to assume focus will be done at home and the office will be solely for collaboration.

Offices are being designed to support a broad spectrum of work from individual focus through to intense collaborative events.  It is wrong to assume focus will be done at home and the office will be solely for collaboration. The pandemic has highlighted that while there is a great demand to work from home, not everyone has the room or the social set-up to support a great work experience.

Focus spaces within the office will still be needed. Not necessarily private ones, but places where people will not be disturbed. Leesman research has shown that one of the biggest problems within an office before the pandemic was noise and addressing this moving forward will be even more important. In addition to products being developed to minimise noise, we are starting to see areas being designated as quiet areas – where agreed protocols are observed.

Designing for change and adaptability

One of the trends we are starting to see is the need to change spaces quickly.  Neil Usher, author of Elemental Workplace, refers to work and workplace being in “permanent beta mode”. This is the case now more than ever. This is reflected in products we are developing, as well as the layouts being implemented by designers

A quote from a recent Herman Miller case study of a project with the British Council illustrates this point well:

“Designing and outfitting a new space during a pandemic was no doubt challenging but the flexibility of the new British Council space has proved to be hugely beneficial. The original aim to deliver a flexible workspace has more than proved its worth in the Covid-19 situation,” says Major Programmes Director Damien Bourke. “We didn’t need to make any knee-jerk changes. We had already planned for a lower density of people, so we are able to adapt the space easily. We may not have seen the end of the pandemic and so organisations have to take a much more flexible view of how they organise their spaces.”

What can organisations do to make their spaces more desirable as on demand destinations for employees newly empowered to work anywhere? Following extensive discussions with occupiers we have identified three core experiences that the office is uniquely positioned to support:

  1. Community Socialisation – While most of us have found virtual ways to maintain a sense of connection to our closest friends and family over the past year, our “weak ties” risk being lost. This outer circle of acquaintances—whether that’s the building concierge who is on a first-name basis with everyone, or the co-worker from another department with whom you like to make small talk—is vital to an individual’s social health. Building these relationships is also critical for establishing and maintaining culture—and helping people feel a sense of purpose and belonging. By providing areas that encourage people to interact with their extended networks, your office can help re-establish these connections.
  2. Team Collaboration – In the prevailing model of workplace design, individual workstations are “owned” or assigned, and group spaces are shared. But organisations looking to seed spontaneous socialisation and concerted collaboration need to flip this to more of a neighbourhood model. In this model, team space is owned, while individual spaces are shared within it. When workplaces practice “neighbourhooding” in this way, they better accommodate longer-term collaboration while also creating opportunities for those spur-of-the-moment chats that cannot be scheduled via video conference.
  3. Individual Focus – The past year has stressed our homes in many ways, with spare bedrooms called into duty as classrooms, gyms, offices, or all the above. And for those of us without a room to spare, the realities of children, roommates, or extended family have made it difficult to even find a corner to work in—let alone actually finding focus. For these individuals, a return to the physical office can provide a respite for concentration and focused work, given the right spatial setup.

How well employees were treated during the pandemic will last long in the memory – and many companies will suffer as people choose to move because of their recent negative experiences. However, for many, this has been a time of enlightenment and learning about what it is that makes a great working environment. Many of those see the office as key part, but not the only part, of an outstanding workplace experience.

The opportunity is now here to revisit the whole experience of work and for offices to move from being perceived as a substantial investment to providing a competitive edge. Let’s not miss it.

“Human organisations have always been natural places of change, reflecting the organic nature of life. What is different now is the pace of change and the prospect that it will come faster and faster.” – Robert Propst – The Office, a Facility Based on Change – Published by Herman Miller in 1968


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