For the past couple of months most of us have effectively been forced to work from home. Now we’re at the stage where we’re thinking about the return to work — and what exactly that will look like. Interestingly, companies like Twitter are considering giving all of their employees the choice of working from home permanently, coming back to HQ, or a combination of both.
In this 2017 article, CNN outlined seven reasons why we’re at a higher risk of a global pandemic. When it was written, we didn’t take it too seriously. But it’s happened — and inevitably we’ll continue to see extreme events outside our control again in the future.
That’s one good reason to reshape the way we think about traditional office workspaces and create new environments that could deal with any external event.
We know that great workplaces don’t start and end with physical spaces however. While we’re in this moment of reinvention, we can reshape the way we work to ensure our people are happy, engaged and productive.
After all, employee and customer engagement are the two key metrics that are going to distinguish the businesses of the future from the companies that ultimately die.
Don’t believe me?
I’ve worked with companies like Google who have been promoting flexible working for years. In fact, some companies were even built with remote teams. 37signals was so proud of having 70% of their employees working remotely in 2013, they wrote a book about it. Here’s what their work and lives look like.
Let’s accept that flexible working will become the norm.
How are these companies so successful when they let their employees work wherever and whenever they want?
When you break down the research to look for patterns that make companies like these so successful, there’s some fundamental activities they do really well.
The most crucial element behind successful teams and boosting employee engagement is being clear on why the team exists, what they’re here to achieve and how you plan on getting there. It seems pretty fundamental, but so many leaders I work with struggle to answer questions around the team’s mission, the key success measures and the strategy on how to kick those goals.
It’s crucial to get this right, get buy-in from your team(s), and make sure everyone is aligned and on the same journey. If you’re not sure how to get started, read this article before you do anything else.
It’s important to reflect on ourselves as individuals first, and clearly articulate what brings out the best in us to our colleagues. How we expect to show up (and perform) varies completely for each person. As an example, the way you approach ‘heads down’ focus time is completely different to how you would participate in a brainstorming workshop.
It can usually be quite bumpy learning to work with other people, and many people can’t articulate what their colleagues’ working styles are.
One way we tackle this challenge at Beaker & Flint is to create personal user guides. Imagine if each person (like a brand new app or device) had a series of onboarding screens (or a user manual) that taught you how to work best with them. We ask every new starter to create one of those and share it with others in the team to reduce the collaboration learning curve.
Atlassian has a great guide in their team playbook here, and we highly recommend you doing this with your team.
Now that we’re clear about how we like to work and what we expect from others, let’s explore collaboration.
This HBR article demonstrates that collaboration shouldn’t get in the way of agility and achieving outcomes. It’s paramount that we’re clear about the type of collaboration we’re looking for, and to make sure it’s not actually wasting time or getting in the way.
The key point is that as long as we’re clear about our roles and responsibilities — and can communicate the right things at the right time — we should be getting closer to results. Again this sounds simple, but evidently most teams aren’t clear on what they should be doing — and what they can expect from colleagues.
Depending on the type of work we do, we need to play different roles. It is essential to know what role you’re playing given the context.
Next time you’re picking up a new item in your backlog or kicking off a new project, bring up the visual below, and discuss which quadrant is the best approach for collaboration in order to get that work done. It may feel unnatural at first, but over time it becomes second nature, and you’d be surprised at how much smoother collaboration becomes once you call out your approach.
With great flexibility comes great responsibility (and discipline). To enjoy the fruits of flexibility, you have to be highly disciplined and not get distracted by a whim. Agree on your team’s regular cadence, determine what success looks like, track individual and team performance against expectations and goals, and most importantly celebrate success and look for ways to continuously improve.
But we haven’t seen what the workplace of the future will look like?
Something you may have noticed is we haven’t actually taken a deep dive into what the physical office spaces will actually look like. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. And also because nobody knows.
If you read futurist predictions on what office spaces will look like, the only common theme you’ll find is that they are all focused around one thing — they’re employee-centric. They aim to keep staff happy, healthy, productive and engaged.
As long as you can create collaborative time for teams and focus time for individuals, you’re on the right track. You can get creative with the rest.
Companies like Spotify and MYOB have team rooms — where people can collaborate and get the human interaction that a lot of people love. But when it’s time to focus, they have quiet individual workspaces where people can actually get stuff done, minus the distractions of an open-plan workspace.
Unfortunately, most modern office workspaces gather teams around a pod full-time or even worse take on the ‘hot-desking’ model. While these models will save the company some money in the short term, the long term cost of unengaged and unproductive teams will far outweigh any benefit. Here’s a quick video that explains why open offices aren’t the right solution.
While open-plan spaces aim to promote collaboration, in most cases we’ve seen they actually have the opposite effect. Employees in open-plan offices spend 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, and email and messaging use increases by over 67%.
So what does the future office and home workspace look like then?
The answer is: not a great deal different to what we have today — just optimised a lot better.
First, we need to nail the four fundamentals we’ve explored in this article. If we can do that, not only will we be able to protect our business from external disruptions like a pandemic — but we’ll future proof our organisation and achieve happy, healthy and high performing teams.
Remember to focus on these things, rather than being drawn to cheap office layouts or pulled in the direction of fads.
A lot of organisations are already operating in an environment with a culture and toolset that isn’t limiting their location to downtown or by the beach. And it’s giving their people the freedom to work however they want.
If you’re the decision-maker when it comes to the way people work, remember: