The Office Renaissance: Part 2

October 17, 2016 | | View Comments

The Key Forces Behind the Movement

By Christine Congdon

Editor’s note: We’re excited to partner with Christine Congdon, Director of Global Research Communications at Steelcase, for this four-part series on why and how the workplace is changing and the impact it’s having on the people who work there. Christine will share her team’s research as a keynote speaker at our Workplace Innovation Summit, November 3rd in Boston. Here’s Part 2, if you missed Part 1, check it out here.

Take a moment to consider the rapid pace of change in the American workplace. It took 98 years from the point in time when Americans widely adopted electricity to when personal computers became commonplace for at least one-quarter of the population, according to Pew Research. Consider the acceleration since then. From the PC’s adoption in 1975, it took less than ten years for use of the mobile phone and just six years after it for the world wide web to be considered part of our daily life. In fact when the Pew Research Center asked hundreds of experts to predict digital life in 2025, they described an evolution into “a global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment.”

The evolution those experts predicted is well underway. Ever-increasing access to technology allows people to work anywhere, anytime. It’s clear that the old vision for one person to work almost entirely in one individual space, does not support traditional ways of working where people spent the majority of the day at their desk. Other forces are also accelerating change in the workplace.


Shift To Creative Work

Global competition and pressure to sustain and grow the business is creating a shift within organizations that are now emphasizing creativity and innovation.

“Breaking rules and breaking patterns is where new ideas come from,” notes Bruce Smith, director, global design. Many workplaces were designed to support an outdated process and did not make collaboration spaces a priority.

The War For Attracting and Retaining Talent  

The highly-skilled, most sought after employees, who can help organizations innovate and grow, are in demand. They often have several options of  where to work, choosing organizations that offer meaningful work and inspiring work environments. They’re looking for organizations that allow them to be themselves and  where they feel their contributions will make a difference.

Employee Disengagement

Over one-third of workers in 17 of the world’s most important economies are disengaged, according to Engagement and the Global Workplace, a study conducted by Steelcase and global research firm Ipsos. The study found the most highly disengaged workers were also the most unsatisfied with their work environments, citing they did not feel a sense of control over where and how they work. Workplaces designed with a strong focus on uniformity don’t empower people or give them a variety of spaces to choose from. This creates a tension for organizations looking to be agile and resilient.

The Promise of Technology

Hand-held, personal technologies are a game changer at the office. People leave smart homes and drive smart cars into offices that, for the most part, offer little in terms of technology to help them work and feel better. The internet of things, a concept in which essentially anything electronic – home appliances, cell phones, headphones, watches, wearable – is connected to the internet and other devices,  is something people have come to expect and opens new possibilities at work. When thoughtfully integrated in the physical environment, technology promises to make people’s work experience more human centered.  

The collision of these forces is causing both individuals and their organizations to recognize that something fundamental has to change.

“It’s like an ecosystem. Organisms in ecosystems evolve because there’s pressure on the status quo,” continues Ludwig. “And in the case of the office, there’s an ‘anti-corporate’ backlash because the term ‘corporate’ implies that a space has been created for the benefit of the organization, not the person. So it’s putting pressure on the system to change. The design challenge is to meet business needs while we’re serving the needs of human beings.”


An Emotional Connection

To address the anti-corporate backlash, some organizations turn to residential furniture in an effort to create more informal, emotionally comforting and a one-of-a-kind look. Companies today, especially startups, “are looking for things to last as long as their leases, which are getting shorter,” reports the American Society of Interior Designers in a recent newsletter. But there are real trade-offs in terms of sustainability: Products designed for lighter, residential use don’t hold up to the demands of a workplace, and with a shorter lifespan, and less focus on recyclability, they might see a landfill sooner.

Inspired by startups, some organizations are exploring radical openness to support transparency and collaboration. What gets overlooked however, is the basic human need for solitude and privacy, which supports both emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

Participants in the Steelcase / Ipsos engagement study shared honest feedback about what needs to change in their workplaces — the most common complaint was lack of privacy. “The noise level is distracting,” one worker wrote. “It’s very difficult to concentrate and to hear when on phone calls.” Another worker wants “a more private space … to do my work without interfering with anyone else.”

Some organizations are exploring radical openness to support transparency and collaboration. What gets overlooked however, is the basic human need for solitude and privacy, which supports both emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

The desire for emotional comfort can sometimes lead people to make choices that don’t support their physical comfort or ability to perform. The coffee shop might have a great vibe, but isn’t always the best work environment if the chairs are hard, the tables small and the lack of power outlets frustrating.

Like any complicated issue, there is no single right answer for every person or organization. Cherie Johnson, Steelcase global design director, counsels organizations to think about “purposeful placemaking.” “You need to understand how and why people use a space and then create spaces to reflect clarity, simplicity and purpose,” she says.


But How Do We Get There?

The renaissance happening in the workplace is a cultural movement that recognizes the critical role human emotions play in the process of work. Work has historically been regarded as a logical process and emotions were not a consideration. New research, however, highlights the connection between emotions and cognition, as well as physical wellness. It validates the role of human emotions in achieving business success. Traditional workplace benchmarks, such as real estate costs or increasing productivity, are being reframed by a deeper understanding of human behavior at work. Insights from neuroscience sheds light on what motivates and inspires people to achieve more.  

Steelcase researchers and designers have explored the underlying connections between people’s emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing. “Thinking about space through the lens of wellbeing, takes a very holistic and humanistic approach,” notes Johnson. “The problem is that offices designed with old business metrics were all about efficiency, and the human being got lost in the process. It led to a lot of work environments that were cold and sterile and did not help achieve the business goals organizations were aiming for.”

Read Part 3: Designing for Emotional, Cognitive, and Physical Wellbeing