Future workplaces as hubs, hybrids and high-streets

We’ve been slingshotted into the future-of-work and the new models of the workplace are currently being designed and deployed. This is a pivotal moment where we must remember and reinforce organisational purpose, social structures, cultural norms, networks and work-life interfaces. These are the elements the design of the new models and new places of work must start with. We risk designing for the half-way state and not the organisation and work-models we desire or should have for the future. This moment is a great opportunity to properly reset our workplaces and their experiences.

As humans, we get great benefits from coming-together, clustering and connecting. We’re wired for it. We’ve built great cities and structures to enable it. But we are at a critical point of rethinking and reforming how we support this fundamental human act. This is affecting our workplace models profoundly — slingshotting us towards the future of work we’ve been theorising about along with the adoption of certain technologies and ways of working. We invested large amounts of money, time and energy in creating these places of congregation… then….

“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” — says Jes Staley, Barclays CEO, referring to the rethink of the traditional office tower or campus.

The current health crisis has altered our trajectory. Much has changed or been accelerated in the world of work this year and many old models are being challenged. One of these is the notion of commuting into a single, centralised and standardised office in the CBD. What hasn’t changed is that we are still human — and humans are social beings who come-together, build relationships and reinforce cultural identities. There are just some cultural, social or cognitive exchanges that are better in person.

Despite the challenges, we benefit from clustering and connecting in groups — which is perhaps most profoundly demonstrated by the ongoing migration to cities that offer a dense web of information, interactions and interdependencies. A certain level of density and proximity generates a series of positive outcomes.

The learnings over the last half-century about what good urbanism requires offers many lessons for our rethink of the office.

We’re working from home more, wary of the headquarters, and questioning now uneconomic models from the past. At the same time many are missing human interaction and rich or serendipitous exchanges or concerned about how we might maintain our brand values or cultural cohesion.

In the last few months — and at an increasing pace in the last few weeks — I have had many conversations with people across industries and locations highlighting that there is a lot of work to be done in rethinking and redesigning our places of work.

New models of working and the places that support them are rapidly being designed or decided upon. As I’ve argued before, I believe ‘workplaces’ will remain crucial places for creativity, coaching and combating loneliness, amongst other deeply human activities. We will, however, see less centralisation, more virtualisation and fragmenting of old structures and practices. We may not refer to this new model as ‘the office’ either.

We will need to remember and reinforce our organisational purpose, social structures, cultural norms, networks and work-life interfaces. These are the elements the design of the new models and new places of work starts from. We’re at an inflection point that requires some serious thought.

Our white-collar workplaces, and the ecosystems that supported them, were often modelled on work practices that have changed progressively, but never radically, over the last century. We have recently ‘borrowed’ some of the spaces reserved for desks for heralded ‘new ways of working’ and activity based environments. The change we’re facing now may be more fundamental and seismic.

Some of this is in anticipation of reopening, some through concern about an ongoing series of disruption to which we need to adapt, some is from the workers experimenting and adapting themselves. We need no reminding about the size of the change or challenge or the need to position for ongoing disruption and adaptation. Additionally, we won’t need to settle on one model or a future outcome and blindly or uniformly work towards that — no matter how nice it would feel to ‘know the answer’.

The truth is many models will emerge and be pursued. We are currently in the ‘half-way’ state — one that is a response to a crisis but hardly the end-point. We’ve seen many organisations adapt (or cope) with a rapid move to remote work and digital transformation accelerated by some years. There will be a lot of benefit we can expect from a mass-experiencing of an alternative together and having old paradigms questioned.

The current challenge involves reimagining and redesigning our workplaces and working with employees to re-create what they need to feel connected, nurtured, empowered and inspired. A chance to accelerate this change, alongside our digital acceleration. The economist recently observed how this crisis has ‘revealed how many offices were being run as relics of the 20th century even as it triggered the mass adoption of technologies that can transform white collar work’.

The old “norm” for most people in work was to have a job with a fixed location and a fixed set of hours to be present. In return for turning up and fulfilling a job description we paid people a salary, provide benefits and offered a level of consistency. This model may finally be permanently altered.

On the other hand, according to a post-COVID workplace survey by Big Red Rooster, a JLL company, 94% of employees want the option to return to the physical office, indicating that remote work should augment, not replace, traditional offices. We are sitting at a fascinating junction in the history of work and the places that support it. Inertia has until now allowed the office to escape serious disruption.

There are now some serious discussions and emerging thinking around our workplace locations, their scale and the value proposition. This mirrors some of the thinking and discussions around how we design our cities to be more liveable and sustainable. Their ability to cultivate proximity, density, connection and social infrastructure is key.

To be competitive, cities must densify, be connected and develop social capital. To be sustainable and liveable, they need to diversify, scatter work and be local. We are drawn to certain global cities because of the access to talent, chance meetings, inspiring energy or proximity to services. Certain conditions must exist for innovation, creativity and ‘bohemian’ spirit to ignite. And when these conditions are present, the truly great cities are also built as an open, incremental system instead of a closed, finished one.

Great cities are not an accumulation of houses but a concentration of opportunities. Just as our great workplaces are not (or should no longer be) an accumulation of desks and functions but a concentration of opportunities and experiences.

Organisations and the networks that empower them are often influenced by similar forces to our cities. The current crisis has both challenged and probably reinforced the criticality of how we cluster, form connections and create networks of valuable exchange. This doesn’t mean we return to the old model for our cities or organisations. But we need to understand the fundamental drivers of human nature and how effective groups and networks form within each cluster, then understand how our organisations want to support and enable them in multiple formats. Finally we can then build the flexible spaces and tools.

First (work)life, then (work)spaces, then (work)buildings.

In the rush to adapt, some risk making decisions about new workplace models without fully understanding and designing for the individual and group behaviours they want to reinforce.

“Many corporate occupiers are saying let’s have a downtown hub, and suburban west, east and north spokes, so that people can have their office close to their home if and when they want to go to the office,” says Sheila Botting, president for the Americas at the commercial real estate company Avison Young.

There are many factors that will determine the success of this approach including the size and characteristics of a city, the strength of the organisational culture, home-life complexity, role complexity or just personal preferences. We’ll need a basic understanding of these factors in the workforce to be able to design and deliver sustainable future models that become ‘destinations’ in themselves.

When we start to reposition around the hub-and-spoke model or just more distributed organisations and the new models of work, we then have an opportunity to redesign a number of underlying elements of our experience of work and life.

  • What will the new high-street experience be if we distribute our work more evenly around the city? (And how can organisations help design this along with their governments)
  • What can we do to make our buildings more mixed-use and multi-modal?
  • What are the characteristics and motivations of the new ‘nomads’ who will move within and between these workplace hubs and hybrids?
  • What type of spaces and activations will be needed to support what type of interaction or experience?
  • What are the moments, rituals or expressions that are vital to your organisation that need new forms of support?
  • What interfaces, furniture or spatial features make sense in these models?
  • How can it be naturally flexible? While also remaining coherent and seamless?
  • What about the role of technology and how do we ensure it’s more friendly, ambient and supportive than before?
  • How might we use data and insights to understand the employee experiences for each individual in our care?

Each element is now up for re-alignment — organised around experiences and understood through both form and function.

Within office spaces themselves, an early trend we’re seeing is companies wanting to reconfigure what were single workstations or rows of desks into bigger areas for the type of collaboration that can’t be done well by people working from home. This has implications for the economics of the spaces as well as the experience.

As we collectively explore the new working models we will have more clarity around exactly what these typologies need to look like for each organisation. Beyond relationship building, offices matter for a host of other reasons. It’s these collection of ‘reasons’ that can be our design guide.

I believe the answer will involve a purposeful and ‘dynamic workplace’ built around a ‘kit-of-parts’ and ‘patterns of experience’ that can be applied and re-configured flexibly and in-line with what the employees and their collaborators desire in each location. Think of these as modules and patterns that have an associated program and supporting platforms and tools.

The Wall Street Journal proposes that Dynamic workspaces ‘use elements of open-plan offices, including privacy booths and cafe-like networking spaces, but they have more varied workspaces for collaboration in an effort to convince people with flexible schedules to show up’. Every element of the employee experience should be considered and reconfigured for these new workspace modes.

It won’t be the fancy furniture or the well thought-out layouts that get people to ‘show-up’ — it will be the intelligently designed experiences that do that, supported by the place and its components. This cannot just be a reapplication of the old models, or a thinly veiled rebrand of existing co-working spaces and work practices. This signals a move from Activity Based Working (ABW) to Experience Based Working (EBW) and rich brand and values expressions.

We’ve been shaken out of our inertia. ‘The office’ was as much a psychological construct as a physical one — and the common version we had prior to the ‘great-reset’ was largely an industrial age factory model of the office. In the digital age the office was forced to evolve. In the post-covid age it will be forced to evolve again. We can not just recreate the old model in smaller scales and re-distribute it in the suburbs. Just as we should not have recreated the industrial office for the digital area — where memos became emails, desks became ‘hot’ and meeting rooms co-opted as project spaces.

We now have the tools and motivation to create spaces that are much more flexible, innovative and dynamic. But as usual, creating the building is not enough. We must start with the people who will use and modify the space to suit their needs.

Success in the hub-and-spoke or distributed model will require dynamic and flexible ‘patterns’ that can be used to give each location a finely-tuned reason for existing and a reason for people to come-together in that place. These will be created from an understanding of the rich tapestry of motivations and behaviours of users and the organisation’s cultures, norms, relationships, and practices.

This means understanding a wider spectrum of drivers beyond job types or the tasks people need to perform. Starting with truly understanding and designing for the individuals and groups that will be attracted to, adopt and ultimately evolve the new spaces enables us to design the experience as a connected whole and not disconnected parts.

What interactions are onerous, time-consuming, error-prone, or inconvenient? When do we put them off, avoid them entirely, or find the experience unpleasant? When do our people experience pleasure, reassurance safety or quality, or able to feel like they are part of something or express their ideas or identity? When we look into these factors we’ll be presented with a much broader set of tools to work with, moments to design for or opportunities to experiment.

The exact elements of the new workplaces and their experiences should be developed in co-design with the users and bespoke to each organisation. They should also be designed to be relevant to their context and communities and the mix will change over time with conditions and community input.

There is no certain outcome or a single format to follow — and this is what make it so exciting and challenging.

What I am sure of though is that we’re inherently social creatures, largely unchanged from our ancestors. We are drawn to come-together and create shared experience. There are many things that get in our way of achieving this goal, but we’ve always needed places and processes that support us.

Jobs are comprised of tasks; organisations are comprised of relationships. And relationships require ongoing — and often unintended — interactions.


Written by Leigh Whittaker, Global Strategy Director of Freestate. This article was first published on Medium.

Image credit: Nicole Baster, Unsplash