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A future without a workplace

11 September 2015

A future without a workplace

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We’re very used to the idea of remote workers. But what about workers with nowhere to be ‘remote’ from? 

The speed of the shift to mobile connectivity and devices is making the traditional office and corporate HQ - with all the associated capital costs and long commuting times - look outdated and inefficient. In the US, for example, there are already estimated to be around 100 million mobile workers (1).

The whole nature of the physical workplace has changed from being the focus of work, the place you travel to and work at, to being more naturally a hub for people time, for communications and socialising. And for HR that means a very different environment and different set of structures, relationships and experiences on which to base people management.

Technology has always changed the nature of work, and how and where it’s been done, from the first machinery to the typewriter and the telephone. The difference now is the sheer pace of technological innovation, delivered by an industry which depends on relentless change for its viability. So while the office or factory used to be the centre of everything (the capital, equipment, technology and expertise) now it's mostly contained within ourselves and our mobile devices. These developments are welcomed by many employees, who want the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they want.

The future will see workspaces becoming increasingly flexible, designed to be temporary bases for employees who are physically working from many different locations: at home, with customers and while travelling. Workspaces are likely to be open 24 hours a day to better suit the natural body rhythms and needs of employees, some of whom prefer to work at night and some early in the mornings, encouraging the ’always on’ digital culture. Workplaces will be less functional, fitted out to maximise desk numbers and re-designed more for social interactions – and as a strongly-branded 'home'. Huge corporate HQs already use these ideas. Google has thousands of employees in a single building, but ensure there's just one staff restaurant with a single entrance to make sure people are meeting up. Nike has a running track, visible from the foyer, so staff and visitors get a sense of a 'living' brand. Construction firm Skanska uses its corporate HQ to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable building, with an environment of eco-friendly materials and green walls.

In HR terms the challenge so far has been that changes haven't been serial, giving employees the time to build up a sense of familiarity and security, but in parallel and at high speed. This has led to psychological overload for some - rising stress levels and the potential for mental health problems (“Why isn’t there a personal desk space for me everyday?”, “The weekly review meeting has disappeared.”, “There just isn’t the same sense of being part of a team when we’re relying on messaging”). Not everyone wants, or is able, to surf on the wave of change. The physical office and technology changes have worked in synergy with the other major changes around responsibility over the past 25 years. We can no longer rely on instructions and guidance from the top, but are expected to be individual enterprises, planning, making the decisions and taking responsibility for consequences.

The level of change makes building ‘resilience’ - the ability to stay healthy under pressure and bounce back from difficulties - a fundamental quality. Just as you can increase your physical resilience by preparing and teaching yourself to use the right exercises and equipment for challenging situations, you can also increase your emotional resilience by putting coping mechanisms in place to support you through difficult times. The evidence tells us that measures required to become emotionally ready for mentally testing times include having a trusted person on standby who you feel able to offload to and confide in, even if this is a close family member and knowing the number for a counsellor at the end of the EAP helpline. Another important measure is the ability to unpick problems and see the bigger picture. Something we can do with relative ease when it's someone else’s problem or we’re not under pressure, but, when our back’s against the wall, it's all too easy to keep focusing on the urgent stuff and lose sight of what's important. Other ingredients typically include regular contact with family and friends, being able to empty our minds for at least some part of every day, making time to enjoy a hobby or indulge a passion and participating in fun, endorphin-releasing exercise. All these elements, along with the basics like eating and sleeping well, help to build up a strong base for coping.

The new technology and opportunities for flexibility look exciting on the surface, but people need support when dealing with these kinds of essential changes to their way of working. This means practical help with working and collaborating across virtual networks, and managing networks at a distance, with an understanding of the challenges that individuals face. With our ageing population, in future the older members of the workforce can also make a significant difference. More over 60s at work can play an important role in acting as coaches, mentors and the social glue for engaging and supporting younger people. Many young people are more comfortable with IT and the pace of change, working independently and intensively in high-speed, high-tech bubbles, but may struggle with the emotional intelligence, the interaction, communication, empathy and people management needed.

Workspaces will continue to change and employers can’t expect their people to fit in as easily as new furniture. The organisations who’ll make the greatest gains from the new efficiencies from a mobile, digital world of work will be those who get the human factors right, building in resilience so employees can flex but not break.   

(1) International Data Corporation research