Shaping the future of work

Written by Angela Ferguson


Now is the time for businesses across the globe to create a truly meaningful and relevant post pandemic workplace for their people – this will be the biggest opportunity of our lifetime to do reimagine the future of work.

When it became clear that we were in the midst of a global pandemic, organisations around the world sent their people home in droves (even those who had spent billions on their workplace environments).  For many years ‘working from home’ had been widely perceived as a bludge (a very Australian term for not having to do any work), yet suddenly people across the world were expected to turn their homes into efficient and effective workplaces. Workplace design in commercial realestate was under threat, with Working from Home (WFH) being adopted almost universally and without question to become the new normal. This change was rapid and significant and challenged many long-held beliefs that WFH was only appropriate for certain roles, demographics, personality traits and workstyle archetypes.

There were varying degrees of success during this massive social experiment.  Those with a dedicated home office, fast internet and more autonomy in their roles fared much better than those juggling housemates, working on the sofa, poor internet, living alone or home schooling.  People more advanced in their careers fared better than those needing mentoring and leadership, whilst those with established relationships adjusted much better than those new to their roles, who struggled to build connection with their virtual colleagues.  And there was much experimentation of tools and technology with standing height desks, Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones, fast internet and ergonomic chairs the big-ticket items in an effective WFH set up.

Despite all of this, innovative office design was always going to figure in the post pandemic landscape, and new terminology such as hybrid working became part of any future workplace strategy. In all the research and data we’ve undertaken since March 2020, through organisation wide surveys, one on one interviews, virtual and physical workshops across thousands of people in diverse organisations, it is crystal clear that the WFH experience is not perfect.  In many cases it either fails completely or is inconsistent at best.  What is also clearly evident is that a hybrid workspace scenario, where WFH plays a significant role in an employee’s optimum workplace experience is fast becoming the new normal.  However, our research also tells us that there is still significant reluctance to return to a centralized office, which has the potential for long term consequences. Following are the three main reasons why people need to get back to the office, fast;

  • Work/Life Boundaries – Working from Home can be a minefield when it comes to putting boundaries around our work life and our personal lives. Our research tells us that people can be too productive when working from home – they spend long days at their desks, in one virtual meeting after another.  At the end of the working day, not only are they exhausted, they are then putting in many extra hours to cope with the resultant workload of all these meetings.  These intense, screen-based days are depleting, with people’s physical and mental health suffering as a result; work has become all consuming.  Going back to the office breaks this cycle in multiple ways; the very act of travelling to and from work provides a circuit breaker, separating home from work and providing a boundary around the working day. Days spent in a healthy worklplace are often more balanced, and can provide people with opportunities to incorporate a variety of experiences into their day.

  • Combatting Loneliness – humans are not designed to be solitary creatures. Throughout history we have belonged to tribes, communities and networks. It is in our DNA to want and need to ‘belong’.  Working from Home is a solitary, lonely practice, and even before the pandemic loneliness was on the rise across our communities. The World Health Organisation recognized this in 2019, noting that burnout, workplace loneliness and mental health issues were driving both absenteeism and presenteeism.  Yet The Office is like the campfire we used to sit around, telling each other stories and sharing the highs and lows of our lives.  Working from Home struggles to fulfil this basic need; whilst The Office plays an important role in creating and supporting human connection. Many of our clients are now creating hybrid workspaces, geared towards people coming together to Socialise, whilst still supporting Collaborative and Focused activities.  In many ways the pandemic has heightened our need for social connection, and there is huge opportunity for workplace performance to support wellbeing and connection.

  • It’s Just Easier – collaboration, that is.  No matter how hard we try, no matter how many virtual tools we experiment with, or how many different ways we try to socialise and connect online … face to face collaboration is just easier.  In real life, the ‘quick question’ is exactly that – it doesn’t have to be a 30-minute video call or sixteen emails back and forth. Reading body language and other non-verbal cues online is tricky, and picking up nuances in conversation or mood is challenging.  Briefing or collaborating virtually is often formal, stilted and hinders the process of creativity and innovation – have you tried using virtual post it notes? Scale is also lost (how many times have you finally met someone face to face and been surprised by their height?!) and the incidental conversation where you learn a key piece information is almost impossible to replicate.  Not to mention the informal debrief when you walk back from a meeting with a colleague. The Office is vital in supporting face to face collaboration in a way that is effective, efficient and even exhilarating.

COVID-19 has profoundly impacted how and where we work, with many businesses in Australia now at varying degrees of negotiating what the future of work truly means for their people – especially in terms of the role The Office plays in the experience of work.  The pandemic has given us an opportunity to fundamentally query and interrogate everything we know about workplace, culture, wellness, leadership, property, technology and more.  Over the last 12 months, the pendulum has swung heavily towards the work from home experience.  Now however, everything to do with the meaning of work is up for grabs;  and The Office will always play a critical role in this renegotiation. We need to be reimagining the future of work like never before – the role of the office is fundamental to our humanity.