The end of the office as we know it

Dr Elke Frank Profile picture for user Elke Frank October 6, 2021
Is the end of the office nigh? Dr Elke Frank of Software AG points to three key factors in maintaining the focus on hybrid working with a people-first approach.

despairing lego office worker © www_slon_pics - Pixabay
(© www_slon_pics - Pixabay )

Almost exactly a year ago, Fast Company announced the end of the office. While it’s unlikely that this will happen in such an absolute way, it’s foreseeable that the pandemic will permanently change our working world.

Remote work as a 100% solution will not last for most people, but hybrid forms of work are here to stay. As a result the traditional office starts to take on a new role in terms of function and thus a new way of designing it as the heart of an organization is needed.

The office of the future is more than just a central physical place where people come together to sit at their desks eight hours a day. The thing some may have missed is that it has actually always been more than that. People are driven by two very basic needs in their lives: We all long for freedom and cherish the desire to belong.

It all depends on the mix

We want to determine ourselves and our actions, but at the same time we need a common anchor point. The concept of the digital nomad, as tempting as it may sound in individual cases, regularly failed pre-pandemic. It wasn’t a technical failing, but stemmed from a desire of each individual for a sense of home and belonging. According to a study by Capgemini, for example, new employees in a company quickly feel lost in a purely remote working environment. Half of them say they want to quit the job if remote work remains the only option for them.

Conversely, only four percent of employees who work hybrid-remote say that if they were given the choice, they would work permanently in the office again. Gartner estimates that companies that demand physical presence could lose up to 39% of their employees. The tension between freedom and belonging is shown very clearly in these numbers and keeps coming up when we think about the office of the future.

Stress vs. creative exchange

The remote world that we got to know during the pandemic is determined by a sequence of video conferences. Everything geared towards efficiency and discipline, which greatly narrows the space for spontaneous exchange of ideas and creativity.

People want to see other people. We want to communicate with each other and exchange ideas. And screen time is no replacement. Science says that even a 1.2 second delay in the other person's response causes irritation in our brain. In other words: however much efficiency virtual collaboration gives us, too many video conferences creates stress, which is a barrier to progress.

The office of the future, however, should consider the best of both worlds. It is the space for personal meetings, where the exchange on site helps to develop creative ideas and strengthen social relationships. At the same time, it is networked and "connected" so that organizational questions can be quickly clarified with remote colleagues in virtual formats, in video chats or by e-mail.

Planned coincidences and crossed paths

‘Water cooler’ talk, or more likely chatting around the coffee machine is a typical exchange in the office. In fact, with social distancing rules, it is perhaps ones of the most creative opportunities in the workplace at the moment. Of course, the coffee machine doesn’t develop creative ideas – though what it dispenses can help – these ‘random’ encounters and interaction with colleagues do.

As we think about hybrid working, it’s important to consider how this kind of informal collaboration can be supported without over-engineering them or going too far in the other direction and removing opportunities for retreat.

Our approach for office design of the future at Software AG is done around types of activity the environment needs to accommodate, rather than trying to tie an employee to a specific area. We want to give different teams and individuals the freedom to switch between different work areas during the course of a day, based on what they need to work on. The more that people move around and cross paths in communal areas, the more the social network expands and the less we rely on e-mail, for instance.

With this mentality, suddenly the quality of work becomes the key consideration, not the simplistic notion of whether a person is present in a specific room. This is liberating and conducive to better ideas and outcomes. 

Third spaces and the rediscovery of communities

Before the pandemic, the idea of ‘the third space’ was established - a place outside of work and home that offers a break and at the same time familiarity and security. A sense of wellbeing. Third spaces are places where people gather – and this mindset should be brought into a hybrid working world. It’s a people-first approach that the pandemic have proven is how we should approach company culture.

There are three things that you can do to take the first steps towards a more hybrid working approach:

Understand how your company works – use process mining and other analytics to get a more detailed understanding of how people operate and try to predict how new ideas might affect them.

Connect your enterprise – blending different spaces and experiences requires fundamental modernization of your technology infrastructure. If people are to move around freely, application and data integration is the foundation of a fluid experience.

Communicate – change is only as effective as the buy-in from your people. Once you have understood the potential impact as best you can, and laid the technology foundations, you have to bring everybody with you on the journey.

Innovative technologies help ensure the flexibility of a hybrid working environment. They enable us to design integrated and inclusive working environments and ensure the seamless exchange of information between employees. At the same time, the office of the future and the hybrid world of work cannot be imagined without a fundamental change in culture. And this culture requires one thing above all: mutual trust and empathy for one another.

The end of the office is not imminent. But the end of the office as we knew it, on the other hand, is right in front of us. And that's just as well.

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