People power should shape the workspaces of the future

Lisa Dodman Profile picture for user Lisa Dodman August 4, 2021
Lisa Dodman of Unit4 describes her company’s approach to workspace transformation and the guiding principles of freedom, trust and people experience which it’s following.

Colleagues working at laptop on office pod space © StartupStockPhotos - Pixabay
(© StartupStockPhotos - Pixabay)

With several years' experience working for various technology companies like Business Agility, Siemens and Infor, I have come to the conclusion that the transformation of workspaces should be driven by the people who work in them.

Long before COVID-19, Unit4 was challenging the concept of what an office is, why people should go there, and the experience they should have when they do. We'd thrown away that outdated mistrust managers used to have about people not working when they were out of sight.

Our guiding principle was trust. We'd already allowed our people unlimited holiday time. We set no mandate as to who should work in an office, for how long, or when. We left it entirely to the employee's discretion. We told our people, "You choose where and when you can do your best work".

As a company, we always put people first in every decision. We design our software around how people want to work. We aim to make work as easy and rewarding as possible through automation. And our flexible working policy is the same. One thing that makes our approach to workspaces different, I believe, is this complete commitment to employee freedom and trust.

Transforming the physical space

The other big difference in our approach to workspaces is that we kept nothing from the old strategy. When it came to reviewing our office spaces, nothing was a given. We started with a blank sheet and asked ourselves some searching questions.

Why do people come to an office? What kinds of activity do they do here? What facilities will they need to do that work – now and in the future? And, the flip side, what will they do at home or in other places, and what equipment and services will they need to do those things?

From this analysis, we conceived a variety of space types for different activities:

  • Library – a low-stimulation quiet space to concentrate in.
  • Focus pods – low-stimulus individual spaces for private work.
  • Innovation corners – flexible active spaces with stand-up furniture and whiteboards.
  • Team tables – for small groups with presentation and communications technology built into the table.
  • Gathering spaces – tables with chairs for small groups to eat and meet at.
  • Gathering steps – amphitheater-like structures for town hall talks.
  • Coffee areas – café-style spaces where people can grab a table or armchair.
  • Social corners – for one or two people to talk about work, or anything else.

Flexibility to meet unknowable demand

We're in a situation which is new to all of us. No-one's ever gone back to work after a pandemic before. We can make some informed guesses, but really, we don't know what to expect. The data we have about quiet days and times is obsolete.

So, we're not setting any targets. We have no percentage in mind as to how many people should be in the office versus working somewhere else. The only way to proceed is through trial and measurement, to find out what people want to do.

People can't accurately predict their future behavior. They may say they want to come back to the office and then find they preferred working from home after all. We expect there'll be a pendulum swing back to the office to begin with and then it will settle down.

But this will vary by geography, not just because of pandemic restrictions but because of culture and infrastructure. In some countries large families live together and it's difficult to work from home. In India and Indonesia, broadband infrastructure isn't as good as other countries, so people need to come into the office more.

Why re-think your workspaces?

Sceptics might think reducing office space costs is the main driver. This might be a factor for some but it really wasn't in our case. Although Unit4 wanted to right-size its historical office footprint, the company is actually making a substantial investment in creating an "experience hub" in each of the five regions where we operate.

We're doing this to provide a better experience for people, both customers and employees. Our customers don't want formal meetings in boardrooms anymore. And we need to compete for talent in a competitive market by offering our employees a variety of attractive working environments, unlimited holidays, and freedom to decide where they work.

Our policy is also good for the environment. It reduces the carbon footprint of employees and buildings. We buy locally and use responsibly sourced materials. We get our rugs from a charity that supports under-privileged women in developing countries. Our policy is to use natural materials, like wood, and to do so on a localized basis, so in Canada, the wood we use is maple.

Workspaces are a big part of the world's cityscapes, and as offices change so will our cities. Office blocks will be re-configured as living spaces and people will return from the suburbs to live again in city centers. We will see 15-minute cities evolve, where all human needs (and many desires) can be met within a quarter of an hour from home. In terms of People Experience, that must be something to applaud.

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