During the lockdowns, we learned that we can get a lot of work done without ever leaving the house. To the point that as restrictions lift, we're not that keen to return.
But where does this leave our offices? Will we still need them tomorrow? If we do, what will they look like? And more important, will we still want to endure traffic jams to be greeted by uninspired desks, stressed-out colleagues and mediocre coffee?
A lot has been written about this topic in the past 18 months.
But I wanted to do a little more than be philosophical. I wanted to look at a real office space, with real people and real business challenges.
So, I hooked up with some friends to actually design an 2023 office concept experience.
Our team included renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto of the New York Lab of Misfits. Danny Dobson from the Hong Kong architectural boutique PoPUP. And a financial advisory firm with 800m2 of office space in London’s prestigious Fenchurch building. Hey, if you want to get visionary, you can just as well go all out!
Our goal was to reimagine the work experience as it should be.
Instead of another fancy office, we wanted to create a space where people wanted to come and work. That provided energy. That made it easy to live the company values and behaviours. That encouraged personal efficiency, but also cross-departmental creativity. That represented the brand, and that could adapt to any next Black Swan the gods decide to send our way.
It was super-complex, but highly educational
In fact, it’s impossible to cover the 20+ deliverables and lessons learned in one newsletter. But in case you want to do some office reimagining of your own, I’ll focus on 6 suggestions to give you a head start.
#1. Start with the behaviours… furniture comes last
The space we work in directly affects the way we behave. Physical barriers between departments limit cross-functional cooperation. Open plan environments reduce focus and individual creativity. An uninspired cantina will not trigger spontaneous bonding and collegiality.
So to reimagine an effective post-pandemic office, we need to ensure that the office layout supports the strategy and the behavioural intentions of the business. Otherwise all the posters and workshops in the world won't make a difference.
ACTION: When you start, don't think about furniture or layout. Have a conversation about behaviours, workflow, purpose and values. About the experience you want to create. Once this is clear, you can call the architects.
#2. Think of an office as an immersive work experience
An office is more than furniture, Wi-Fi, and coffee machines. It’s the people who work there. Their rituals for welcomes, meetings and hellos. Their stories. The smells. The sounds. The ding of the elevators. Janet who brings her dog.
Combined, they make the office an immersive work experience. Managed as an integrated whole, this can be a place of fun and productivity. Managed badly, it will feel disjointed. Culture, morale and performance will suffer.
ACTION: Think beyond furniture and facilities. Involve all stakeholders who manage part of your immersive work experience. Align them on a common plan and behavioural targets. Even consider an 'office experience manager'.
#3. Let go of the illusion that one office size fits all
An effective office experience is many things to many people. It caters to different working styles and neuro-types. It supports individual work, informal meetings, formal meetings, workshops and conferences. It welcomes clients, suppliers, press and job candidates. It even integrates into a broader community.
These individual uses need facilities and scripts of their own. But they must also play within the same space. Failing to proactively map and manage this multi-functionality either leads to chaos or to individuals/functions being ignored.
ACTION: List how the space will add value to different user types and activities. Describe the ideal situation for each use case and then start putting the pieces together. It will be a 3D or even 4D puzzle, but it can be done.
#4. Think of new infrastructures and rituals for the hybrid workstyle
Yesterday, the office was the centre of our working universe. Today, we are - literally - all over the place. This hybrid work style has its benefits. But it also limits the serendipity that comes with working under one roof. The breakthrough ideas born at the water cooler or from an impromptu "Hey Charlotte, can I ask you something".
So we need new technologies and rituals to reintroduce spontaneity. Let home workers pop into the office at a moment's notice. Allow five colleagues to quickly gather. Otherwise, we may reduce office costs, but lose the unplanned creativity and problem solving that fuels real progress.
ACTION: Look beyond the standard Zoom calls. Explore new technologies and rituals to encourage informal connections and chats between those working at the office and those working at home, in another branch or at Starbucks.
#5. Get executive buy-in, from the start
Taken as a whole, the cost of an immersive office experience doesn't need to exceed that of a regular workplace (much). Even though it delivers a lot more.
But it's not easy to put these extra benefits into business case. Sure, you can calculate 'people per m2'. But how do you put a number on better ideas, cross-functional cooperation or higher energy levels? Without executive clear buy-in on these 'softer' variables, you may struggle to get a green light.
ACTION: Involve key stakeholders from the start, so they have time to buy into your reasoning at every step. Meanwhile, keep looking for new measurements that can fit your 'softer' case into Excel (good news, they're on the horizon).
#6. Be the one that breaks the mould
In our hearts, we all know that our offices fail to deliver against what we, and our companies need. But we're also stuck in our ways. Our perception of what offices are supposed to be. After all, change can be scary.
When working on the Fenchurch project, people only got excited when they first saw drawings of the new space and its experience scripts. The latent need is there, but to build momentum, someone first needs to break the mould.
ACTION: Make the jump. Explore what great looks like, if only on paper. Talk to colleagues about how their ideal office would foster productivity, inspiration and connectedness. Share prototypes. You’ll be surprised at their resonance.
As I said, there's a lot more
The deeper you dig into the topic, the more layers you discover. However, as this is a newsletter and not a book, I'll stop here.
I hope you found these thoughts useful.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in my personal newsletter Thoughts & Tidbits. Subscribe if you want more of this content as well as tidbits that I only publish in this newsletter.
(c) Alain Thys, 2021 - All rights reserved
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.