Hot desks or No desks?

Post pandemic hot desking has become something of a hot topic – and not always a popular one. As soon as we mention unassigned desking, someone in the room (or on the call) will mention the words.  It is a term that has become widespread but is also frequently misused and misunderstood. So what is hot-desking anyway? Is it, or any form of unassigned desking, the future of work? Or are new and more radical workplace solutions with no desks (or even a lot less desks) going to be the answer?

Maybe you think your organisation  is planning to implement hot-desking  – but don’t get upset too quickly and assume that terms you might hear such as team neighbourhood working, unassigned desks or agile working are actually the same thing.  To most workplace professionals hot-desking represents only one type of desk sharing scenario.

Internet sources vary but the term hot desk it appears to have been invented in the late eighties. The term may have come from a Navy term ‘hot-bunking’ where different shifts use the same beds, and the bed is literally warm when you get into it (eww!)  Obviously your desk isn’t going to actually be warm in any scenario!  Early experiments in hot-desking reported in the media where in 1989 at EY office in Chicago and later a well publicised and largely unsuccessful workplace experiment by the advertising agency Chiat/Day in 1994.  (The best summary on the topic I found online is here)

The Chiat/Day “virtual office” was a farcical failure – for many reasons.  There was no change management, there were not enough laptops and phones, there was insufficient private and team space and the technology just didn’t exist to create the new work processes to support a paperless and virtual office.   Frequently the technology is blamed and sometimes it has been said that it was a failure because it was too far ahead of its time.  Yes, technology (and lack of expenditure) played a part.  So too did a lack of change management.  A final factor in why the Chiat/Day experiment failed was that it was what we would now call hot-desking.  Hot-desking means a free for all on where people sit throughout the office.  All the stories of hot-desking environments where people are arriving to the office and being unable to find a seat, of having to arrive at 7am to sit with your team – in an unamanged unbookable hot-desking scenario this will probably happen.  This is the reality of hot-desking.  Hot-desking is not a suitable workplace strategy for most organsations.  In fact today (in Australia anyway ) it is also actually relatively rare to see organisations implement this very kind of basic and brutal hot-desking.  So why the term has become the most popular way of referring to desk sharing is a mystery.

Hot-desking or other forms of unassigned desking in the pre internet days was difficult as office technology really wasn’t ready for it.   Over the last 20 years or so as mobile technologies have improved and become more readily available, the term has become more and more common but its less and less likely that the workplace you are going to work in is actually a hot-desking workplace.  Post pandemic as more and more organisations move to some form of unassigned desking it is a well known vernacular term – for some reason much more so than other terms such as hotelling, agile or activity based work.

There is evidence to suggest that other forms of early experiments with unassigned desking models were more successful.  IBM may have in fact the first company to experiment with an unassigned desk model – back in the 1970’s!   The “non-territorial office” was a space “that would accommodate motion between different kinds of work setups, based  on the particular tasks at hand”.  Not just hot-desking but potentially Activity Based Working which did not reappear again for 30 years (see below), which is surprising given that employees were enthusiastic about the model (after experiencing it) and internal communication increased. (Cubed by Nikil Saval, 2014)

So if hot-desking is guaranteed to fail – what are other forms of unassigned desking and how do they work?


At the same time as the term hot-desking was gaining popularity, the term hotelling was also in use.  Hotelling is in fact one of the most common forms of unassigned desk environments today – and means that a desk booking system is in place.  Generally booking systems are based upon individuals booking single desks or meeting rooms.  Often this concept is combined with touchdown desks which are unbookable desks and typically expected to be used for shorter periods of time.  Touchdown desks are more likely not to be workstations, may not have computer accessories such as docking stations/screens/keyboards etc and different forms of seating (eg not typical office chairs) or even standing height.

Activity Based Working

Around the same time as the Chiat/Day virtual hot-desking office, a new concept in work was emerging in the Netherlands.   Activity Based Working (ABW) was a term invented by Dutch workplace strategists, Veldhoen and the first ABW office in the world was Interpolis in 1995.  Very similar in concept to the original IBM “non-territorial office”, a range of different spaces are provided for different types of work and employees are expected to move throughout different kinds of space throughout the day.  Working from home 1-2 days per week was also a key component of the concept.  One of the biggest differences  between ABW and hot-desking is that teams are assigned to neighbourhoods – areas of workstations which can vary in size from 10-12 to up to 80 people depending on the company and model.  However, there is not a provision of 1 workstation per person but a “desk sharing ratio” where workstations might only be provided for the 70-80% of the population expected to need a desk at any one time.  These neighbourhoods are intended to help teams sit together and for people to find one another.  In practice though, again you might start to see the early arrivers sitting at the same desk everyday and if a clean desk policy is not enforced starting to leave belonging – in a sense marking their territory – known as ‘nesting’ a term which actually appears to have been invented at Chiat/Day.  

Typically an ABW office has more collaborative spaces than a traditional open plan office of assigned workstations, but it is still dominated by workstations.  The other kinds of spaces are usually for collaborative activities mostly focused usually on in person meetings in a mix of open or enclosed spaces.  An ABW office might also have a booking system, overlapping with hotelling.

Over the last 15 years or so, ABW has become a popular way of working in many industries and locations, no more so than Australia where Veldhoen opened its second branch, with many major financial, professional services and even government departments had adopted ABW prior to the pandemic.  In other regions, in particular the USA, the uptake of ABW has been slower, perhaps because so many companies were still working in cubicles and even open plan was seen as revolutionary until fairly recently.

Agile Working

ABW and agile working often overlap and are frequently used to describe the same kinds of work environments.  Theoretically, agile does not describe a work environment but a way of working.  Agile work refers to flexibility in how and where work gets done.  In theory, one can work in an agile methodology but have an assigned desk (just not be expected to be at it all the time).  In practice, agile work methodologies are going to make more sense in environments with a range of flexible work spaces.  Typically agile environments would have less desks than ABW environment’s and more team based spaces.

Why unassigned desks anyway?

Real estate is expensive, and fitting out offices is expensive too.  Prior to the pandemic, the majority of desks in a traditional office environment were already only in use 70-80% of the time.  The rest of the time  people were in meetings, visiting clients, on leave or sick.  Of course this does vary by role and by industry.  Post pandemic this can drop to 30-50% in organisations that have adopted 2-3 days per week hybrid.  That adds up to a lot of unused space and a lot of wasted dollars.  Do you really want your organisation spending that much money on space that is not even being used?  Or could that money better be spent on a nicer and different kinds of spaces, a hospitality style level of services, more training, technology or that extra team member you could really use?

Today there are many different models of unassigned desking and the ones I have discussed above are the more commonly talked about. Note that one thing that does not exist is a Hybrid Office – hybrid is a way of working not a type of workplace.  Post pandemic many organisations are experimenting with different ways of working and we may see many other models develop in the next few years.

So what is the best model of workplace today?

There is no one right answer.  It depends on a whole lot of organisational and cultural factors.

While unassigned desking is frequently viewed as a cost cutting exercise, it should be undertaken as contributing to autonomy, a component of offering employees choice about where, when and how to work and the best mix of spaces to do different types of work.  For some teams who spend large amounts of time working in the office as a team then perhaps unassigned desking isn’t necessarily the right solution.  But this should be looked at in the overall context of work processes and not because ‘we have always done it this way’.  Moving to, or even adjusting to a new type of unassigned desking model requires planning and change management.

But I like having my own desk…but will you always need one?

Some people are not bothered at all by not having their own desk and don’t want to sit in the same place with the same people everyday.  For others, this creates a new source of workplace anxiety.  Can we solve this through workplace design?  We might need to sooner than we think – what happens if the day comes when we won’t need a desk at all anymore?

The workplace as we have known it for the last 100 plus years is a 20th century solution to a 20th century way of working.  Work no longer needs to be a one size fits all solution.  All of these workplace models are still based upon modifications to 20th century ways of working – usually with ‘the desk’ at their core.  Post pandemic we still seem to be tied to the desk with very little change in actual workplace models.  Given the rest of our lives are now driven by mobile technologies, why do we feel so attached to our desks?  I know, I know, its all about the dual / big monitors these days but… what happens when we no longer need the monitors and can create a screen anywhere? What happens when we all wear VR glasses? What happens when we talk to our devices instead of typing?  What happens when technology changes in ways we haven’t even though of yet? Will we still need a desk then?

I’d like to suggest that we need to move past counting desks or worrying if they are assigned or unassigned and discover what 21st century working might actually look like.  What other ways will we create vibrant and functional workplace without desks? If you go visit any public library there are no desks with monitors but a wide range of seating types and in a well designed and appreciated library – often full. The people are choosing to go there. So why not start now with a similar approach to the workplace? 

Ceilidh Higgins

Image generated using Microsoft Bing AI

Beyond Home versus Office – Dispersed, Decentralised and Async Work

We talk a lot these days about remote work and hybrid work, but one concept that gets less attention is what I’d term dispersed work – the notion that team members are working together across different locations. In fact this kind of work has been common a lot longer than the concept of hybrid. While getting dispersed work right has a lot in common with both remote and hybrid it’s not quite the same set of challenges – and for many companies has the potential to yield huge benefits.

I’ve spent a significant proportion of my career working in dispersed teams – and not only in large companies either. Smaller companies can use dispersed work to team up for delivering projects in different locations, to retain employees moving for personal reasons, to diversify business across 2 or 3 smaller (potentially lower cost or busier markets) office locations or even to hire remote employees. Larger companies more naturally have multiple offices but dispersed teams can allow for better balance of resources to meet demand, reduce hiring or overhead costs or to tap into specialists which are not feasible to employ at every location. It’s also very similar to the way, DBEI have worked to deliver the BILT event series.

Different reasons and structures behind dispersed work will result in different models. Maybe you only need consult a remote specialist now and again for a particular project – or maybe your team is spread across different locations around the world.  Maybe you get together in person once or twice a year, or maybe your face to face time is project related.  Regardless of face to face time. when you work in a dispersed team some of your colleagues and maybe your boss are remote pretty much every day – and it doesn’t matter who is in the office or at home. At an extreme this could mean you have an office, perhaps full of colleagues (fellow employees) but there are no team members (people you actually work with) to see when you go there. Every day is a remote day in some sense. You have to have virtual team meetings, training, social catch-ups or one on ones – your only choice when you have a geographically dispersed team is to have these events virtually or to not have them at all.  In any ways work needs to be managed as if everyone is remote, working from home.  At the same time though the office offers opportunities for cross team connections, training and socialising but with a lot less daily benefits to going there. 

Dispersed work frequently used to involve a lot of travel. Sometimes it meant people literally would wait a week to ask a simple question (I’ll talk to you when you are in) These last 3 years have all of a sudden made dispersed teams a lot more manageable. Now its much easier than it was 15 years ago and people are way more accepting of the concept. In the past most people were unused to any virtual or remote working, these days most knowledge workers have at least a regular acquaintance with teams or zoom. But like remote and hybrid work, dispersed work takes more than the ability to use a video call to be a genuine and ongoing replacement for all sitting in the same place.

Dispersed work naturally sits alongside the concept of async work – once you introduce teams in different locations the likelihood is you will start to work across timezones. I had been working in dispersed for many years before I came across the concept of async and it was one that totally resonated with me. (this is a great resource on async work)

What do we need to do to support dispersed work and build genuine and deep cross locational teams and relationships? I think it’s a mix of the same things that support other forms of work that are not in person such as remote, hybrid and async work.

  • All meetings are virtual. Ideally each person has their own screen even if in one room.
  • Regular team meetings are essential. It’s a key way team members connect. But they should have a specific purpose and reason to attend . There might be different meetings for sharing knowledge and training, for socialising or for specific tasks (marketing, specific software or project teams etc). Maybe the whole team doesn’t need to be part of all the meetings either.
  • One on ones – and not just with your manager. You need to allocate some time to get to know your allow team members more informally so spend some time with each person who you work closely with.
  • Use your meetings to build relationships and rapport.  I think this is the explanation behind why  I am  against a “no recurring meetings” culture!

But it’s not all about meetings and virtual  “face to face” time, if meetings are focused on relationship building how do we get the work done? While sometimes a virtual meeting, workshop or video call is the answer, if this is our default, we struggle to find time to get work done. Chat is one answer but again can become stream of interruptions.  Some of my suggestions are

  • Replace daily scrum or update meetings with virtual updates via chat (or you could also  try voice message?) – this allows for different start times and time zones whilst still building into your daily routine a check in and hello to your team members
  • Review documents and provide comments using cloud collaboration tools (as basic as Microsoft’s commenting tools through to specialised collaboration software for your industry like Revizto and BIM Track) as a starting point  – follow up with a meeting only if required.
  • Use written / recorded briefs / instructions as a starting point – again follow up with a meeting if required.
  • Use tools like Trello or Monday to plan and share work across the team.

One of the biggest challenges to dispersed work in larger companies  can be in relating to other teams who are less widely distributed and maybe still have very office first cultures. I would describe these as hyper local. Often there might be a basis of functional reasons for why these teams are less dispersed (eg roles that require physical presence) or maybe they have just never had any reason to get used to remote or hybrid ways of working – and often see no benefits to themselves or their teams in changing the ways they work. In these situations it can be difficult to agree on a set of etiquettes that apply as the two team’s etiquettes are likely very different. Should the dispersed team members have to revert to the etiquette of face to face? The skills and etiquettes of working face to face and working in a dispersed team are very different and meshing the two cultures can be hard.

The likelihood is though that in the future dispersed work will become ever more common. This article from Workforce Futurist talks about the concept of decentralised work – this concept is linked to dispersed work but is one step further, essentially the potential for work to be based more and more around individuals coming together on a project basis (more like a movie structure than a typical company structure). This idea has been discussed in future of work writing for some time but as this article discusses, technologies make this possibility easier and a more likely future.

I believe the concepts of dispersed and decentralised work take us beyond the polarising debate of home versus office and into the future of work. Work is not the same today as it was in the twentieth century when the office as a concept came into being – its not even the same as it was in 2000 (which is around when I started working) despite the fact we had email and computers by then. Even before the pandemic technology was changing the way we worked and allowing different modes of work to exist. Workplace Futurist (and others) liken this change to the industrial revolution. People will continue to work from offices, they will just use them differently. People will also work from other places (as many already did). The biggest challenge is how we develop our workplaces, processes and cultures to support these new ways of working. Most importantly not only at a company or team scale but how we can support individuals to work together in ways that allow autonomy, flexibility and each of us to produce our best work.

What do you think? Can we move beyond the home versus office, remote versus in person debate? How do we help both teams and individuals transition to new ways of working?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credit: Compact Fibre via Unsplash

Has the pandemic rewired our brain and its relationship to work?

Neuroscience has proven that significant experiences such as parenthood, chronic pain or stress can change the way our brain fires, even our everyday behaviors change our brain.  “Of course, nearly everything changes the brain. Musical training reshapes parts of the brain. Learning the convoluted streets of London swells a mapmaking structure in the brains of cabbies. Even getting a good night’s sleep changes the brain. Every aspect of our environment can influence brain and behaviors.” Has the great remote work experiment achieved the same?

This recent piece in Workplace Insight got me thinking about how this applies now, post pandemic to the world of work and workplace.  In 2022, it is now the case for many office workers that too much has changed to just go back.  It seems very likely that a big part of what has changed is our brains.  It is not just working from home.  It is the homeschooling, the isolation, the anxiety and the difference of our lives before Covid and during Covid, its how all these things and more added up together.  I’m not a neuroscientist but I’m pretty sure it’s not just a changing of priorities or a reassessment, a great rethink or a great resignation.  A more fundamental shift has occurred – inside our heads – perhaps without us even being aware of it. 

Many of us were already changing even before the pandemic.  One of the things having the greatest impact today on our neuro wiring today is the smart phone.  Smart phones and our access to  endless information is changing the brains of adults in ways we don’t really yet understand yet –  from how we use our memory, to our attention span and even to how we perceive direction and understand maps.  Neuroscientists are finding many ways our brain changes as it interacts with technology, from smart phones and social media to virtual reality. 

If the brains of adults are changing, what about kids or even young adults in their twenties who have grown up with all this technology?   Even without having experienced a pandemic, their brains were likely to be very different to those of baby boomers when they started working in an office for the first time.  We can no longer relate office life in 2022 to ‘how things used to be’.  Even before the era of remote working, humans had already started to change.  And the speed of change is faster than ever before in our history.

Potentially the bigger challenge to how we think and relate to work is not about where we work but our relationship to our colleagues and the organisations we work for.  Over recent decades the idea of company loyalty and the value of a permanent role had already disappeared. Over the course of the pandemic the connection to organisations and the social bonds of work further disintegrated.

“Part of the problem is that the collegial, purpose-driven office that senior leaders idealize feels like a myth to many young workers. Since long before Covid-19, most offices weren’t delivering the mentoring, collaboration and social fabric that makes in-person work feel worthwhile. Indeed, many of the offices I visited in recent years were desolate, open plan landscapes dotted with individuals staring at screens, headphones on.” I’m sure many of us can relate to this statement, although in this article quoted, the author is trying to convince young people to go back to the office. 

If neuroscience is changing our relationship to work could a better understanding of neuroscience help us to better understand the way we work together and help solve these new challenges?  This 2017 article says we can.  Based on a decade of research, Paul J Zak (who is a neuroscientist), suggests that building trust is a key aspect of leadership and building teams and there is evidence that this then leads to  business success.   The essence of workplace culture is based upon social norms and the strength of our relationships. (Bruce Daisley has some great blogs, podcasts and videos on workplace culture for lots more depth)

Remote relationships change and challenge the way we build trust.  Some people would question is it even possible to build trust remotely? It’s not impossible but often it is likely to be a lot harder than in person.  Although again, this might be starting to change for those brought up with connecting technologies.

Recent research from Lendlease and Leesman  “found younger generations really pushed back against the notion you can’t make meaningful connections online, or those connections could only happen in person.  For this generation, that’s simply not true,” she said. “That’s not their lived experience. And in fact, they called out the awkward experience of making connections in real life.”

It’s possible that many of those sitting with their headphones on, might still have been interacting with people – they might have been emailing, chatting or using social media, communicating with colleagues inside the organisation or networks and friends outside.  They might not have been feeling any lack of in person interaction while sitting at the desk.  They might not have even needed or wanted that.  But in 2022 they know that this form of interaction can be done from home, a cafe or the beach – there is no social expectation to turn up, to be present anymore (or not everywhere anyway).

The reality is though that most of us don’t want all our work connections to be online and that some time spent together helps build relationships and trust. Neuroscience also posits that the brain reacts differently to someone we have met in real life to someone who we have only seen in a video screen (I first heard of this concept in a presentation from Fiona Kerr, Neurotech Institute). And I’m sure many people agree it’s harder to recognise someone in person that you only met online on zoom that in a real life meeting. If this is the case, then it doesn’t mean remote work isn’t possible some of the time but it adds another layer of information as to why we need to come together sometimes.  While our brains may have changed at one level, there remains much more ancient wiring that connects us together as a social species.

When we don’t all work in the same physical place every day, we need to start to be more intentional about the times when we do interact in person. We need both our processes and our physical workplaces to support this intentional coming together and no longer just be a sea of cubicles or benches for production. Work has changed – and so have we.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: Thanks to David Matos @davidmatos for making this photo available freely on Unsplash

Part time, hybrid or asynchronous – Building a culture of “Sometimes There”


Over the last 2 years of this new world of work, I’ve noticed that part time work is becoming much more easily accepted – its no longer so strange to ‘not be in the office that day’ or even ‘not working at that time’.  As we have changed our ways of working due to COVID, more and more people are in the position of working this way – its now becoming more of a cultural norm.

In Australia, it has long been the law that if you have school age children or younger an employer must allow you to work part time ‘unless there are reasonable business grounds’ (this is in fact our legal definition of flexible working). The reality of this meant many companies technically permitted part time but individual managers, might not make it easy or comfortable. It was also common for this to be accompanied by little opportunities for pay rises and career progression . So it’s wasn’t surprising many part time workers ended up feeling like second class citizens.   Finding an employer and team that genuinely supported and believed in part time was a difficult proposition.  Promises made at a corporate level or at interviews didn’t always translate to reality.

Particularly when employers are finding it hard to get great employees, employers and managers might sell their company culture as being genuinely friendly and positive to part time employees when it’s only surface deep. The same is now happening with remote and hybrid work. Whilst some employers feel the power is with the employees they will “allow” hybrid (or part time or remote). For anyone looking for a company or team that genuinely believes in different ways of working – the fact they use the word ‘allow’ demonstrates straight away their true beliefs on the subject! 

While part time work is now better accepted and easier to fit within the framework of a hybrid work culture, these challenges still remain, the difference is that now a larger group of employees are potentially being exposed to this attitude – will remote, hybrid or asynchronous work hurt peoples careers? Many organisations and teams are still struggling to build cultures and processes that support all these ways of working, and at the same time support employees who want to work part time too.  A culture that supports these kinds of working should also easily translate to a culture that supports dispersed working over multiple geographic locations (something almost every larger or multi office company has longed to achieve) as well as asynchronous work (allowing working at different times – creating more flexibility and the ability for team members in multiple time zones to work together) Perhaps even more boldly in the future – could these cultures also support the idea of everyone working 4 days a week with the same pay for reduced hours?

What all of these kinds of working have in common is that not everyone is there is one place all the time (or at the same time). There are a couple of different challenges with all of these kinds of working.

One is the most obvious difficulties that everyone talks about is the challenge of mixed presence or hybrid video meetings.  Just 10 years ago the idea that we could all communicate and meet via video this easily was possible but still incredible, using expensive meeting room based VC was still considered somewhat wow.  But now people complain that hybrid meetings are not good enough.  Technically this is still some way off from being solved.  For now though the best solution is quite simple.  All participants to have their own laptop/device cameras, and reduce reverberation by using a single microphone and choosing your room carefully.  Otherwise – you are better to choose an all remote meeting.  Its surprising to me to see how many people don’t seem to get this basic right and still try to cram 6 people into a room with one camera, a crappy laptop mic and poor acoustics.  Then wonder why the people on the hybrid end are getting frustrated by not being able to hear and everyone is having a poor meeting experience.  Get this right and for many kinds of meetings, hybrid works. 

That is not to say that we should be spending our day on teams or zoom.  There are many kinds of meeting that benefit from being in person.  From meeting new people, to performance discussions to networking – meetings or events that require an emotional connection and are not just about facts are better conducted in person.  But if possible, they are better conducted with everyone in person – not some people in one place and other people as faces on a screen.  If essential these things can be done online (as we provided during lockdowns) but these are the kinds of interactions people want to come to a workplace for – regardless of if its 3 days per week, 1 or 4 times per year.  People don’t want to come to the office to spend all the time sending emails or on Zoom/Teams.  I think most of us accept that some of our office time on these things is inevitable but not whole days.

Regardless of if meetings are online or in person, the biggest challenge to the part time, hybrid or asynchronous worker is a lack of planning.  Not just planning for meetings and on site physical presence but planning around who does what and when.  If there is an assumption that everyone is always available and you can grab them anytime for input, meetings or even team social events then those that work part time have historically often been left out – both from gaining relevant information and building connections.  Ad hoc is the enemy of sometimes there. Ad hoc can be good for friendships, for networking, for social media. Ad hoc and the serendipitous can be great for business relationships too. But as hoc shouldn’t be the cornerstone of how you deliver in your business. It’s not how to get a project done.  Relying on ad hoc literally means you are relying on chance to get work done well.  Everyone benefits when there is some level of planning and expectations are clearly set.

Planning is not just about booking meetings and all these ways of working shouldn’t mean more meetings but can in fact mean less.  By planning work in different ways, you should need less meetings.  Often a meeting isn’t the best way to allocate or check someones work.  Meetings are best used for questions and interactions not listing tasks and deadlines or reading documents in front of someone else.  Working collaboratively in documents using comments and tracking, using tools like Trello or Monday, or specialised collaborative software like Revizto or BIMtrack allow for people to allocate, comment and work together as a team regardless of if they are in the same place or working at the same time.  Not all of this has to be about typing or writing either, tools like Loom allow for creating screen recordings and videos to share with colleagues.  Yes, sometimes there will be some things won’t get solved as quickly as they would in a phone call or a meeting, but then a short meeting can resolve the important or misunderstood issues.  Overall the time saved for everyone and people can spend more of their time focussed on getting work done.

Planning isn’t just about being organised.  Its also about respecting the time of the people you work with and trusting that they will get it done.  If you work in this way – you don’t need to be constantly ‘checking in’.  Planning doesn’t mean that something can’t ever happen by chance, that you can’t have an ad hoc coffee with a colleague, it just means that its not the primary basis of how work gets done. Serendipitous, cross team encounters and overhead knowledge are one of the biggest challenges to overcome, and perhaps another subject for a blog post on their own sometime – although interestingly enough this old one from 2013 actually still covers most of it!

Often the complaint that “it’s easier” in person (sitting alongside this is always how we have done it) means it’s easier for the manager. It doesn’t mean it easier for the organisation or in fact that it’s either  the most  efficient or effective way to get things done.

Personally I think of all the emerging description for all of these different mixes of working which don’t involve 9-5 at the office, I’d choose ‘liberated work’ a terminology and concept from John Preece from Hub Australia originally in this article , with a further paper that can be downloaded here as well as frequently discussed in his Linkedin Posts.  The concept of liberated work is all about choice and true flexibility not just of place but also time.  At its heart success at liberated work relies on mutual trust, respect and consideration.  It doesn’t matter if you work part time, hybrid or asynchronous – these all require the same ingredients to succeed.  Some companies have always worked with these kind of ideals. Others will never get there. What will be interesting to see is how this plays out now that more flexible work options are the wish of many employees and not just a small minority. Will these new ways of working end up like activity based work did, with many companies claiming they offer a version of ‘hybrid’ but doing it poorly because they don’t truly believe in it?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Jon Tyson via Unsplash

What if instead of ‘learning by osmosis’ we tried sharing with intention?

Before 2020 if you googled ‘learning by osmosis’ you would mostly find memes of cats and students asleep atop a pile of books, alongside articles telling you this was no way to study.

Then came lockdown, and all of a sudden the idea of ‘learning by osmosis’ was everywhere and all of a sudden I realised I now had a name to put to the problem I had been seeing with many many graduates of 2-5 years experience. No-one was actually teaching them anything and they were just expected to be learning because they sat there working in an office.  Similar to the people who believe that a positive workplace culture comes from just sitting in an office together, there seems to be a lot of people who believe that learning happens just by being together.

So is leaning by osmosis really the best way to expect professionals to learn? Do graduates actually get exposed to training and life lessons through overhead phone calls and incidental conversations? Do many people even have phone conversations anymore? Or is it just like culture, in that you might find you get better outcomes if there is some intentionality behind how you teach, coach and mentor.  Maybe more learning happens by inviting them to sit in on client meetings and spending time explaining the concepts behind what we are asking them to do?  Maybe even investing time in regular group training (which can also easily be recorded for future use).  All of these things can happen both in real life and virtually too.

It’s not just about learning for graduates but other ways we communicate and share information in the workplace too. The pandemic has highlighted the function of the office as a place where frequently all kinds of project and organisational knowledge is shared on an ad-hoc basis between whoever happens to be physically around at the time.  Long before Covid and remote work, larger companies have been aware of the need to create ways to record and share knowledge beyond smaller groups and individual teams who might speak to each other on a day to day to basis – to share across different disciplines and geographically dispersed locations. Anyone who has worked if a dispersed team has probably noticed this and perhaps thought about how to change it. I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons why dispersed and hybrid teams are often so difficult to setup and manage.

Do you want to rely on the right person happening to overhear the right phone call to learn or know something? Its a pretty chancy way of communicating even without the fact that people taking taking phone calls in the open office has been on the decline since before Covid (unfortunately though still to many people think its okay to do a Teams in an open office). More business is today conducted via email and scheduled meetings. Frequently one on one phone calls just create confusion when multiple parties are expected to be on top of the issues and part of the decision making. Copying everyone into an email or scheduling a meeting became the solution to ensuring no-one was inadvertently left out. While endless meetings are not ideal, sometimes it’s better than circles of calls (and messages) trying to keep everyone in the loop. Even when phone calls do occur, with mobile phones now the default number to call, frequently they are taken while on the go, or in a meeting / focus room so as to not force your colleagues to have to listen in.

An informal and ad-hoc approach to sharing information also can create disadvantages for many in the workplace. The people who are part time, work shifted hours, work on site some days or happen to have the day off. Even someone who was in a meeting or at lunch.  Whenever we communicate based upon whoever happens to be physically present at the time, we are potentially creating inequalities of information (which can even become a form of bullying).  A more intentional approach to sharing information, whatever level people are at helps avoid this bias.

Intentional teaching and sharing also helps address different modes of learning or language barriers.  By writing down or recording what we are communicating, we allow people to review and learn at their own pace and to check back in later.  Written forms of communication particularly where shared amongst the group – such as chat, planner platforms or shared documents are invaluable for dispersed and hybrid teams. As long as people use them! Make these methods the starting point for all your team interactions and very quickly most people will see the benefits. Not everyone finds writing the easiest way to communicate though – video and screen recording is now so accessible sometimes this can be an awesome way of communicating and learning. (Thanks to my recent grad who demonstrated that to me one day recording her software troubles on video to share with me).

For individuals and teams who work closely together and need to communicate frequently, scheduling time together regularly and in advance is an easy start. Both group time and one on one time are necessary depending on the structure of your teams. It doesn’t have to be weekly, maybe for some people it’s monthly.  Rather than focus valuable time together on who is doing what (which is easily written down and doesn’t always need discussion), consider discussing project issues and problems as a group so everyone can learn from one another.   

Sharing knowledge with intention means people are going to learn what they need to know and do it faster than if you rely upon  chance.  It has been a long time since I’ve spent a lot of face to face time with my team (long before covid), but I’ve always spent a lot of time teaching and coaching with intention.  One of the graduates I worked with told me she learned more from me on 3 months than she had in her previous 3 years of work.  I probably saw her 2 days a week. Throughout my career, I have experienced different models of distributed and remote work which have frequently meant I didn’t work in the same physical location as people who I could learn from, people I needed to share information with or teach – either inside or outside my organisation. Being open to learning, sharing and collaborating remotely opened up many more opportunities than it would have reduced or constrained my learning.

If the workplace is not for learning by osmosis, what is it for?  One of the things that is much harder (its not impossible) to either learn or do virtually is to network and build ties within an origination outside of your own team.  There is a lot of research starting to come out on the importance of weak ties and this is one of the challenges that remote and even hybrid work will need to overcome. Its not learning stuff that matters but connecting with people. In this way workplaces, real life conferences or networking events all serve the same function. You create connections that can help you later. You don’t need to learn everything yourself, but to know the right people to help you.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image via Marco Chilese on Unsplash

Life after the open plan office?

Before COVID I spent my whole career working in an open plan office. Most of the time my bosses worked in the open plan too – frequently by choice not by necessity.   Architecture and design is a collaborative team based work environment and we all believed it was the only way to work.  Months spent in lockdown combined with new technologies have seen me reflecting on what the future holds for the open plan office.

Unlike my lawyer siblings, I’d never expected to have an office. If I needed to concentrate I put in headphones or found a quiet room.  I loved the open plan (as long as it was well designed and supported by meeting spaces and quiet rooms) and I couldn’t understand why anyone complained. I thought it was a matter of what you were used to and that the naysayers would just have to get used to it sometime – even the lawyers. After all, around 30-40% of desks are typically unoccupied, why pay for all those empty offices?

Fast forward to a post lockdown 2021, and I realised I’d gradually come to hate the open office, and in my mind I’m questioning its purpose in the current era. Like the enclosed office had their day, are the days of the open office now coming to an end? My suspicion is yes, the post COVID office will have a lot less desks but as with many trends, this was already a development that was starting before COVID.

Even before Covid 19 my own views were probably starting to change. I just hadn’t realised it yet. Five years ago, after my daughter was born, I negotiated a role where I could work from home 1 day a week (not whilst caring for her but to allow me to skip a commute and get some washing done). What it also gave me was a day that was largely free of distractions and usually free of meetings too. This became my time to focus on extensive drawing reviews or writing fee proposals.

In 2020 as the world shut down and our team moved to full time WFH – at first just a few of us, but within a week or 2 – the whole practice. We were in fact well setup already for this. A number of staff like myself already worked from home some days as well as part time meant our team was well used to distributed work. Our technology strategy that had been gradually growing more cloud based, many tools we had started implementing only months before the lockdown such as Revizto and Morpholio Trace became key aspects of our online design collaboration process and proved many tasks could be delivered whilst remote.  Once we added Teams for video conferencing, it was fairly quick to bring  others on board too. We saw many benefits to remote working – many staff were happy and productive skipping the commute, clients based overseas or regionally were better able to participate in meetings, consultants less like to question why they needed to attend a 2 hour meeting for their 5 minutes of input.  The biggest challenge for most designers was the access to our physical materials sample library, although like any workplace not everyone took so well to remote work – and of course we all missed the choice to meet in person.

Our first lockdown actually turned out to be a short one, and in Sydney unlike many other places, we had a year back in the office before our second lockdown. A year where Teams/Zoom meeting still remained the new norm and a lot of time was spent talking about hybrid working – what does hydbrid mean for us, for our clients and for the world of workplace from building owners through to co-working and tenants? The world at large was suddenly interested in talking about workplace – do we need less of it, how often do we go there, and most critically what is a workplace for?

This is a question that didn’t really get asked before COVID. It was accepted by most companies that if you had more than a handful of staff, you needed a physical workplace. Only a very few (usually tech) startups such as Gitlab (a 100% remote company before COVID – they even wrote a guide) bucked this trend. But for anyone returning early to the open office post lockdown, the question of what is the workplace for becomes obvious very quickly. Why am I sitting here in the office with people doing teams calls all around me (of myself on teams) – distracting anyone from doing focus work? Even if there are meeting rooms – is there a point going to an office to sit in a room and do a videoconference? Many people started thinking – if I can do this work from home comfortably why am I actually here? (noting that WFH is not the answer for everyone and usually there is a number of people who will want to go to the physical office regardless). If you then layer on social distancing rules which prevent people gathering in meeting rooms, or hybrid working patterns mean few staff are present, then the physical office really does start to seem pointless to spend time travelling somewhere to do more video calls.  People start to really question what am I getting out of being here physically in the office?

A big point that came up frequently last year in favour of the physical office was the idea of learning by osmosis or of over-hearing colleagues, the serendipitous interruptions and interactions that occur in the course of a day in the open office.  I’ve long been a skeptic of the idea of learning by osmosis, I feel like it’s an excuse for not actually spending mindful deliberate time in training people. I’ve also noticed that more and more communication is taking place by email or scheduled calls, or even while people are on the run between meetings. Less and less do people sit as their desks making calls that graduates might over hear and learn from. To me, the ability to invite an additional team member unobtrusively to listen in on the video call (with no travel time also) might provide a whole lot more learning than overhearing a few calls.  Learning on the job is always going to be essential, but maybe there are better ways to learn that by accidentally over hearing things?

A work culture that relies on accidental communication rather than purposeful communication is also be a problem for people who work part time, or even spend a lot of time out of the office with clients – they too may miss important information – if it is only communicated verbally in an ad hoc informal manner.

I’ve also realised over this time, that much of our conversation and concepts of “workplace” actually refers to the kind of workplace where you have a large diverse organisation with numerous teams working on different projects or areas of the business.  If your company only consists of one or two teams, the conversation and information shared is just as likely to be important information about the nature of your job as social chitchat or random connections or the “water cooler chat”. In a small organisation, you might find you still connect with people virtually as frequently as you did in the office.  You might not notice the absence of the social side of work as much as if you sit on a floor of over 100 people.
I’ve realised that already for me pre lockdown over a few years of working in smaller organisations, networking events and social media had already replaced the workplace providing these kind of serendipitous, inspiring or even just outside of the everyday, encounters. Without consciously thinking, I’d already been looking for new ways to connect. In fact this is what I missed most during lockdowns and found the hardest to simulate (although not completely impossible, I managed to make a few new friends via Zoom during the first lockdown).

So…if we don’t need rows and rows of workstations for people to sit and work at screens (regardless of if that work is intensive concentrated work or online collaboration) what is the workplace for and do we still have an open office? I believe the answer is yes – in part.  Workplaces will continue to evolve and many possible permutations are currently being discussed and explored, but for now, we do still need desks to work at. Regardless of if your work is on a PC or a laptop, many of us need multiple screens for comparing documents or graphics / modelling work and for best ergonomics all kinds of computer work will for now remain best done at a desk (when working hours on a computer anyway). As anyone who has already attempted to juggle a hybrid schedule knows, we can’t neatly allocate all of our meetings and collaboration times to blocks of in office time.  There will also be work in between. There will always be people who prefer to work in the office and who don’t want to work at home. I also can’t see any sense in moving back to an earlier ear of 1 enclosed room per person either. Real estate is too expensive and if you are only in the office 3 days a week why have a dedicated room per person.

There are many new workplace models currently being considered. HASSELL have developed a number of models for the new workplace from developments of Activity Based Working (Turbo charged) to more regional workplaces (Hub and Spoke) or the model which is most divergent from a traditional office is the Clubhouse model.  In this workplace model, the Clubhouse workplace becomes the central focus of collaboration and social activities – a central location for meeting clients and co-workers more akin to a a hospitality or events space than a traditional office, very few desks exist in this model.

Another suggestion is to question if you keep your current fitout, but perhaps you “flip” the use of the open plan office? Natalie Slessor  from Lend Lease suggested that with the bulk of space at the workplace being required for collaboration – maybe this face to face is what takes place in the open plan and the enclosed spaces are used for quiet work.

In my mind right now is a different model. Recently I was visiting the new Marrickville Library designed by BVN and I realised this could in fact be the future of the workplace. The Marrickville Library is an amazing transformation of a heritage building – a new building literally built around a heritage building.  Inside there are an amazing variety of spaces from tiny one person rooms, to surprising little nooks at the top of the stair (and under the eaves of the old building), to larger spaces for reading and working as well as auditorium style stepped seating common to many contemporary offices.  It is a wondrous place to explore (the website doesn’t do the variety of the interior spaces justice). An office based upon this idea would have an open plan area, but not a huge one, and its function is a quiet study space – akin to the library reading room. Other spaces large and small but removed from the reading room become spaces for collaboration. Small enclosed rooms become the places for the video calls and the chats. In all likelihood, this model will mean more enclosed spaces and more variety in the sizes and types of rooms. Outdoor and indoor spaces are all part of the mix. Cafes and hospitality style spaces are also a key component of this new workplace. In some ways this is a logical next step from both ABW spaces and many existing co-working spaces. But this model also opens up intriguing design ideas as to the kinds of spaces and buildings that might make up the office of tomorrow – perhaps no longer are shiny new premium grade towers the favoured answer. 

The most important point right now is that now is the time to question why the office, what is the office and how can we make the office of tomorrow better than the office of the past? The office has never been a static concept, and now more than ever is the time to question, experiment and pilot to see what works for your people, your teams and your organisation. What other kinds of models are you seeing in your office world or picturing in your own mind?

I am looking forwards to spending even more of my own time investigating this topic and working with clients to discover their best workplaces. From 3 December I’m excited to be joining CBRE’s Workplace Strategy Team here in Sydney. Get in touch to discuss the future of work!

Image Credits: Israel Andrade on Unsplash

Work Smarter Not Harder

In theory we all have exactly the same amount of time in our day or our week, but why is it that different situations such as lockdowns, maternity leave or unemployment make time pass so differently – or different individuals feel like they have so much more or less time than others?  While there is a whole host of reasons that impact our perception of time, one of the biggest is how effectively we use it – the common saying to work smarter not harder.  But how exactly do you do that? 

As someone who has gone from a life working a 60 plus hour week to a flexible 27 hour work week, I have a few thoughts on the subject. In architecture and design, many people equate working long hours to loving their job and being creative.  But how much of those long hours are actually being spent on creative endeavours?  Or people think they are simply just not ‘organised’ and believe they can’t change the way they interact with time.  Just as you can train yourself to become better at a sport, a hobby or a language, you can also train your brain to deal with your time differently.  Even if you have trouble concentrating, being organised or have ADHD – you can train your brain and change how you deal with time and organisational skills. (While its not a resource for time management, “The Brain that Changes Itself” is an amazing book about the power and plasticity of the brain)

The first step to doing things differently is to make the decision that YOU want to do things differently.  Maybe you can also bring your colleagues and others around you along for the ride, but maybe you can’t.  At the end of the day though, we can only change our own behaviours and responses and gently encourage others around us to take responsibility for their own choices and actions.

Many people can be very successful in life, but still have problems managing their own time, or respecting the time of others.  Often these people are stressed out and overwhelmed, they know something in their life isn’t working, but they are not sure what it is.  Frequently the noticeable issue is that you feel like every day is spent putting out fires and you may not feel in control of your own time.  This can flow onto the people around you, leaving them feeling the same.  It doesn’t make a great work environment for anyone.

Regardless of our our own time management or our immediate team, often in the collaborative but often combative world of design and construction, external parties are pushing their own agendas and can leave us feeling our day or week is out of our own control.

Set Your Boundaries

People who know me today, assume that I started to set boundaries  around my work life because I have a small child.  Its common that women (and more and more men) will prioritize children, and particularly child care pickups (partially due to expensive fines for being late).  But while this might often force people out the door, it doesn’t always mean that boundaries are set at other times, either on a day off, at night or on the weekends.  For me, I’d actually started to set boundaries around my time earlier.

Particularly in this always on smart phone age, I believe everyone needs to set their own boundaries.   No-one will ever manage all your time for you.  You have to decide when to switch off, when you are available and when you are not.  This includes setting and managing your own notifications on your phone, email and apps.   Its also important to have a culture that makes it clear to team members that they are not expected to be switched on and responding 24/7.  Particularly during lockdown, much of my own work was occurring outside business hours – that doesn’t mean I expect others to be available or responding.  If you know that work emails outside of hours will aggravate you – turn them off (or see below and try meditation).

In this industry you can never avoid deadlines, and occasional overtime is always going to be required, but planning realistic timeframes and negotiating with clients to achieve agreed outcomes can help to manage this process as well as regular communications within teams about current workloads and status.  We use slack and in person meetings to keep track of where everyone is, what they are working on and project resourcing overall.

For many years I have run teams with a significant proportion of part time or remote staff (one team I was the only full time person out of 5!)  As a team we plan our workloads, deadlines and meetings around everyone’s commitments.  Sometimes this takes more work and means agreed hours needs to be thought about and regular meetings might have to be on Teams/Zoom or even to shift days whenever things need to change – but this way everyone is able to plan their days and time around known commitments.  Many teams have seen over the course of the last year that this approach can work.

Delegation and Mentoring

Obviously one of the biggest ways to save yourself time, if you can’t automate it (more on that later) – delegate it.  Many professionals in our industry – be they architects, designers, engineers or even project managers are really really bad at delegating.  Partially this could be because we don’t even get taught how to delegate and many of us have had such  poor examples to learn from.  Delegating is not just handing something over to someone else to do it and then checking every day (or hour) if they did it yet.  Delegating effectively is a mix of training and briefing people as well as a bit of letting go.  

Our industry has been often heavily biased towards a single individual being in control of the project or being the client contact – but this is not always the best team structure – for the client, the project, the business or the time of individuals.  If a less experienced team member is paired with a more experienced team member, not just to draw this and model that – but to take responsibility and get to know the project inside out, it can be a huge benefit to both team members as well as the client and your business overall.  When only 1 team member knows what is going on across the project – you open yourself up to trouble if they get sick, go on holidays or leave your business.

I use a mix of different communication tools for delegating and briefing staff from in person or video chats thru to previous examples, Slack and Trello as well as Revizto.  Just because I delegate a task also does not mean I don’t track the outcome at all, and a lot of these tools help my team communicate with each other when something is complete or any issues or delays in completing a task.

I also spend a lot of my time training and reviewing projects or deliverables (probably actually almost half my time).  In particular, training is often set aside when we are busy but can then be ignored for months at a time as low priority.  Before you know it – you have a team going off in 10 different directions (same goes for regular team meetings or one on one catchups).


Use the right tool for the job.  Any task you spend a lot of manual time on can be improved – it doesn’t matter if its emails, expense claims or documentation.  Any time I find myself ‘wasting’ time by inputting data twice, or adding up manually, I know there is a better way.  I am constantly on the lookout for tasks that can be improved on and the tools to fix them. This mindset really does help you work smarter.  If you can get a whole team working thinking this way, over the course of a year you can make significant improvements in how you work – and see positive gains in culture as people feel less frustrated wasting time on boring manual tasks.

Slack (or other chat) is frequently a faster way of communicating with team members than email.  Software like Trello, MS Planner or Monday can help you manage your projects, delegate and assign tasks and never forget to do anything ever again!  Is Revit the right tool for the stage you are in?  Do you need to add Dynmo or another free or paid addin to help push Revit in the right direction?  Or do you need to get back to basics and sketch – but could sketching digitally on an iPad make this process faster and more efficient as well as provide consistency?

Your software is just one set of tools though, there are many other tools that can help you with productivity in different ways.  One I like is a music subscription designed to help you focus – Focus at Will. 

For others, trying different ways, places and times of working can make a big difference – if you have the opportunity, then figure out what works for you.  I know some of my colleagues (and much of the world) were surprised at how productive they became working from home during lockdowns!

Processes and checklists

Processes and in particular use of templates can really help you to streamline your time.  The more people or times you are doing a task, the more important templates become.  Templates can range from wording in an email that can be copy and pasted, a standard Trello board, through to your Revit or Indesign software templates.  A template for these kinds of programs is much more than just the graphic look.  Templates also should build on automation, from automating text that is repeated, to page numbering, use of styles and consistency of information.  It surprises me how poorly understood templates are within architecture practices.  Building templates takes time but if done well should pay off quickly and immediately by improving both the time it takes to do something and the quality of the outcome.

Checklists help free up our brains so we can focus on the important and creative tasks.  They also help create a process for ensuring quality of documentation, proposals or anything else you are issuing.

Process is also about how you manage your own time.  Blocking out and committing to time for strategic tasks (whatever than might mean in your role from building templates to business development strategies to one on one meetings with your team members).  Most of us actually know the things we should be doing to take our career, business or project to the next level – we just don’t actually make the time for it.

For me one of the most effective process tips I’ve ever found was around managing emails and keeping a clean inbox – when you open the email, make a decision immediately what to do with it – delete it, file it, move it to your action list (for me that’s Trello) or move it to a folder to be actioned later (I call it _To Do so it sits at the top of my folder lists) – or even better delegate it to someone else.  It doesn’t matter if I’m on my PC or my phone – this is what I do with my emails.  I remember once some colleagues looked at my email when I was out one day and thought it was broken – because my inbox was empty!  You do need to ensure you check and action the to do folder every day you are working for this to succeed.  This won’t work for everyone – find what processes work for you to manage however it is you work.

Sleep and Exercise

When you are tired you don’t perform at your peak, you make more mistakes and things take longer.  You probably also feel like you have even less time (and this is my explanation for over a year of no blogging!)  I have noticed that regular good quality sleep and setting aside the time for exercise makes a huge difference to how productive and creative I am during the day.  If you continue to push yourself to work hard or spend hours awake at night stressing, you will never be able to work smarter.  Having spent the last year dealing with sleep issues in my family, I really recommend taking action – see a doctor, a psychologist, try acupuncture, meditation or even simply cutting back caffeine (much as I love coffee – this is actually the first thing to start with).


There is scientific proof that meditation changes your brain.  It can help you sleep, it can help you manage stress and anxiety and it can even help you to become more creative.  I know personally, it is one of the habits that I know I should do more of, but even if you don’t manage to meditate every day, there are still so many benefits.  One of the biggest that I have noticed in myself is the ability to be less reactive and not to take personally emails or other communications I might find stressful or frustrating.   I find this allows me to be more available without pushing up my stress levels, which helps me manage my own boundaries.  Personally I like Headspace app but there are so many different types and varieties of meditation out there, try a few different ones and see what works for you.  Commit to 10 minutes per day for 10-14 days and you will notice a difference.  Mediate regularly for a year or more, and seriously, it will change you (in a good way!)

Other People

The hardest thing to manage is the other people who you work with, but who you don’t necessarily have influence over their processes.  From clients to other consultant members to other teams within your own organisation.  While you can work your best to work smarter – not everyone around you will see the benefits.  That is where meditation and patience comes in!  (if not a change of job) However many of these techniques will also help in managing others around you. By being organised, reliable and setting your own boundaries, you will generally find most other people around you will over time respect knowing what to expect and when to expect things.

Letting go of Ego

One of the hardest and possibly least talked about aspects of not working so many hours is letting go. Letting go and taking a step back from the project or the work, but also letting go of your own ego. To successfully work part time, or likely even at different times means you have to delegate, and sometimes you have to delegate decision making, miss an important meeting or let someone else take the lead. I always try to remember no- one is indispensable – and that if I was indispensable, that would mean I couldn’t take a holiday either!

Different tools, systems and tips work for everyone. Sometimes it really is a matter of giving things a go to see what works. Team environments are a little harder, but being willing to try different ways of working and organising can benefit everyone. What are your tips for working smarter in architecture and design? Or in life generally?

Image Credits: Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

The Future of Work is a ClickBait Headline

I’m a big fan of flexible working and felt positive that the highly successful experiment of months of working from home was finally going to change the world of work. But perhaps not surprisingly, change isn’t always as easy as proving something can be done.

The evidence from any significant reputable source is pretty clear. Overall working from home has been a success. We are more productive and happier. For me, one of the major reputable sources of scale is Leesman, which has surveyed over 150,000 people working from home and reports an overall satisfaction level higher than the office. There are also some people who do still want to work from the office all the time too. Study after study reports that more workers are more satisfied and more productive working from home but, and this is important, most people still want to spend some time each week working in an office.

So I was quite surprised last month to come across this article headlined “The evidence is in: working from home is a failed experiment”. Huh? Really? At least The Guardian labelled it as an opinion piece. Just like the articles of the past that complained about the open and noise and claimed to show “evidence” of the failure of open plan, this article is going to make all the non believers feel better. The author reassures readers not to worry about being “old school” – at heart everyone else feels just like you and is just to nervous to admit it. To prove it – apparently two thirds of worker are craving time with colleagues. I would point out though “More time” doesn’t mean full time. If you actually click thru to read the referenced Microsoft study – under the first heading Flexible work is here to stay “Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. ” That’s not saying working from home is a failed experiment!!!

Even the author admits pretty quickly the headline is wrong “But this point of view is shared by more than a few clients of mine. Mostly, they fit a similar demographic: older, set in their ways, long time in business, family-owned companies. It’s obvious that most companies will need to offer work from home options in the future.” Again that fits with other research which suggests men in middle management struggle the most in seeing benefits working from home or working from home themselves. (Workplace beyond 2020 research by HASSELL, a small sample size but certainly something which is being anecdotally recognised and this gender bias could be a great topic to see more research into)

So a few grumpy middle aged men don’t want to have their staff work from home. But generally the world accepts this is going to be the future? That’s evidence of a failed experiment? This is pretty lazy journalism. Do we need to continue? But this is so much fun let’s do some fact checking on the rest of the “proof”. 

Issues of being stressed, anxious and over worked are not necessarily about working from home but more likely related to other aspects of the pandemic – working from home whilst in lockdown and homeschooling children does not compare to working from home by choice a few days a week.  This last year has not been the norm that working from home could become.  Feelings of too many meetings and too many emails existed long before the pandemic.  The idea of creating ‘meeting free’ Fridays (or any other block of time) makes sense regardless of if you work from home or from an office and if your meetings are in Zoom or in person.  This is clearly acknowledged in the article about LinkedIn giving its staff a week off to cope with burnout – its not about working from home, its about the overall stress of living thru a panedemic.  If you read through to the end of the article, LinkedIn are in fact planning a hybrid working future – with all staff able to work from home up to 50% of the time.  Again, what is the ‘failed experiment’?

As seems to be frequently the case big finance makes an appearance. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are determined to get back to the old normal! Does anyone really want to reflect Goldman Sachs culture?  If you missed it, the company was recently in the news after some graduate employees created a powerpoint criticising ‘inhumane working conditions’ and demanding a better work culture and work life balance.  I honestly laughed out loud that the author choses this company as one you would want to aspire to.

It’s clear to me that this author doesn’t get the employee side  “there’s this illusion of more independence, flexibility and control over one’s life”.  It is only an illusion if you are working for the wrong boss.   If more people are happier and more companies are making money, I’m not quite sure why its a problem to change the status quo?  What exactly is the point of keeping the old normal of commuting to an office 5 days a week?  From the perspective this article seems to be aimed at – the small business owner – it is really a business decision you are making.  Do you want happy engaged satisfied employees who are more productive?  Do you want to be able to draw from the largest talent pools – both in terms of locations and workstyles? Or is it more important to you to have all your staff in front of you? 

If you own the business – it is still your choice.  Although it is possible, in the future it won’t be – flexibility and options to work from home could well become legal rights for workers.  But as someone who has experience part time working within cultures where its only allowed because it had to be – if I was looking for a forward thinking flexible culture, I know I wouldn’t be choosing the company who were working more flexibly because they had to but the one who valued it.

According to the author of this article, study after study proves it all – it seems Leesman with its database of  over 150,000 responses must have got it wrong.  Instead lets rely on a survey of 2000 Americans, which again proves that working thru home in isolation during a pandemic is stressful, not that remote working is a failed experiment.  The other study refers to data from a 2017 study, which also isn’t a true reflection of what the future could hold.  Before the pandemic, working from home was not normalised in the way it is now.  Whilst some companies worked that way, it was the exception rather than the rule and those working remotely were isolated from those physically present.  The idea that we could achieve an equality of experience between the two and create a truly hybrid working culture was certainly not mainstream.

Whilst in many countries, remote working is still a requirement, here in Australia (and hopefully soon many more able to follow) it’s optional – offices have been gradually opening up again over some months and the “new normal” is now here.  This  kind of headline attracts the people who fit this demographic “older and set in their ways” –  who might be feeling  a bit defensive right now.  I’m really interested to try and understand these opinions.  I think its important to recognise that there are 2 groups here – some are employers and some are employees. The way I see it, for employees, this new normal  becomes another factor to take into account when choosing a new job, or if we stay in the old one.  For some people flexibility and the choice to work from home will be important, and for others it won’t be.

For employers, who are running the company, you can make your own choice so why is this discussion seeming to be such a defensive one? Perhaps again, it is not so much about the realities of working from home and remote teams, but about the stress of running a business during a pandemic and anxiety over lack of control and a lack of knowledge of just how to manage this new world of work. It is also true that many of the studies are focused on the outcome for employees and small businesses are less likely to have been as aware of research and understanding of employee satisfaction and engagement and also want to see the evidence of how this new way of working relates to their industry and their business. This research from Bastion Insights and Pitcher and Partners (although a small Australian sample size) is a really great starting point for comparing and understanding the viewpoints of employers as well as employees.

Finally, lets talk about innovation. The author claims “The model has proven to create more disruption, less productivity and diminished innovation.”  The one point I won’t dispute is the potential impacts of working from home on long term innovation.  However again, we have to consider than extended lock downs with no face to face contact, doesn’t reflect the more realistic new normal of hybrid working where teams connect in person on a more regular basis.  At this point, we don’t really have the data to know what the long term impacts on innovation might be – however I notice that most of the companies which had all / heavily remote cultures pre pandemic were tech companies – so maybe this is all the proof you need…

But either way I’d question if a company run by someone who proudly claimed to be “old school” was innovating anyway.

The biggest point is – it’s not either work from home or work from the office – the benefits are going to come from being able to offer a mix of both. And if you are an employer and you don’t think it works, you don’t have to do it – but maybe it is worth researching a little bit more widely and setting up your own experiment of hybrid – and you can see what might be possible. There is certainly plenty to read out there!

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I know I haven’t mentioned learning by osmosis – I think that could be the topic of a whole blog itself!

Image: Windows on Unsplash

The Future of the Built Environment: Population Pandemic Climate

We are currently facing two forces that promise to fundamentally change the nature of our world and our industry: 

1. Changing demographics and population growth – as we face a future with ever more crowded urban populations, what must we do to cater to their needs and ensure that the Built Environment provides quality of life, freedom and choice? What implications are there for the way in which we work given the need to increase our production drastically, with a declining workforce?
2. A global pandemic reshaping the way in which we work – as remote working looks to perhaps become our ‘new normal’ what will this mean for an industry still centred around a manual labour model and struggling to increase collaboration and coordination? How do we manage this at a time when we are being forced to increase separation and isolation?

There is no doubt that fundamental change is upon us, our industry and the greater world community; but HOW will the built environment change, and how must our industry change to reflect this?

After a 2 year break from blogging – let’s not start back on a small insignificant topic! Last November I was asked to speak on a webinar for Singapore Polytechnic and the Digital Built Environment Institute on the above topic. From my perspective as an Australian, it seemed to me there was a third piece also critical to this discussion – climate change. So my talk addresses this as a third major driver of change. tI was invited to join two other speakers Randy Deutsch and Josh DeStefano to discuss this topic, and I was specifically addressing Interior Design (it was a little intimidating to be speaking alongside Randy, whose books I own!)

To me these three drivers of change are interlinked and have significant impacts on the world in general and on construction and buildings – as both a major part of our economic activity and a major contributor to environmental change. Our whole global economic system is dependent upon population growth. Countries like Japan have economically stagnated because of a lack of population growth, and countries like Australia could follow with the pandemic set to reduce immigration and population growth in coming years. At the same time, COVID 19 was caused by the twin factors of population growth and climate change which is causing increasing contact between humans and wild animals likely to lead to more increasing frequency of virus transfer between animals and humans. Unlike population growth and climate change which have so far been measured in years not days and months, the pandemic has an urgency. Like climate change and population growth, the end of the pandemic has to be a global solution. Unlike climate change and population growth, we see the short term impacts immediately but don’t yet know the longer term impacts on individuals and society. All three of these issues will form the background to future directions in our industry over coming years.

My approach to this topic was to address 10 trends in interior design, which to quote Sir Norman Foster “Instead of change, it [covid] has merely hastened, accelerated trends of change that were already apparent before the pandemic”

1. Flexibility

Flexibility has been a growing topic in workplace for many years (and a personal favourite to write about), however in 2020 when lockdowns instituted an immense global WFH experiment combined with no childcare, flexibility took on a whole new scale of meaning.

Flexibility encompasses place, time and space and all of these became factors for many people during the pandemic. Work from home, work when the kids are asleep or on the weekends, work from the bedroom or the kitchen table. All of these things were and are continuing to happen. Some are positive, and allow people choice as to where and when to work and others were forced upon people due to the unique circumstances of not being allowed to leave the house.

We can expect to see flexible work options remain, becoming more mainstream in the new hybrid workplace of the future. Design of homes might be more flexible to allow for spaces to change from study to guest room or dining space. Design of workplaces is also likely to see a need for more flexibility to accommodate less desks and more variety of collaboration spaces.

Time forms the biggest challenge for flexibility, and needs flexibility of mindset. From flexible start and finish times, many teams and organisations have moved beyond the idea of core hours to any hours – the idea of asynchronous working where people can work together, even if they don’t have work at the same time. (All remote tech company Gitlab being one of the best documented examples)

These changes towards a more flexible workplace will also have a positive impact on urbanisation and climate change. Choices for remote working or hybrid working will give people more choice of where to live and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary commuting or business travel.

2. Global vs Local

Interior design (and architecture) have become more and more homogensied globally as international communication and global trade gets easier and easier. Frequently you can’t tell which region of the world an image of an office comes from – particularly if the image is of a social space rather than a desk.

COVID has us questioning the global nature of the world, from travel to exports and imports the gloabalised nature of today’s world has made it easier for the virus to spread, and frequently created significant disruption when borders are closed or the amount of freight is restricted. To rely more upon locally produced goods for food or building mitigates these supply chain issues as well as the impacts on the environment that come with transporting so much stuff around the world every day.

Spending more times in our homes and local areas, rather than driving or flying around the city or the world has also made many of us see our own local area differently. Perhaps we realised we loved where we lived, or for many realised we actually didn’t like it all and wanted to be closer to nature, the beach or family. Once freed from the daily grind of commuting to the CBD, many took the opportunity to move out of cities to regional areas which here in Australia has caused a housing price boom in larger regional centres and coastal towns. Over time, this could very well mean a reduction in the urban city population, and more of a balanced choice between living in an urban centre of choosing a regional lifestyle. This is a trend that was already beginning as technology and wi-fi become more readily available, but the work from anywhere opportunity created by the pandemic has enabled more people to make this choice.

3. Blending

This is one of my personal favourties. Offices that start to like like homes or bars, and homes start to incorporate office spaces. The trend towards more domestic or hospitality style workplace design has been growing over a number of years, and was perhaps reaching its peak just in the months before COVID – I saw a large number of workplace fitouts featuring beds!!! (Casper is a mattress company – but was only one of a number I saw. Google has long been famous for its nap pods)

One of the most extreme examples of this was a solution to the COVID lockdown. These 9m2 pods encompass a work area, bed and small sink/kitchen space. Apparently you could sit out the lockdown in one of these bizzare new alternatives to co-working. Not sure where you would shower or how bad your home setup would have to be for you do want to do this…

I think it is unlikely that such extremities will be a feature of post COVID design – why sleep at work when you can work at home and sleep in your own (clean) bed. What I do think we will see is more comfortable office spaces, less a sea of workstations and more spaces that are designed for connecting with other people from breakout areas and lounges to collaborative meeting spaces. COVID has also meant many of us have become less formal, so I think we will see a dominance of more informal spaces for a mix of face to face and video collaboration rather than formal presentation / meeting rooms. Softer more residential style furniture and styling will make offices more welcoming to staff and visitors alike.

4. Wellness

In 2019 I think its fair to say that THE hot topic in workplace design was wellness. From end of trip studios and yoga classes, WELL buildings (this is an old post but is my own summary of WELL) and plants, corporate psychology and sleep programs, improving the physical health of people within the workplace environment has been a topic of growing importance for a number of years now. The pandemic has brought additional layers to what we might start to consider in the area of wellness. From physical distancing, to touchfree environments, anti microbial surfaces and increased air flow in buildings – again some of these, such as touch free design and increased airflow were already in evidence before the pandemic and will probably continue to grow in popularity as they offer benefits beyond the pandemic. Sneeze guards – maybe not so much in the workplace (although I can see the value in retail).

5. Co-working / living

Prior to the pandemic both co-working and co-living were fast growing sectors, with much initial doubt over if there would be a future appetite to share space with strangers after the pandemic. Whilst the future of co-living remains somewhat unclear, co-working has weathered the worst of the lockdowns and is in many places again booming. Whilst many people think of co-working has open plan hotdesking, for many co-working spaces this has never in fact been the reality. Many co-working spaces consist of smaller suites for individual companies, with shared breakout, meeting and support spaces and in reality these spaces are really no different from a large office building where you might share lifts, coffee shops and toilets with other people – either co-workers or other tenants. The really big benefit of co-working for businesses has been the ability to pay only for the space you need, and the flexibility of not being signed up to a 5 or 10 year lease. Co-working is also being seen as an alternative for individuals who can’t work from home but don’t want to travel into the head office, or indeed for some companies the alternative to even having an office with desks. Dropbox is moving to a 100% collaborative ‘studio’ workplace and will fund co-working as a corporate perk for employees who wish to work from an office.

6. Consumer Tech

Ever since the introduction of the smart phone, our home IT capabilities have frequently been exceeding what we are provided with at work. Whilst most people are frequently used to using multiple apps on their phone and frequently upgrading their devices for personal use, the same adaptability and attitude hasn’t always been seen in the workplace. However as technology becomes smaller and more portable and work has become less formal, these two worlds are starting to merge. Ten years ago it would have been very weird to receive a text message from a client, now its totally normal as is the use of chat groups such as Slack and Teams – and not just for work chatter, but for actually getting things done. Video conferencing has existed for years, but lockdowns have suddenly made it the norm rather than an exception and have also encouraged the software developers to put more resources into developing new features. Technology still struggles to replicate face to face but as development continues, we are likely to see more business applications for virtual and augmented reality (which again are probably more widely used in gaming than business today). Some companies such as PwC are already outfitting staff working from home with virtual reality headsets to enable more immersive collaborative meeting experiences. (I can’t believe I could be calling a meeting an experience…but in this application it seems to make sense!)

7. Smart Buildings

Another area of technology which has been in existence and growing for some years is the idea of technology enabled smart buildings. Automation of elements of buildings from sensors for lights and air conditioning to destination control for lifts (where you chose your destination from a lobby control panel not in the lift itself) are all fairly standard features of new or refurbished city buildings. The integration of these systems to allow for automated environmental controls and / or mobile apps for individual user control really takes them to the level of a smart building. A smart building can create a seamless user experience of navigating a building from entry via a touch free app through to ordering coffee to your meeting room which is preset to your audio visual, lighting and air conditioning requirements. These kinds of systems can also play a part in the pandemic, facilitating touch free movement and building operations and allowing for contract tracing. The collection of data from building occupancy could in future also allow for much more significant design simulations than is currently available.

8. Automation

Automation is the first and simplest step to implementing new technologies in design practice as well as buildings. Even autoCAD can be considered as some level of automation. But now for most practices we are already well beyond this. From tools that general sheets or building levels automatically to add in that upload your drawings and models to aconex while you sleep, many designers are now relying upon automation to undertake routine daily tasks. These tools are frequently based upon simple algorithms and many graduates are now capable of various kinds of visual coding.

The potential of automation for design is growing quickly. WeWork were a key early adopter of technology for interior design and the workplace, and developed an algorithm for automatically laying out desks within an office space a few years ago – this type of automation is now readily available within architectural design software.

9. Machine Learning

WeWork have also been a leader in the use of technology to understand how their workplaces are performing, to analyse improvements and then predict their spatial requirements. Beginning with using apps to gather data on meeting room usage, the research team were able to feed the information on booking frequency, room size, and audio visual technology to teach a neural network. The neural network learns to associate different layouts with frequency of booking, and over time was better able to better predict the actual usage of meeting rooms than the human designers.

This kind of process could allow us to better understand and validate many of our design assumptions and better anticipate the needs of building users. Simulations and machine learning can also help us design buildings to control airflow and spread of viruses. Across many kinds of commercial design from hospitals to hotels, retail and workplace – the future of machine learning has the potential to influence how we plan and design our buildings for better use of space, and could potentially allow us to reduce the amount of space we need to occupy add therefore build.

10. Artificial Intelligence

In some way the last three trends form a grouping of the direction technology is advancing. Automation and machine learning are required before we can get to artificial intelligence. While AI is already making an appearance in many industries (a chatbot is a basic AI), many people, particularly designers, would like to think that an AI will never be able to design – that creativity is a purely human attribute.

Whilst AI in creative industry has a long way to go – one of my favourite examples being the AI paint colour names from Stummy Beige to Stanky Bean – there are already examples of AI artists, fashion designers and more. It won’t be long before we start to see more examples of AI in interior design, although the likelihood is that humans will continue to work alongside the AI for some time to come.

If design and construction leverage these trends, what could our industry look like by 2030?

Thanks to the Digital Built Environment Institute and Singapore Polytechnic for inviting me to join them and share my ideas on this thought provoking topic – up until this invitation I’d been deliberately avoiding joining the pandemic speculations!  Early in 2020 it seemed too soon to understand what the impacts might be, now I’m looking forward to exploring the ideas and topics that have exploded in the world of work over the last year.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: Photo by Stanley Li on Unsplash

New Posts Coming Soon

It’s been a long time between lunches! Between a hyperactive preschooler, COVID lockdowns and a website rebuild, I haven’t had much opportunity to write for a long time. I’m very excited to have been working on some new content in the last couple of months, which I look forward to bringing you soon!