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

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

WORKTECH Sydney Coming Up

I’ll be at WORKTECH19 Sydney on Thursday 21 February – will I see you there?

From time to time, there are certain perks to being a blogger – one of which is the chance to convince people that you do know something about what you do, and you’d be a great person to help them out promoting your event.  While I do this on a regular basis for BILT (which actually probably involves more hard work than perks), occasionally other opportunities arise such as being a Social Media Ambassador for WORKTECH. 

I’ve been attending WORKTECH for a number of years (maybe since they first started their event in Australia actually) and this is the second year I’ll be there tweeting away in my capacity of social media ambassador.

Personally I’m really looking forwards to Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun as a speaker you wouldn’t get to see here in Australia often who is doing some really interesting work at the intersection of design, technology (and everything else really).  Hopefully I’ll have some great inspiration for some new blog posts too.

Here is a link to the full programme, sessions include:

  • BCG Create An Office Of The Future In Hudson Yards, New York | Ross Love, Senior Advisor, Office of the Chairman at Minderoo; Ex- Managing Partner for Boston Consulting Group New York
  • Super-Experience Designing For Talent In The Digital Workplace | WORKTECH Academy & Mirvac
  • The Art and Science of Murmuration: Burning Man’s Culture of Cooperative Leadership | Stuart Mangrum, Education Director, Burning Man Project
  • B:Hive – New Zealand’s Largest And Smartest Co-Working Space | James Grose, CEO, BVN; Greg Smales, Director, Smales Farm
  • Gen Z Workplace | Natalie Slessor, General Manager, Workplace & Change, Lendlease
  • What Is This Tsunami Of Data Arriving From My Buildings Telling Me About How To Save Money?! | John MacLeod, Internet of Things Specialist, IBM
  • A MONSTER AT WORK | Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, Designer of Extreme Experiences, NBH Studios | Sponsored by Mirvac
  • Crossing The Threshold – The Sustainable Digitalisation Of Work And Real Estate | Simon Carter, Director, Morphosis | RICS & Morphosis
  • The Sentient Workplace | Philip Ross, Futurologist & CEO, Cordless Group & UNWORK
  • Designing for Fashion David Jones & Country Road Group – Case Study | Heidi Smith, Partner, Gray Puksand

If you are interested in future of workplace, people, culture and technology – then this is a great event to attend. Here is the link to register to WORKTECH Lounge Wednesday 20th February & WORKTECH Conference Thursday 21st February.  I hope to catch up with you there!

If you are interested in the event but not based in Australia, check out Unwired’s website as they hold similar events all over the world.

Ceilidh Higgins

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)

What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working the same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

How will automation impact upon the design of our workplaces?  Is it really likely that our workplaces will cease to exist?

2016 became the year that automation of the workforce went mainstream, with the question “Will a Robot take my job?” becoming common across a wide swath of media and the internet, no longer the subject of only futurism and innovation blogs.  In fact, the changing nature of work, automation and the possible significant job losses associated with it are now considered one of the biggest challenges facing us globally in the next 10 years.  So how will this impact on the workplace and interior design?

For a seriously dystopian view, this video from the Guardian, paints a very different picture from the world we inhabit now – somewhat 1984 meets the Jetson’s – and like both of these, it’s probably a bit too far fetched to be real.  Whilst its true that many jobs or parts of jobs could be automated, the reality is that automation is likely to be slower to take over than we imagine, and that a world without work (and the workplace) isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.  There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that are less about technology than they are social, political and psychological.  We just don’t trust machines.  Our societies are not set up to function in a world of no work – we need to get paid to live.  Its likely that ‘busy work’ will continue for some time after many jobs could have been automated.  Already we see this in architecture, interior design and engineering.  We have students, but not the latest software.  Possibly no-one in the office even knows what the latest software can do, or maybe no-one has had time to learn it yet. Perhaps managers insist that it needs to be done the way it always was, the other way won’t work (or they are scared it will and that they will become irrelevant).  So still the students do the manual repetitive tasks that could already be done by software.  I imagine its the same to some extent in all industries – although construction is one of the worst (see my posts on disruptive innovation and the future of architecture).   Linked to the Guardian video is a great article about how we need to change society before we can get rid of work.  My belief then, is that the workplace will continue to exist for some time to come.

Perhaps it is more likely we will see more co-working spaces to provide both individual and corporate tenants flexibility to cater for the changing nature of work. We are already seeing the idea of the freelance ‘gig economy’ (although in Australia at least casual employment has apparently remained at a steady percentage since the nineties). The accompanying growth in co-working spaces caters for both these freelancers and smaller startups.  However it’s unlikely we will all become freelance entrepreneurs. But that’s not to say there won’t be more of us using co-working spaces.

While some predictions suggest that automation could take 30-50% of jobs, more likely scenario is that automation takes parts of jobs – many jobs are a mix of repetitive and non-repetitive cognitive tasks. My job as an interior designer still exists, but certain tasks won’t.  The choices will be to either have less staff or retain a similar numbers of staff but everyone becomes part time (and we all supplement our incomes selling stuff on Etsy…)  Possibly different organisations may make different choices – but with more and more staff sick of working long hours and wanting better work life balance (or perhaps time to make money online) the chances of a larger part time workforce would seem to be high.  Perhaps we won’t just work in one job or place but in several.  Either way we would see workplaces either shrinking or more people working out of co-working spaces part or all of the time.  To some extent, this would mean that current trends of activity based working with its more flexible approach to space per person and co-working will continue.

The very development of co-working spaces highlights the reason why the workplace will continue to exist. It’s social. From my own experience I’ve always found one of the biggest barriers to a remotely distributed team is the random connections and conversations, often referred to these days as the ‘bump’ factor (although they happen just as much sitting at a desk as at a corridor). Neil Usher sums it up really well in this blog “Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.”

Neil also talks about the change in the design of what we consider to be a workplace and the influence of other spheres of design. Our offices are already starting to merge into spaces less dominated by cubicles and computers, with more in common with residential or hospitality spaces. The co-working and activity based working models also bring to this the concept of office-as-a-service, with ideas of hotel style concierges, retail style IT genius bars and perhaps food and beverage options. I agree with Neil, that this trend will continue (although maybe the Genius Bar will be staffed by robots?), and this presents another challenge to those designing (and even more so paying) for the workplace – design trends in hospitality and retail change a lot faster than a traditional ten year commercial lease!

To me though, one of the most exciting trends in workplace design will be the ability to create simulations during the design stages and post occupancy evaluations in real time. The ability to test our designs and how people interact with them creates an opportunity for architects and designers never seen before. Particularly as the workplace becomes a consumer choice (as we can work from anywhere), the ability to create evidence based designs that we can prove are attracting people to use the workplace gives workplace designers so much more relevance than being seen as someone who pretties up the space. Not only that, we can start to generate evidence as to how workplace design contributes to productivity, teamwork, collaboration and wellbeing. I wrote an article on this use of simulations and data several years ago, and now the idea is starting to go mainstream – co-working space WeWork are starting to actually do it, and software giant Autodesk are predicting it to be one of the big industry changing trends.

None of this means that the workplace will look so different after all – except maybe a robot will deliver your coffee. Trends in design and furniture will continue to come and go. Wellbeing, biophilla and plants might still be important design criteria – maybe you might kneel instead of standing or sitting – but probably you will still go to work in an office that has some kind of work surface (I’m hoping for the giant tablet bringing a return to the drawing board), coffee (maybe your coffee robot is not just bringing it, but also the barista) and at least some co-workers.  Maybe some of you would rather Alice’s world…

Ceilidh Higgins

Ps. In my own future of work, next week I am looking forwards to joining the team at Futurespace!

Can we have a workplace of the future without a boss of the future?

No more boss ... by Bousure, on Flickr
For some years now, but with increasing pace – books, blogs and videos are all predicting a new (and often idyllically portrayed) world of work where workers are empowered to choose where and when they work, teams are built on a project basis to find the best workers, and personal and family life are interwoven around the way we work (this example is from Microsoft). The idea of the physical workplace itself, as a service or as a consumer item forms part of this world, along with technology that is now becoming very real – on demand video conferencing (often with holograms).

 I first remember encountering theses concepts some years ago reading Thomas W Malone’s “The Future of Work” which predicted decentralisation of organisations and more freedom for employees to determine when, where and what to do.  At the time I read the book, the technology wasn’t quite real for me yet, but was already starting to change the way we work. In the 5 or 6 years since then, I know that my iPad and iPhone have drastically changed how I can work, in particular while I am traveling.

This new world of work is sometimes given a timeframe as in this study – Workplace 2040. But what’s stopping this from being Workplace 2020? I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s the people. One of the key things these scenarios all rely on is the independence of the workers and the ability of these people to work together regardless of physical locations. For the majority of workplaces today, these are already no longer technology issues, any difficulties come down to human nature.

Very few jobs are yet structured around only around doing a set amount of work. Most are still structured around an expectation of set working hours, although perhaps these hours are more flexible now than a generation ago. It is still much more usual to see people staying back because the work is not finished, than for them to go home early when all the work is done. One issue in many workplaces, after of years of economic downturn – is that its pretty rare the work is ever all done, and if it is we worry that to leave early would make us a target for redundancy. But most of the time there are simply insufficient numbers of staff for the work to ever actually be finished. The other issue is that there is still a very common view that we are employed just as much to “be” at the place of work, as we are to “do” work. People are afraid if they finish their work and leave early (or even on time) they will be judged both by their managers and their peers as being lazy, slacking off, not contributing or not being team players – when in actual fact they might be more efficient and better at their jobs. To many employees, flexible has come to mean flexible for employers (I know of one firm where when employees raised the issue of flexibility the employer genuinely believed this meant flexibility in how the work was done – in the office, with no idea staff were wanting flexibility in how and when they worked!)

Even in organisations which already have activity based working or other forms of agile working, these same kinds of problems are occurring. I heard a story about one large ABW workplace which has a working from home policy, but the main workplace is often too full. Is it full because the environment itself is so successful and staff can’t stay away, or is it because there is a least one manager who wanders about every morning ticking off a role of staff and then contacting anyone who hasn’t been in the office for 2 days?

In an ABW environment, the distrust managers have of workers whom they can’t see can manifest even when staff are working within the office but beyond the managers view. It’s the same emotional motivations that lead to workplaces with beautiful but empty breakout spaces – staff are afraid of being seen as slacking off.Perhaps it’s also this fear behind why some middle managers are also so reluctant to give up their offices, it’s not so much about the work they do, or even the status, but their belief that they have earned  their right to not be watched over by the boss.

Another working model enabled by technology and affected by the same issue is distributed working, where company employees are based in different geographic locations.  I have worked in this model and it does present interesting challenges as a team leader.  Whilst staff may have a manger in their physical location, as a team leader you only know your staff are working on your project by the work they produce. You do have to manage differently for performance based outcomes – if you have your team sitting in front of you they are more likely to communicate with you more directly both with questions about the work, if someone else asks them to do something or when the work allocated is completed. Managing a distributed team does take more work – but not only does it allow more flexibility in team structures, where we can work and deliver projects – but it actually teaches managers and team leaders to be better at their jobs, better organised and better communicators.

Managements fear of the invisible employee is not a problem of architecture or design – it doesn’t matter what sort of office you have or how amazing your design team are. If your managers don’t trust their staff and are not trained to manage remote staff (from on another floor to in another country), then ‘new ways of working’ won’t work for your organisation. Very few organisations actually train people to manage teams, we don’t learn it at university either. Historically managers usually start out on the management path because they are good at the technical thing that they do – not because they are good at managing other people. If they make money for the organisation, they are likely to be promoted further regardless of their people management skills. Maybe at some point their organisation will decide they need some extra ‘soft skills’ but is likely they have developed their style and habits by then, and it’s now long past when they really would have benefited from them. Maybe as part of a new office fitout someone will have realized that a change management program is required. But in a large organisation, is it thorough enough to go right down through all levels of management and is the whole of the organisation seriously aligned to the goal (even when their own bosses are not looking)?

Perhaps a self managed team structure is the answer? Some organisations are now starting to abolish middle management in favour of this idea. I wonder how it will work, will natural managers and leaders start to emerge? Or does it only work if the whole team is highly organised and motivated (in effect naturally good at managing themselves at least)?

Is it possible the fear of flexibility and remote working is generational difference, and one that will simply disappear between now and 2040? I don’t think so. Whilst I see many more younger managers who are comfortable with remote management and who have more trust in their teams, than older ones. But I don’t think its necessarily a distinction of age, but one of culture and of an acceptance that the way we work has already changed. I am frequently shocked that anyone could suggest that we might work the same way now as back in the eighties or even nineties. In the 15 years since I graduated architecture the way we work has changed fundamentally. Not only has technology and software changed, but these changes – in particular the mobility and automation they have enabled means that new ways of working are not something of the future – they are already here, it’s just that some people don’t seem to have noticed it yet.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits: “No more Boss”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Bousure