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Seven trends that will (continue to) reshape the workplace in 2017

Posted on December 14, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

It’s nothing new to suggest that the workplace is in a state of flux. Yet, while the underlying drivers of change remain largely the same (technology, legislation, the environment and new working cultures) what does change each year is the focus on different aspects of the revolution in the places we work. Some are new and some represent a more informed and sophisticated take on things we were already aware of. Here are seven key workplace trends that are already reshaping offices and show no signs of letting up during 2017.

Primarily a way for a new generation of small businesses, freelancers and contractors to share space, the co-working phenomenon is now also influencing ideas about office design and property management for larger organisations. It has even prompted the British Government to extend the programme of consolidation that would see nearly all of its vast portfolio established as shared space for all public sector departments. Firms as diverse as Microsoft and HSBC are already on board.

The growth in the use of co-working spaces is rapid with providers like WeWork reshaping commercial property markets worldwide. They are often found in tech hubs serving start-ups and freelancers, but are increasingly applicable to the disparate workforce of corporate occupiers.


The multi-generational office

While there is a great deal of talk about the influence of Gen Y on the way we work, it turns out that the workplace is increasingly multigenerational. According to data from the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, there have never been more over 50s in work in the UK. There are now 2 million more over-50s in jobs than there were 15 years ago and they will form a third of the workforce by 2020.

The number of people aged 50 to 64 in employment is not only an increase in overall terms but also represents a jump in the proportion within the total workforce. Even though employers are no longer able to oblige staff to retire at 65, more people want to carry on anyway. The DWP report showed the average age at which men retire has risen from 63.1 in 1993 to 64.8 today. For women it is up from 60.9 to 62.6. Meanwhile the UK is expected to create 13.5 million jobs over the next ten years but only 7 million young people will enter the workforce.
The upshot is that the workplace will not be dominated by Gen Y, but shared by everybody. This will mean finding ways of balancing the needs, attitudes and skills of different generations. It also means challenging stereotypes. For example, research published by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin found that older workers perform more consistently in memory tests than younger people and that there is a great deal of variability between the performance of individuals within age groups.

The challenge of providing at least some degree of solitude, peace and quiet in an office is one of those issues that most people involved in the design and management of workplaces accept is very important. Yet it has proved to be one of those intractable issues that suffers both from and to need to balance it against other factors, not least the most significant trend of the past thirty or forty years in office design; the shift to open plan working. Hence why there has been so much talk over recent years about acoustics in the workplace. But the debate is now moving on as more research emerges to suggest that what we need is not silence, but an ability to focus.

A recent survey of 90,000 people by architects Gensler found that ‘the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it is individual focus work’ and that ‘focus is also the workplace environment’s least effectively supported activity.’ The idea is backed up by researchers at the University of Sydney who found in a survey of 43,000 US office workers that the thing that bothers people most in open plan offices is not necessarily noise levels but rather a lack of privacy. Over half of workers in open plan offices cited lack of acoustic privacy as a major frustration at work, making it easily the most important issue they face at work.

In practice this means that designers and facilities managers not only have to manage levels of noise at work but also offer staff choices about where they work so they can strike the right balance between working with colleagues and staying focussed on specific tasks.


Flexible working

Technology and the new working cultures it allows may have freed us to work in previously inconceivable ways but what is most intriguing about the ongoing debate is how it has shifted perceptions of the workplace. Far from spelling the end of the office as futurologists thought around twenty years ago, flexible working has changed our relationship with the workplace. It is many things to many people, especially those for whom the 9 to 5 is no more (or never was). It is a link to the firm, a repository of knowledge, a meeting place, a social space, a source of identity and a source of comfort.

This enduring human attraction to bricks and mortar whatever technology makes possible is what means flexible working remains the big workplace debate of 2017. The new Generation of tech palaces is overtly designed to encourage people to work together. When even the world’s major tech firms understand the importance of having a place to call home, you know the office will be with us for a very long time.


Corporate identity and talent management

There has always been a close link between the labour market and office design. In the wider business community, the conundrum that has dominated management thinking over the last two decades is this: if your main asset is knowledge and that knowledge is largely locked up in people’s heads, how do you attract those heads to your organisation? Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this riddle that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking and why workplace design has focussed increasingly on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. It has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the growth of break-out space and the focus on the team. And, of course, it has pushed on the idea of employer branding and how to convey identity at work.
Branding in the workplace may largely have focussed on replicating a corporate identity, but now there is a far greater focus on reflecting important values to staff. Where once you had logos in the carpet and walls in corporate colours, now we have visualisations of how the company addresses business and environmental issues, the intelligent use of colours and materials to convey ideas and emotions, imagery from packaging and marketing campaigns and manifestations of the outside world.


Wellness and productivity

We know for a fact that workplace design has an impact on individual productivity and business performance? Yet we still appear to be trying to convince the world in a debate that should have been over years ago.

Given the sheer volume of proof that now exists both in academic research and the less lofty but perhaps more convincing realms of personal experience, at some level everybody knows that there is a link between our surroundings and our wellbeing and happiness, otherwise not only would we all still be contentedly living in caves and the only thing making employers provide decent workplaces for employees would be the big stick of legislation. That is why what we find in practice is that most people work in decent if not exceptional workplaces and are provided by their employers with a fair degree of comfort, natural light, fresh air and control over how they work along with all those other enlightened features of the contemporary office we take for granted.

However, if this is true why is there still a constant move to convince ourselves and senior managers? Why is the feature on office design and productivity a staple element in both the media and on forums such as those hosted on LinkedIn. We obviously need to move to meaningful conclusion in the debate about office design and how it affects individual productivity and company performance.
The environment

Yet another perennial debate that constantly evolves when it needs to resolve. Much talked about, beset by information, misinformation, misunderstandings and clarifications and all in the context of a shifting legislative framework. But there are sure signs that things are moving in the right direction. The various industries that make up the built environment sector find an increasingly shared voice.

So, for example, architects, property and FM businesses, builders, energy firms, manufacturers and end users have already added their names to a report from the UK Green Building Council which exhorts the UK Government to stay focussed on meetings it commitment to ensure that all commercial buildings are zero carbon by 2019.
But this is an area in which we can all contribute by understanding and complying with relevant legislation while aiming higher. It’s an area of business in which it is always possible for us to seize the initiative and raise the bar, especially because a recent study from the Green Building Council demonstrated the link between sustainable design, wellbeing and productivity.