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Successful flexible working is built on the foundations of great office design

Posted on July 21, 2017 by admin

In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that IBM had announced that it was obliging a significant number of its staff to give up on remote working and instead move back to corporate offices, many of them regional hubs. There was a predictably major backlash to the news that a major corporation was apparently turning its back on the idea that the office of the future will be no office. This wasn’t the first time this had happened of course, because Yahoo made a similar announcement in 2013 when it summoned primarily home based staff back to the corporate bosom. The decisions by both firms have become important markers in an enduring debate about where we work, office design and what it all means across a range of factors including our productivity, wellbeing, sense of belonging, access to information, the way we structure our time and our ability to communicate with and develop relationships with our fellow human beings. If those things were the same regardless of how and where we worked, there would be no debate in the first place. But they do make a difference. Of course the press likes a sensational headline and so the debate has been characterised by hyperbolic statements about the death of the office at one extreme and the death of flexible working at the other. The reality is rather more reasonable and rather more sophisticated.

In the first place, the decisions by both IBM and Yahoo weren’t based on some dated desire for a command and control management culture but rather data which showed how the office plays an essential role in providing the setting for collaboration and the exchange of ideas and information. There’s no doubt that people get some things done better away from the office hubbub, but they also need to share a space with colleagues to meet some of their other practical and emotional needs.

That is why we have yet to see a company go the whole hog and simply do away with their offices completely, replacing them with a technologically interconnected web of remote working employees. It is why some of the world’s most cutting edge tech firms such as Google, Apple and Facebook are investing so heavily in the latest generation of corporate headquarters buildings and campuses. It is why Governments and developers invest so much time, effort and money in creating like minded enclaves of businesses, especially for firms working in the kinds of creative and technology based sectors most able to offer flexible working. The underlying thinking seems to be to offer people the freedom to choose where to work, but then create an office that is so great it makes the office the best possible choice.

So that is not to say there is no uptake in flexible working. Far from it. It is now a standard feature of working culture in the UK with nearly all companies offering some form of arrangement to employees. What has emerged is a balanced and better understanding of the range of physical, cultural and virtual settings organisations need to offer to attract, retain, motivate and empower people. It may no longer be the only one, but the workplace and office design remain important factors in providing all employees with the right environment in which to thrive, including (or even especially) those who enjoy some form of flexible working arrangement.

So with the vast majority of employees already sold on the idea along with a majority of organisations – albeit that they are not yet aware of the full benefits – what is left is for us to establish how the new equilibrium between the physical office and our other places of work including our homes, will function alongside each other. The important point is that staff are empowered to work in ways that are best for them, with an ability to book and use space within buildings easily depending on what they are doing and who they would like to meet and work alongside. Contrary to what you may have read, the current debate marks neither the end of the office nor of flexible working. Instead it marks the advent of a new and more sophisticated balance between the two in which office design plays an essential role for empowered employees.