Change the way the world works

Replacing the ‘where’ of work with the ‘how’ of work

June 3, 2024

When it comes to talking about the ‘Future of Work’, there are a few hot topics that continue to dominate:

  • RTO burnout
  • Cultural capital replacing connection/collaboration saturation
  • Outcomes mattering more than productivity

However, what ties all these together, and what we see as really shifting workplace policy, is the reframing of how we do work. There are some great changes happening that reflect the shift toward the 'how' of work rather than the 'where' of work. This article examines how to approach this new way of thinking, and why it isn’t actually so new after all. 

The foundations of ‘how’ over ‘where'

In 1994, A&T conducted an experiment where work was brought to the individual at home. These tests, freed up millions of dollars from real estate savings. A&T weren’t the only ones doing this, IBM and the US Army were all testing out the possibilities that telecommuting could provide. 

Mainstream media suggests that WFH, WNH, distributed work and hybrid teams all kicked off post covid. Whilst there is some truth in this, the reality is that the foundations of flexible working were actually built by technology - not the pandemic. Whilst covid accelerated its adoption, it was the birth of the internet that set us on this exciting course. The internet and cloud computing delivered workplace freedom and shifted the perception of work as an activity anchored to the traditional office.

Time now matters more than place 

Brian Elliot reminds us that:

“Time (still) matters more than place. Leaders focused on improving performance are teaching teams to blend daily in-sync time (ex., core collaboration hours 10am-2pm) with focus time”

Huge amounts of work can be done asynchronously when teams collaborate effectively. But this isn’t the only type of work done. Ensuring common time bands across teams and departments enables real-time collaboration. This is part of the shift towards the ‘how', of collaboration rather than the ‘where’.

You can break this down further and start to look at how the daily in-sync time could be async, potentially over shared documents or even audio updates. This opens up the opportunity for different types of collaboration to happen in real time or in-person, rather than the focus simply being in-person meetings.

The 4 core types of work 

In our recent ‘So your RTO failed, what now?’ webinar, Corinne Murray explained how work is broken into four main categories:

“individual focused tasks, asynchronous collaboration, synchronous collaboration, and socializing”

This is why mandates, policy and design all need to be considered when creating environments which are conducive to the best possible outputs from teams. 

This often means that rather than having a ‘desk per person’ approach to space, different environments should actually be provided for different work modes. For example, quiet zones for heads-down work, meeting rooms for collaboration, and casual spaces for social interactions. An activity based approach is when organizations zone in on the types of work that need to be done

Ryan Anderson, VP of Global Research at MillerKnoll, recently ran a poll on the number of hours the average person spent on video calls per week: 

The results showed that 41% of the audience are spending at least a quarter of their work week on video calls. Again this highlights the importance of considering how the office can deliver value to teams. The office should be designed around the types of work you want your teams to be able to deliver, while taking into account the variety of work that will be present across team requirements and working styles. There is no one-size fits all solution for policy or office design. It is about questioning how you want your people to work.

Changing performance metrics

Phil Kirschner, Workplace Strategy Leader at McKinsey, commented on CBRE’s occupancy insights report. He highlighted the fact that in a survey of 66 global clients - representing 350 million square feet of space and nearly 6000 buildings - some 76% have been funding new work technology but only 33% have been funding for managers. This, he believes, is a problem, in light of research by McKinsey consistently showing that most managers don't think they're truly ready to manage distributed and remote teams

The recommendation? It is about supporting managers and ensuring that there is a shift towards managing the output of teams, rather than focusing on in-office presence and arbitrary measures of productivity.

A HBR article, written in 1998, in response to ‘alternative workplace’ growth, shared advice that is still true today:

“managers and employees have to learn how to be in and of the organization while not being at it.”

Making the office meaningful 

Timothy Ahensbach, Head of LEGO Workplace Innovation, wants to make 2024 the year of Meaningful Office. In his thoughtful LinkedIn article he explains how we need to shift our perspective and focus on the main reason we still choose to go to the office; interactions that are harder to deliver online. He suggests that the office can excel when it focuses on:

  • Informal learning and collaboration through working side-by-side
  • Building community and relationships across the organization
  • Having strategic and creative workshops that require out-of-the-box-thinking
  • Building trust and psychological safety in teams

Zach Morrison, CEO at Tinuiti, summarizes this point well:

“It’s about coming up with the right mix that enables people to do their best innovative work in a way that's productive, collaborative, and of course, meaningful”.

Synchronous collaboration and socializing 

Brian Elliot explains that:

“Distributed work doesn't mean never together.”

It means purposeful collaboration and allowing teams to create agreements which let them use the office in a meaningful way. Henrick Jarleskog, Head of Strategy at Sodexo, believes that in 2024, the office will be:

“ brand-led hospitality experiences where people come together to create impact, on-demand. No longer is it enough that offices breathes a companies brand, they can become an accelerator of its culture.  

Leveraging technology to deliver the ‘how’

Whilst the foundations of flexible work were set as early as 1991, recent technology has facilitated the ease at which we can work from anywhere. Once organizations have embraced a unified tech stack that enables seamless collaboration and communication they need to provide access to the right space. The types of space required are shifting, as employees evaluate what is best for their needs and the types of work they’re delivering. 

Agility and speed are now key to being able to deliver best-in class workspace environments. This is because policies, and the subsequent space requirements, need to constantly adapt and iterate. Real estate leaders can leverage PropTech platforms, like Desana, to rapidly meet shifting real estate needs. Access to on-demand space, including event space, means that sourcing appropriate workspace can take minutes, rather than months. This also means that organizations can gather meaningful data on real time occupancy and the reasons that employees are choosing to go into a workspace:

Employee surveys are just one way that employers can capture live data around employee preferences for space and connect this to the type of work they are focusing on that day. This is an example of how technology can enable the shift away from ‘where’, to a focus on how this serves the ‘how’. As highlighted by a recent HBR article;

“Data from around the world indicates that flexible work benefits work–life balance, productivity, and organizational outcomes — a true “win-win.”