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Rethinking the office: how to create the office of your company’s future

When Daniel Coyle visited Pixar’s headquarters during the process of writing The Culture Code, he complimented the co-founder and then President of Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, on the building’s beauty.

Catmull stops. “Actually,” he says, “this building was a mistake. The reason it’s a mistake is that it doesn’t create the kinds of interactions we need to create.”

In hindsight, Catmul thinks the hallways should have been wider. The café should have been larger in order to attract more people. The offices should have been placed around the perimeter to create more shared space in the middle.

“There were really a lot of mistakes,” Catmull says, “along of course with the bigger mistake that we didn’t see most of the mistakes until it was too late.”

The same is probably true for your offices. Given the chance to do it over, you would probably arrange the space differently. Bigger offices. Or smaller but more numerous offices. Bigger conference rooms. Or smaller, more numerous meeting spaces. Instead of one large break room, smaller break areas scattered throughout.

What worked well in theory didn’t work nearly as well in practice. But you lived with it, because it was too late – and too expensive – to change.

Until now.

Turn unexpected change into a precipitating event

As Simon Sinek says, “These are not unprecedented times.” Throughout history, change – especially unexpected change – has put many companies out of business.

And created a springboard for companies to reinvent themselves. And emerge stronger.

“The great pivot to remote working,” says Moneypenny CEO Joanna Swash, “has parallels in the shift from ‘bricks to clicks’ in commerce, but the truth is that workers, like consumers, want both. And it will be the companies who are able to embrace this with enthusiasm, personalization and vision who will succeed in the new era of work.”

To accomplish that, Sinek says the key is not to ask, “How can we keep doing what we used to do?” Instead ask, “How will we do what we do in a different world?”

That’s the thing about world-changing events. They only become precipitating events – they only serve as a natural spark for change, as a way to create engagement and support and enthusiasm and a genuine impetus for change – if you take action.

That includes rethinking – and reworking – your concept of the office.

Prime example? Open-plan offices.

While an open-plan workplace was once thought of as a way to foster cooperation and collaboration – and not coincidentally, make monitoring whether employees were “busy” a lot easier – a  2018 Harvard study found that when employees moved from a traditional office to an open-plan office, their personal interactions didn’t increase. They actually decreased.

As the researchers write:

The volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approximately 70 percent) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.

In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.

Force people to work “together” and they actually withdraw from each other by increasing their use of email, messaging, and other electronic communication tools.

In short: Make people work “together” and they’ll behave like they’re working from home.

Granted, recent events make open-plan office spaces less of a productivity killer: The office plan may still be open, but social distancing means significantly fewer people inhabit those spaces.

Plus, many business owners now question the need for offices at all. Remote work works — and can save considerably on overhead and infrastructure costs.

But many people have swapped their open-plan workspace in the office for an open-plan workspace in their homes; many don’t have the luxury of creating a private office where they live.

Which means they suffer the same productivity and focus problems caused by “real” open-plan offices.

The new definition of “office”

Your goal is to help your employees be as productive as possible — wherever they work.

If you’re a business owner who has found — or plans to find — cost savings through lower rent and infrastructure costs, allocate some of those funds to helping your employees create as private a space as possible within their homes.

If you expect your employees to work well from home, see it as your job to make it possible for them to work well at home.

Otherwise, they may be forced to swap an open-plan workspace for an open-plan home workspace. Or, worse, swap a private office for a home workspace, losing all of the benefits a “real” office affords.

The same is true for company offices. Use the opportunity to reconfigure the setup, and create flexible schedules, so you can optimize the use of the space. Aim for greater privacy. Enhanced opportunities for deep-dive, focused work. Improved collaboration, but only when collaboration makes sense.

As Dr. Eliza Filby says, “Managing a multi-generational team will be an increasing challenge – and the office building will have a critical function in bridging the gap through greater interaction and mentoring.”

If you let it.

The easiest time to change is when you have to change. So use this opportunity.

Start by embracing to embrace the new definition of office: “Wherever people work.”

And then make sure the “office” you provide allows your employees to be as efficient, effective, and collaborative as you need them to be.

Because what matters is what gets done.

Not where it gets done.

For a deeper dive into the offices of the future, join Dr. Eliza Filby, Julia Hobsbawn, Moneypenny Group CEO Joanna Swash, CEO North America at VoiceNation and Moneypenny Eric Schurke and – last and certainly least – me on April 22 at noon US ET (5 pm UK) for the live virtual event, The Future of the Office.

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