It used to be that a job was for life. What a person did for work, or the place where they did it, was central to their identity and the community that formed around them.
As time has passed, however, workers have become more transient. The average Brit will now have up to nine different jobs before retirement, while Americans can expect to step into new roles between 10 and 15 times over the course of a lifetime.
And this level of flux has deep implications for the role work plays in modern life. With people switching jobs once every four or five years, for example, employers now find themselves tasked with recalibrating the design, function and purpose of their workplaces.
The birth of the workplace nomad
A confluence of factors has created this new generation of workplace nomads. While greater social mobility has given many people more control over their career path, economic volatility has eroded job security for thousands more. This is evident from the rapid rise of the gig economy and the sharp increase in freelance work generally. The Office for National Statistics estimates that as many as 4.8 million people were self-employed in the UK in 2017.
For businesses, employing more freelance workers is just one action in a wider attempt to become more agile in the face of this volatility. The high cost of commercial property is also forcing them to sign shorter office leases, take up less commercial space and turn to flexible or co-working options instead.
All of these changes, meanwhile, are being expedited by increasingly sophisticated and reliable technology that gives people the freedom to choose when, where and how they work. And employees are getting used to this shift. Research published in Harvard Business Review suggests that, in the US at least, flexibility is the second most valued work benefit after health insurance.
The workplace can serve as a powerful tool for building culture and nurturing employee engagement and even business performance. So, how do employers design offices for a more transient, or mobile, workforce? This begins by creating workplace experiences that don’t just support greater flexibility but also provide employees with frictionless days at work that don’t stymie, or slow them down.
Support for staff
High on the agenda is leadership. After all, a poor relationship with the boss is constantly cited as one of the top reasons that people leave their job. Indeed, research by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), in partnership with the Centre for Evidence Based Design, has found that perceived supervisory support is a key factor in the productivity of knowledge workers.
This means being proactive with help, praise and recognition. But in agile environments, where people naturally have much less opportunity for face-to-face interactions, the qualities of effective leadership take on a different tone. With transient employees often working asynchronously, managing people becomes less about giving direction and more about providing support and guidance.
Trust and faith
These conditions also emphasise the value of ‘workership’. With managers taking a more hands-off approach in agile environments, there is greater responsibility on employees to co-create, collaborate and support each other.
AWA’s research on knowledge worker productivity has highlighted the role that trust plays in all this, too. Managers will see much less of their teams in agile environments, so they need to have faith in their people and give them the autonomy to manage their own time and responsibilities. Likewise, colleagues need to have trust each other so that everyone can overcome or succeed together.
Design is key
Once business leaders and employees understand their roles, as well as what is expected of them, attention should turn to the design and infrastructure of the workplace – and whether these elements can support transient workers. It is vital, for example, to consider whether the layout of an office floor has been designed to encourage staff to communicate with both managers and their colleagues.
Of course, for the agile workers that spend much of their time away from the workplace, communication is impossible without the right technology. Legacy systems like email simply cannot support the level of virtual communication necessary in agile working environments, so organisations should think about introducing social messaging apps and other virtual collaboration tools.
Learn from the innovators
These lessons underpin the approach to workplace design and management taken by many of the organisations in AWA’s annual Workplace Week events, a series of tours in New York and London that will showcase the most innovative workspaces in the world today.
Professional services Deloitte, for example, has created an office space in New York’s Rockefeller Center that supports an “untethered workforce” – its highly mobile, technology-driven, 5000-strong team – by creating environments that emphasise flexibility, technology and collaboration. Part of the company’s solution in New York has been to feature a wider variety of settings for different tasks and enhanced video conferencing capabilities.
Setting the stage
Despite how ready employees might feel for greater agility, organisations must ensure that they have the infrastructures and process in places to manage such a monumental shift. Business leaders can then help to embed new strategies or philosophies, ensuring that the entire organisation is ready for the transformation.
This means designing experiences that are authentic and unique to people’s needs, and encouraging the new behaviours necessary to foster both agility and productivity. Ultimately, the fusion of space, technology, support and services, and how these elements merge, is critical to the design of workplace experiences that allow workers to thrive in the face of so much change.
Andrew is leader and a founder of global workplace change consultants Advanced Workplace Associates. AWA has worked with some of the world’s leading organisations, including RBS, Invesco, Unicef UK, Santander and The Cabinet Office.
Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.