As we look towards the future workplace, it’s important to reflect on the changes in recent years. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when each of us dutifully bustled our way through ‘industrial early mornings’, adrenaline-fuelled commutes and hassled arrivals at open-plan offices - usually with a take-away coffee in hand.
This was just how we lived. Until we didn’t.
For many Australians, the COVID-19 pandemic and our forced exploration of remote work signified the most radical shift in lifestyle and workstyle in generations. While forced, and under the most terrifying of circumstances, some have come to hail remote work as the long-awaited solution to the miserable journeys to and from dense city centres.
However, remote work is also imperfect. Dr Gregor H Mews, who lectures in urban design and planning for community wellbeing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, explains why.
“Some people had mental constraints, and we saw spatial inequality unfold, making home and work life very difficult for some, and quite pleasant for others,” he says.
“Even for those for whom work-from-home was manageable, we realised that a confined space at home can keep us safe from viral harm, but starved us of meaningful social contact.
“Because our health is dependent on a holistic array of physical, mental and social wellbeing inputs, remote work alone will not necessarily deliver the best outcomes for subjective wellbeing. We are simply a social species geared towards encounter.”
And still, employees seem hesitant to return to the office.
Cassandra Kirk, head of strategy and design at Axiom Workplaces, believes employee reluctance to return to the office is more symptomatic of exhaustion with adapting and pivoting, coupled with the realisation that COVID-19 is a long-term, ongoing situation.
Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve now experienced both workplace extremes. And this gives us a unique opportunity to think about the future workplace, and how our future work environments could fulfil the needs of employees - functionally, psychologically, and socially.
Thus, the introduction of a new workplace concept: The Destination Workplace.
Employees see the future workplace positively, a space where they can intermittently perform tasks better than they can do at home - collaboration, face-to-face conversations, relationship-building, white-board ideation.
“When you think about how we develop cities and communities, urban precincts, for example, we talk about creating the place that’s going to draw people in. The workplace is now exactly the same,” Kirk says.
Axiom Workplaces describes the Destination Workplace as “... work environments that use concepts of placemaking, that is, paying attention to physical, cultural and social needs to add genuine value to your teams’ lives while enabling their work product. And the widespread adoption of flexible and hybrid working practices has driven a steep incline in popularity.”
Mews agrees, using slightly different language to explain the trend.
“I think workplaces can really embrace a more community-driven design approach,” he says. He explains that what we now seek is a ‘hybrid middle ground’, because employee satisfaction is not based solely on compensation, it is based on the overall value people get from the collective community in which they spend their time.
Kirk argues that sustainability has additionally become a key factor in the Destination Workplace.
“The pandemic has created a shift in humans,” she says.
“We’re more connected and in tune with our families, communities and how we operate on earth. People are thrilled to see emissions down, and awareness and motivations for sustainability and wellness, up. So if we’re going to make the trip into the office, we need to be able to see what the workplace is doing to offset our trip,” she says.
When we think of community, we typically think of our living community - the on-your-doorstep, easily-accessible, fulfilling-to-be places where humans can experience things that are enjoyable, productive and connective. These characteristics therefore serve the physical, cultural and social needs of the workforce.
The Central Business District (CBD) is the commercial model of the 20th Century. It has successfully driven commercial property prices up, assisting with wealth accumulation for property investors, while employees commute to a central, collaborative location.
While the pandemic has proven that an office is a much-missed part of work life, mostly thanks to the social and cultural factors remote work ignores, a stressful daily commute has been proven to significantly decrease quality of life.
In 2020, the location data platform Here Technology launched an online map called the ‘15-minute city'. It’s a map that tells you whether your chosen city can meet your basic needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The tool was designed to help urban areas across the globe recover from the pandemic, while encouraging a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
The decentralisation of city centre office markets began in 2020 and has continued since. Instead of one large office in the CBD, companies are opting for smaller, more accessible satellite offices around the skirts of the city. This shortens commute times, enabling greater work-life balance, and making it much more appealing for employees to attend the office regularly.
Yet, physical distance may not be the only reason why employees feel reluctant to return to the office. Now that they have experienced the comfort, safety and convenience of working from home, workplace strategists believe the future workplace will involve providing the physical and emotional experience that employees crave, yet cannot achieve at home.
Work encompasses so many diverse activities, from collaborating, to quiet thinking and writing, to team-building and creative thought. Spaces that are conducive to these different ways of working, that are enjoyable and encouraging for each type of work activity, are essential.
So, when creating a Destination Workplace, it is worth reviewing which functional aspects of work you can support that employees can’t already get at home.
While there is no doubt that virtual meetings have saved most organisations from ruin in recent years, there is no escaping the fact that real-life, face-to-face communication offers a more fulfilling experience, and plugs gaping holes in employee engagement and team bonding.
Ryan McGrory, Founder of employee experience consultancy exsona, believes that a well thought-through workplace should encourage people to get to know each other better. One of the most effective ways to get to know someone is through games.
“Whether at the interview stage or deeper into your employment journey, games have a way of creating a kind of openness and transparency that really breaks down barriers,” he explains.
Many organisations have introduced more experiential factors such as a barista-quality coffee bar, a creative corner or a rooftop garden.
In this way, the workplace has passed the point where it is a necessary expense or a functional warehouse for bodies. Instead, it has morphed into a welcoming, enjoyable space that can not only lure people from their homes, but can also attract and retain talent.
There are many things the Destination Workplace can do to encourage a sense of belonging, opportunity and fulfilment. However, what is essential, is understanding exactly what the value proposition is to the employee.
McGrory salutes the workplace leaders who are truly understanding how to care for their people - their needs, desires, comfort and security.
“How can we know how to reduce the pain points of employees unless we ask?” he asks.
“Leadership needs to work together with the people to design something that’s really going to work. ‘Fun and quirky’ is not the brief. What organisations need to do is ensure they’re actually factoring in employees' wants and needs to help build their desired culture, rather than just guess - which, what they usually do.”
Kirk cites some features of Destination Workplaces that regularly make it onto employee wishlists.
“Cafe-style relaxed spaces with furniture and furnishings that encourage social interaction - and give the feel of a community hub rather than a workplace,” she says.
“End-of-trip facilities that blur the lines between home and work, and encourage wellness activity. Flexible spaces that promote collaboration, but also provide quiet work zones. Fresh air or at least great ventilation, and biophilia, are known to increase feelings of wellbeing.”
Mews also suggests that our love affair with nature is a reminder that we’re part of a larger system, and that the definition of our workplace could be expanded beyond the walls of our office. Green, fresh-air spaces could be further combined with planning meetings on the beach, or team building experiences running the foreshore, to remind us that we’re part of a larger community and a bigger world.
“Creating retreat experiences can increase productivity, but also creates this kind of village effect, using all of the local and available amenities open to you to feel part of the community and environment,” he says.
What truly differentiates the Destination Workplace from any other is employee-centric planning. There is both a new opportunity and a need to really understand how employees need to use workspaces today, to discover who will visit the office, and to know what will make that visit a productive and uplifting experience.
On this topic, all three of our interviewees agree.
“Engaging with the business to get alignment from your employees to ensure what’s designed is people-centric, is tantamount,” Kirk says.
“Organisations that listen to their employee needs are those where people want to work, or feel proud to work.”
We’ve entered an exciting new generation of the workplace, where the office space can meet employee needs for functional, social and cultural connection. We now have a unique opportunity to create the future workplace by transforming workplaces into lively community hubs, where people can spend productive time, happily.
Explore more about the Destination Workplace.