What will the offices of tomorrow look like?

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Emmanuelle Duez

Transparent, collaborative, open… You are where you work. In answer to the question “How can companies improve quality of life in the workplace?”, Emmanuelle Duez, advisor to large corporations, cites working environment, furniture and buildings as decisive factors. The founder of The Boson Project, an organisation that is helping French businesses to get a better handle on the expectations of their young employees, takes us on a tour of tomorrow’s office.

The working environment can be a factor that accelerates managerial change

Using the working environment to address corporate culture issues

The first point is an encouraging one: the working environment offers a way to fix corporate culture problems. But you have to get your analysis right.

“To give you an example, we were called in to help a company that was experiencing 50% staff turnover. Six months after we got involved, the company had managed to stop the turnover while also halving its project delivery times”, explains Emmanuelle. How did they manage it? “Interviews revealed grave mistrust of management and a disjointed workforce. We had to demonstrate that with new surroundings, things would change.” To address the problems, The Boson Project suggested taking out the existing cubicles or making them see-through, and placing senior management right at the centre of the company in a glassed-in area. To promote dialogue and encourage employees to rub shoulders in a shared space, The Boson Project team also worked on traffic flows. Emmanuelle comments: “We suggested creating a shared space that would take up one-third of the total area, an open kitchen, which was something that employees of all ages wanted, plus a series of meeting rooms, each one different from the next to pique people’s curiosity. We also used wooden materials to relieve tension”.

There is a “material” solution to every sub-par cultural practice. If the company overly static, try introducing furniture on castors and high conference tables so that people have to work standing up. If firms are stuck in silos, with divisions that struggle to communicate with each other, Emmanuelle rethinks the way that offices are arranged. “We don’t mix them up but we do put them side by side”, she says.

Corporate values on display

Most often, the workplace environment is changed ahead of a managerial change. By modifying the environment that people work in, we are actually altering the way they work. Emmanuelle speaks about the need to build the company’s managerial choices – its values – into the very walls of the workspace: “Many companies choose to write their values up on the walls, to back up their working approach by spelling out the company’s cardinal values”.

Dialogue and collaboration are values that we are seeing more and more. Emmanuelle says: “This trend is very much in evidence in the start-up world. It is increasingly typical to involve employees in designing offices. People that we speak to would often prefer to have less personal space in return for a larger shared area”. She argues that this type of collaborative attitude will be key to the successful companies of tomorrow. Her sense is that employees will work collaboratively, and governance will follow. Moreover, this openness is not confined to other staffmembers but extends beyond the company’s walls. As Emmanuelle points out: “Employees want their canteens to be open to the outside, and are interested in inviting people from outside the company to come and share their insights”. 

What will the offices of tomorrow look like?

“New attitudes are amplified in the working environment”, says Emmanuelle. By closely observing the working methods of millennials, The Boson Project sees the outlines of tomorrow’s working environment. What can we expect?

Work smart: people want a flexible environment

What is the hottest topic for millennials? Flexibility. They want flexible environments with multiple spaces, including small meeting rooms, open areas, private nooks and larger rooms. They want to be able to adjust the working atmosphere to suit their needs, whether they have to concentrate, talk or be stimulated. To support this flexibility, being able to be online throughout the company makes it possible to work in new ways and foster creativity.

Responsible office spaces

“Millennials also want a responsible workspace”, says Emmanuelle. They set great store by environmental responsibility and support solutions based around energy independence, waste sorting, green spaces, subsidised bike purchases, and so on. Social responsibility is also key. More and more, people want to be part of a company with local roots that connects with its ecosystem. They want to work in a firm where visitors can drop in for a coffee and that forges ties to neighbouring associations.

An inspiring place to innovate

In connection with this desire to be in touch with the local ecosystem, millennials want employers to be open to the exciting world of start-ups. This might involve bringing in entrepreneurs to make their pitch or inviting outside speakers to make presentations. Food is another important area, with employees keen on meal deliveries by start-ups or having food trucks set up on the company premises. The firm’s IT hardware and digital tools also need to breathe modernity and inspire innovation. There are lots of ways to harness the energy around the company.

Millennials also imagine inspiring spaces dedicated to innovation. By getting employees out of the tired old meeting room, knowledge labs, fab labs can really help to encourage inventive thinking.

The office as second home

Because we spend so much time at work, we want it to be like a second home where we feel comfortable. That means more conversations with other staffmembers, with expanded common areas and open kitchens, but also rest spaces such as nap rooms. Demand for services is also on the rise, with employees calling for yoga classes, personal trainers, freely available fruit and more. In short, millennials want to be looked after.

With these demands, millennials are painting a picture of tomorrow’s company, which must be engaged, connected, open and offer a full array of services. In other words, it needs to be a place that inspires people to give their best.

Human capital | September 2016