Work Design For People and Production Not Places

Asking if its better to have people work in a physical office together or from home is the wrong question if you’re not willing to look at the work itself.

Since COVID-19 forced the world’s office workers home as their base for the better part of 36 months the world of commercial real-estate hasn’t been the same. In many large North American cities where people can spend as much as two hours per day commuting and hundreds of dollars per month the desire from workers to return to the office is predictably low. What’s the case for coming back to the office? What’s lost when we stay away from each other? Is there a solution?

A strong case can be made for both remote work and returns to the office, but neither is helpful in the abstract. What’s necessary to understand is the role of design in shaping the benefits of person-to-person activities no matter where places.

Designing Places and Work

Unlike manufacturing, performance, and some retail and services, many jobs are not setting-dependent. With a laptop and broadband Internet many workers can literally work from anywhere. That doesn’t mean that the best work is done anywhere — like most things, the space you work in needs to be fit-for-purpose. That means fitting the person, the task, and the tools to the thing that you’re asking all three to do. For some people, this might mean the kitchen table, Zoom, and a Miro board will work well. For others, this might mean a boardroom, markers, and enough chairs for a few people around a table.

There is no universal design for a good workspace. Yes, beautiful, aesthetically pleasing environments with decent space to move, acoustics, and light all matter, but these can be created anywhere: your home, office or third space. What matters more is that we design the space to fit the work.

If you’re considering how and where to work as a team, consider the following factors:

Wellbeing: The shift to working at home allowed people to manage duties and roles that often were neglected or off-set to evenings and weekends more liberally throughout the day. It allowed parents to walk their children to school, to take the dog for a walk (and keep the dog at home), and it maybe allowed for some home-cooked meals and the odd load of laundry to get done. The flexibility to do these things also allowed some workers to perform tasks when they were most optimized. Workers could work at 7am or 7pm without having to leave their home. When done responsibly and effectively, providing workers with a choice of where to work and how can make a substantive difference to their wellbeing. The savings in time, money, and stress lost to commuting will accrue health, stress, and wellbeing dividends.

Performance: Do you know what your team does? If employers aren’t clear on what workers do then how can you know whether they are performing well? What we’ve seen from the pandemic experiment in remote work is that many people perform well when freed from commuting, needless meetings, and distractions from the office. At the same time, performance can drag when there are few contrasting forces to affect motivation (e.g., change of scenery, interaction with colleagues). This is partly dependent on tasks and situations. My point is that if you don’t know what people are supposed to do, how they do it, and what they accomplish and under what conditions, you won’t know how spatial issues affect performance.

Supervision: Tied to the last point: you can’t provide supervision for jobs you don’t understand. Much of what passes as an excuse for bringing people into the office is a cover for having the ability to see what people are doing. Or at least, see people at their desks (because — see point above – if you don’t know what they are doing, you can’t tell if they are working, working well, or something else). Presenteeism is not performance.

Mentorship: This is where the emerging evidence suggests remote work disadvantages some over others. For young workers or those young in their career or role, the lack of in-person time can make a difference. This is because so much of what is done in a work role is non-verbal, incidental, and done in combination with other things that are often not visible from a Zoom call. Mentorship programs have long used remote technologies to connect people together, however on-the-job mentorship is often not fully amenable to such things. If you’re bringing in new people, consider ways to use remote technologies effectively to allow for the fly-on-the-way observations and informal mentorship opportunities beyond just one-to-one meetings.

Evaluation and Design for Workplaces

Readers of Censemaking will not be surprised to hear me suggest that the keys to determining what works and doesn’t for your workplace is tied to design and evaluation. Design for the behaviours and outcomes you want and evaluate what comes from your choices.

This means being clear about what you want from your workforce and your organization. It means designing for what brings that about.

To illustrate, one of the theories underpinning the calls for workers to return to the office is that being co-located brings about serendipity, new thinking, and innovations. The evidence suggests that this isn’t true — at least for most organizations. The reason is that serendipity requires good design to make it work. For this to work, your organization needs to:

  1. Design spaces for people to move and encourage workers to transition through these spaces, pause, engage and enjoy these spaces. (This means that mobility, functionality, and aesthetics all need to be considered).
  2. Support and encourage workers to connect with others in the organization, whether they are familiar to them or not. This creates a space for diversity of perspectives to be shared.
  3. Create a culture where workers can take ideas and ‘run with them’ — a space to explore them further, suggest them to their peers or teams, and an environment where these ideas and lessons can be considered.
  4. Encourage learning by adopting new knowledge, new practices, and the means to ‘try things on’ to see if they fit. And if they don’t, but have promise, then enable teams to tinker with ideas to adapt them and adopt them.
  5. Foster collaborative opportunities for workers to take ideas and new projects into the world and work with others to make things happen. If there is a chance that an idea will move from a thought to a prototype and that workers might have the chance to see a project evolve, they are more likely to share, listen, and learn together.

These are all features of an organization that can benefit from these ‘chance encounters’ or water-cooler conversations. Just having people come into the office and work side-by-side. If you don’t have these things, then you’re probably not going to generate much innovation outside of pure happenstance.

I suggest you ask yourself these questions before embarking on a ‘return to the office’ plan:

  • How does the space we work in allow us to do what we do better?
  • What are we all about?
  • What is it that we, by coming together, do that we can’t or won’t do otherwise?
  • How do we help our staff to be better at what we do?

Your answers will determine what you do next and what kind of role your office can play in your organization’s development.

Offices are as much about organization design as space-design. I‘ve helped organizations with both as they consider their next stage of evolution. Let’s have. a coffee and talk about your needs.

Image Credit: Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash, Toa Heftiba on Unsplash and Petr Magera on Unsplash.

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