Last episode on the irritants of the employee experience: the workplace. After having reviewed a mass of organizational and managerial factors, we finally come to a subject, the only one, that everyone spontaneously associates with the employee experience. Proof that between a very business oriented and operational vision and a well being vision, the employee experience is a catch-all notion that leads to dealing with lots of different matters.
Anyway, the workplace is a notion that cannot be neglected, and even less so in times like these, when the air draught (which we shall see if it confirms) that confinement has brought in favor of remote work raises the question of its usefulness and use even before talking about its configuration.
The location of the office matters.
First thing: the location of the workplace. And I’m not even talking about a pleasant area, I’m talking above all about the distance from home.
It is a subject that covers very diverse realities. The question is posed differently in large cities and in more remote areas, depending on whether we’re talking about a white-collar population, blue-collar workers, people who are in an office, a factory or a store.
But there is one factor common to all: the time spent commuting to work is unproductive time, outside of working hours, but which in the end weighs on work. And behind the notion of transport time is also the notion of the mode of transport. More and more people, particularly in large cities and especially in Paris, want to be able to do without a car or even do not have one.
More and more employees therefore take travel time into account when choosing an employer…or leaving it. Those who take public transport will prefer a location close to a bus stop or metro station and, ideally, with high frequency and high hourly ranges. Finally, a “pleasant” area will make it more acceptable to stay a little later at the office in the evening when you know that when you go out you will find a lively life, that, why not, you will be able to have a drink with friends or go home quickly instead of being in a moribund business area with a bus that passes by every hour.
On the other hand, a location that is not easily accessible and long transport times mean that even before arriving at the site, the employee’s energy is already drained and sometimes he may already be thinking about the return journey. And I am not talking about the impact of strikes and weather conditions, which, although occasional, weigh on work and therefore the way they are managed by the employer is also a strong implicit message.
In the end, the subject of the location of the workplace is at the same time a factor of attractiveness, retention and long-term productivity.
The Workplace as a Factor of Inefficiency
There was a time when the only purpose of the workplace was to accommodate people for work. And for a long time we were left with the idea that the existence of the place was its only purpose.
In the manufacturing industry it was quickly understood that the organization of the place was a factor of productivity and, a fortiori, in a distant time when, because the parts could not move by themselves from machine to machine, it was up to the workers to move them.
It took longer for this rule to be adopted in the office environment. First of all, because the information flows they handle are not fixed like the physical flows of a factory and therefore do not lend themselves to a fixed organization of space. Then, quite simply, because immaterial flows are not visible and tend to be ignored, which is why it is so difficult to take into account the problems of work organization for knowledge workers.
So to encourage communication and exchanges, we invented open space, liberating compared to the cubicles of the past. A polite modern way of saying things while, in fact, it saves square meters without improving communication. Today even if many companies try to improve their open space by making it less inhuman, by trying to find the right balance between openness and quietness, open space is experienced by employees as a hell and must be considered as a bankruptcy if it is looked at from an angle other than a purely financial one.
Employees are less efficient, less concentrated. You even send more emails when you’re in an open space than in a closed office, which proves that it has even failed to bring people together and facilitate communication. When you see people 5m away from each other sending an email, chatting or even videoconferencing, there is a real problem. When 80% of people have headphones on their ears, there is a problem. A 2018 study shows that the move to open space reduces human interaction by 70%, increases email by 57% and instant messaging by 67%! The result of 15 years of open spaces is an increase in absenteeism, sick leave and turnover.
In short, open space is noisy, unproductive and destroys human relationships more than it brings them closer, to the point that even young people, who have never known anything else, nowadays demand closed, individual or shared offices. And in any case they want a dedicated desk!
This poses a twofold problem: a problem of productivity and, in the long term, a problem of health at work, that is a fact. But it is also a problem of the efficiency of spending by businesses that invest astronomical sums of money to improve their open spaces to offer…exactly what their employees reject.
A workplace that no longer corresponds to the way we work…
But beyond what may in some ways pass for pure personal convenience, there is also a more practical dimension: the workspace must resemble the way one works. And there it gets more complicated.
Gone are the days when you work in your corner, lined up in a row of onions, only to meet sometimes in meetings where you passively listened to the information that was being disseminated and where participation was organized, policed and supervised.
Today’s working methods are changing, and although not everyone is doing it, the trend is firmly established. We are seeing the emergence of shorter, informal, smaller group meetings. They last 10 minutes are often held in a standing position, and all that’s needed is to capture a few ideas on a wall and make two drawings. They no longer require an enclosed, closed space, a traditional meeting room, but spaces on the periphery of the open spaces where we meet punctually for a short period of time. Watch an agile team that I feel represents the future of work whatever the profession and the hierarchical level and you will have an idea of the needs. Tomorrow life at the office (at least when we are there) will be a series of “daily stand ups” and no more tunnels passed alone in front of the computer among people we don’t talk to.
Meetings themselves are going to change. We will no longer meet to disseminate or share information, which we can do differently and should have done differently a long time ago, but to solve problems together. Alongside the agility mentioned above, design thinking will impinge on all functions, all businesses, all layers of the company. If here a closed space is required, its organization must be different to encourage exchanges, movement, the fact of being able to “stick” ideas on walls (on paper or screens…).
What do we see in businesses today? Open spaces that one leaves as soon as possible to work at home or ” steals ” a meeting room to be at peace and quiet and, beside that, not only a lack of meeting spaces but, when these spaces are available, spaces unsuited to the way one works. Not enough room to move, “unavailable” walls and more generally spaces organised for “one to many” speaking and not for co-construction. So much so that for this type of need we rent spaces outside the company.
When people work with headsets so they don’t get along, are better off at a table at Starbucks or at home, and rent space outside the company walls for productive meetings, there is an urgent need to reinvent the place where we work.
A life space and not just a work space
We spend most of our day at work and not at home. Well, until now. Companies are coming to understand this and some, like other places that started out as single-use places like a stadium or a shopping mall, have understood that they can’t just be workplaces but must become life places.
So of course that requires that there should be space to allow it, which restricts the number of companies or sites really concerned, but this point cannot be ignored.
A place to live can be translated by the presence of space to relax, or even play spaces, for individual or collective use. Catering” spaces that do not resemble canteens and are open all day long. A fitness room. We’ve even seen spas! In some cultures (national or corporate) it is not a bad idea to think about spaces for families, for a parent to drop off their child and be looked after.
A life space is also a service space. We see companies offering concierge services to all or some of their employees so that they can leave a suit or shirts in the morning and pick them up cleaned and ironed in the evening. To manage an urgent need such as a plumber to be sent home. To have flowers delivered to a spouse for a special occasion.
Let’s make no mistake: what looks like unnecessary or even lavish expenses has only one objective: to ensure that the employee only thinks about his work, doesn’t always have in mind what he would do if he wasn’t there or what he will have to do once he leaves the office (which motivates him to leave as soon as possible).
But the reality today is that employees are being asked to be more and more engaged, a polite word to say that businesses want more and more of their time. During the week, in the office, out of the office, at home. Contrary to what one might think, most people understand this and accept that there must be a porosity between private and professional life. Their reproach is that this porosity only works in one direction and that the time available to them, not just for leisure but for “compulsory chores”, is shrinking. Someone recently said to me in a humorous tone “I have to read and answer my emails at 8pm at the gym but I can’t do a series of abs at the office”.
The transformation of the workplace into a place to live is part of a new balance that benefits both the employee and the company and allows for sustainable engagement and performance.
But be careful not to fall into the window-dressing trap. If these things are appreciated and valued by employees, it is never the first thing that comes to mind when they talk about their work experience. What matters to them is how it goes when they work and, to use my favorite expression, putting a sauna next to the torture room only works for a short time.
Ah! One last point. Nowadays, for those who work in offices, we work with computers and more and more laptops. In far too many companies I see that the ergonomics of the workplace is the least of their concerns. Height of desks, screens, keyboards… I feel pain for those I see working like this! Here again, the world of industry, of manual labor, is years ahead of the world of “knowledge workers”.
Towards the workplace at home
In order, if not to remedy what has just been mentioned, at least to compensate for certain negative aspects, we have seen the development of remote work. Again, this only concerns those whose work is suitable for it, so it should not be seen as an absolute remedy for all problems.
Let’s not hide the fact either: remote work has so far only been a marginal phenomenon in France, unlike in some other countries. But the COVID-19 episode has changed the situation and raises the question of generalizing the system to all those for whom it is possible, even making the office the exception. In short, what was still seen as a gadget is going to become one of the major modalities of work and production organization, for all and not for a few fortunate people elected according to their status.
This is going to raise two main questions.
1°) The organisation of the work space at home: it was seen too much during the period of confinement that too many people did not have an appropriate installation for work at home but were “tinkering” with an inappropriate chair and desk and catastrophic ergonomics. At a minimum. The work space at home must be adapted to computer use in a work context and not for leisure. It will be necessary to raise awareness among employees and even impose a certain level of requirements.
2°) Reinventing the office: the office will remain but as we have seen it, will change vocation. Place for meetings, place for creativity, place for living, place for socializing? It is up to each company to define its model. But at this crucial moment when the question of the office becomes a human, productive and financial issue, it would be a pity not to ask the question and draw the consequences.
The physical work environment is a matter of attractiveness, employer branding, efficiency and health at work. Today, despite the astronomical investments it represents, it does not fulfil its function. We are fortunate today to be at a turning point in history where we have to address all these issues together. We might as well not let this opportunity pass us by.