Chicago looks to the recent past for clues about the future

Making the workplace a hybrid centre for wellbeing, collaboration and creativity is not quite the new-fangled thing it is made out to be, as speakers at WORKTECH’s Chicago 2022 conference explained

WORKTECH22 Chicago, the conference held on 19 July 2022 at the Aon Center, wove together ideas on work and workplace in a noteworthy collection of presentations, panels and discussions that combined projections for the future with more than a backward glance.

Sessions focused on what’s to come, building on what has been in the past. One of the major themes of the event was that, although the last few years have been unsettling and chaotic, our lives before the pandemic can tell us lots about how we need to work and live now.

People, in workplaces and outside them, are driven by much the same goals now as in 2019. They’re processing the information that comes into their heads with the same cognitive equipment, and the work that needs to be accomplished remains much the same—advertising slogans need to be written, logistics issues resolved, manufacturing processes streamlined, and so on.

Keynote speaker Dr Dustin Jackson of Cognizant spoke extensively about human beings’ subconscious drives and also our continuing need to connect with other humans.

Grappling with same issues

The importance of building flexibility (in other words, speedy-response crisis-readiness) into workplace solutions has been made newly clear by recent events, but information shared at WORKTECH Chicago made it apparent that many of the issues we’ve been grappling with for years remain to be resolved, and that much of what we learned pre-Covid, is still relevant.

For a long time, for example, more and more people have been working outside the office; there’s been hybrid working for a while even though the term ‘hybrid work’ is newly minted. Fully incorporating people outside the office into activities inside it, making sure that all can contribute and feel valued, is an old-ish idea, not a new one.

So are boosting wellness (at work and elsewhere) and transforming onsite workplaces into centres for collaboration and creativity, all in the ever-expanding context of activity-based working’s programmes and processes. Even the apparent ‘Great Resignation’ has been playing out for a while; there have been great flocks of retirees for some time, and many of those retirees are now rebounding back to work.

Social bonding is crucial

The work and workplace world today is not as might have been predicted in 2019, however, and sessions and related conversations made that clear; particularly an afternoon expert panel discussion led by Krupa Solanki (Director of Innovation, Unwork) and featuring Michael Przytula of Accenture, Dipak Sundaram of Gallup, and Nina Chanotskaia, Director of Corporate Workplace Experience at McDonald’s.

We’ve really learned how crucial social bonding, and just plain talking, is among teammates. Recent events have made it clear how much more important people (and the programmes that support them psychologically) are to organisational success than the places where we work, although workplace design can still transform ho-hum outcomes into exceptional ones.

‘People have reasserted their fundamental rights to control how they live their lives…’

People have reasserted their fundamental rights to control how they live their lives, with a vengeance that would surprise our 2019 selves—and organisations that don’t heed what the people working for them have to say will find their corporate continuity more and more ‘challenged’. Employees are, after all, grown-ups and want to be treated accordingly.

More than 100 seasoned professionals, with backgrounds in architecture, interior design, real estate, facilities management, human resource management, technology, and consulting of various sorts came together for WORKTECH in Chicago.

They arrived from their different worlds somewhat uncertain about the future of work and workplaces. After listening to an impressive collection of global thought leaders and participating in lively discussions, one imagines that many will have felt more comfortable with what the future will bring and their roles in moving their organisations forward.

Sally Augustin is an environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago.
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