The value of experience: what we learnt from London 2019

If quality of work matters as much as quantity, then how do we make sure that new technology creates human-centric workplace design as well as tracking our every move? The flagship WORKTECH London 2019 conference searched for clues

London has historically placed productivity and efficiency at the top of the priority list for economic growth and prosperity. From government policies to performance metrics, the emphasis has been on the quantity of work, not the quality. But as the flagship WORKTECH London conference returned for a second consecutive year to the magnificent Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre on 27-28 November 2019, there were signs of shifting priorities right across a panoramic programme of around 30 speakers and panellists. Here are the six big talking points that emerged from the two-day event, which was expertly chaired by BBC media veteran Torin Douglas.

Good work after bad

London’s traditional position in regard to work has been ‘any job is better than no job’. But as opening keynote speaker Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, pointed out, there has been a breakdown in the social contract whereby a job equates to financial security. More than half the people below the poverty line in the UK are in households which have one or more members who are in work. Taylor authored an independent review of modern working practices for the UK Government entitled Good Work, setting out a series of principles to achieve more fairness and quality of work in the face of adverse effects of the gig economy on people’s lives.

‘The social contract is broken and it’s not coming back…’

Better rewards, communication, training and development can help to counter bad work, said Taylor, and improve health and wellbeing in the workplace. But his critique was not just reserved for bad employers: technological determinists who see new tech platforms as an opportunity to exploit workers at the expense of human agency and wellbeing were also in his sightlines. ‘Technological determinism is faulty analysis and disastrous politics,’ declared Taylor, sending a warning shot across the rest of the conference. However, he admitted that of the four scenarios for the future of work that his RSA research team has developed, the ‘precision economy’ (in which firms capture data through a proliferation of sensors in an age of hyper-surveillance) was the one gaining ground the fastest.

Experience on steroids

One way that organisations are addressing bad work is through a better experience for employees. ‘Experience’ ran through WORKTECH London like a stick of rock. Philip Ross of Unwork explored the idea of sentience in the workplace, arguing that technological determinism was capable of delivering some great human-centric design. Jeremy Myerson of WORKTECH Academy introduced the concept of the super-experience, suggesting that the stakes were being raised (‘experience on steroids’) as companies swap clarity and optimisation for empathy and intrigue.

Experience designers Adam Scott of FreeState and Dr Nelly Benhayoun both made high-energy interventions to show how to activate exceptional experiences in the workplace, drawing on their Royal College of Art training to push the boundaries. Key messages included treating employees as a live audience, using the latest technologies to foster a sense of belonging, challenging the political dimensions of workplace systems, and being genuinely interdisciplinary.

One of the key drivers for workplace experience is the rapid growth of the flex space sector. Olly Olsen, co-founder and co-CEO of The Office Group, discussed its legacy strands in serviced offices and the social coworking movement. He predicted that flexible space providers in the future might successfully combine comfort, customisation and hospitality with mission, vibe and community. This ‘third dimension’ for flex-space would up the ante in experience for corporate clients.

Some are already doing it for themselves, as John Avery of LOM Architecture and Design explained with a compelling case study on the Living Rooms concept for the remodelled RBS London HQ at 250 Bishopsgate. With its fluid territories and eclectic spaces, this represents a ‘giant leap’ for a financial workplace.

Circling the circular economy

Great experiences shouldn’t come at a cost to the environment, however. WORKTECH London wasn’t about to insulate itself from the global debate about the climate crisis, especially as construction has emerged as such a carbon culprit and workplace manufacturers are looking hard at the mantra of reduce, reuse, repair and remake. Global lighting company Signify, for example, explained how many of its products could enter the circular economy through 3D printing of luminaries, with no paint, no screws and less parts.

The conference was also preceded by a special WORKTECH Academy Innovation Day on 26 November 2019 for corporate members and partners, which was dedicated to exploring the circular economy. Creative teams were given different scenarios for office relocation and asked to ‘close the loop’ from a linear economy to a circular one, minimising waste and environmental impact.

Leadership is made, not born

Whether it is good work, experience or sustainability, the workplace needs leaders who can implement these ideas. But leadership itself is a subject in transition. If you think you know what a leader is, think again. US General Stanley McChrystal, co-author of a new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, summoned up the inspirational example of Leonard Bernstein in likening workplace leadership to a conductor and orchestra. McChrystal said that without the orchestra, a conductor can make no music, but without the conductor the orchestra has no rhythm and flow. Leadership is a mutual partnership in which employees and leaders rely on each other to create seamless work flows. Context also matters, as leadership is usually the property of system rather than of a charismatic individual.

The different leadership models in McChrystal’s book (hero, power broker, reformer and so on) formed the basis for a piece of research presented by consultant Leeson Medhurst of 360 Workplace on the links between leadership design. His conclusion: in a world of flattened hierarchies, workplace designers can do a lot more to help next-generation leaders get their ideas across.

Theatre of Innovation

As so much workplace transformation has the goal of improving innovation, these leaders need all the help they can get. Harald Becker of Microsoft explained that the key was to see offices as ‘theatres of innovation’ with human knowledge networks that, if orchestrated correctly, can energise dynamic teams. Technology tools that activate space are, of course, vital to this process, thus neatly circumventing Matthew Taylor’s warnings on technological determinism. Showcases from smart solution providers, such as Siemens’ connected apps, Cisco’s meeting room experiences, Sony Nimway’s personal wayfinding and PointGrab’s sensors for Deloitte, demonstrated that personalised, tech-enabled tools can enhance the ‘theatre of innovation’, allowing the constant flow and spark of creativity.

More generally, much like an actual theatre, space needs to be flexible and agile depending on what ‘the scene’ requires. Some global companies are taking the ‘theatre of innovation’ concept in a new direction to research optimum conditions for knowledge workers. For example, Patrick Marsh of GlaxoSmithkline explained how GSK worked with Art Health Solutions to convert a former skincare laboratory in its west London HQ building into a Workplace Performance Hub to test a number of variables such as changes in lighting, aroma, visual imagery and soundscaping. The initial results in terms of worker focus and wellbeing have been impressive, suggesting more to come.

In search of sacred space

The final big theme of WORKTECH London came courtesy of Sir David Adjaye, global architectural superstar, designer of many cultural memorials and religious buildings, and the only architect in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. Adjaye explained that we should go beyond function, efficiency and programme in buildings to think about the inner qualities of the person and spaces that are generous in promoting contemplation and reflection. ‘We need to secularise introspection,’ observed Adjaye. ‘In secular societies, we’ve lost the space for reflection.’

The idea of designing an oasis of calm in a frenetic, consumed working world found an echo in aspirational projects that conventional wellness programmes can never reach. It was left to closing keynote speaker Richard Watson of Imperial College London to express the idea that being ridiculously busy at work is more about a dominant cultural idea than about really being productive. ‘Think outside your in-box’, declared Watson. Procrastinate, allow your mind to wander. On the evidence of WORKTECH London, with its abundance of tracking technologies, you’d probably need to be in a David Adjaye interior to achieve that.

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