New York notebook: the continuing consumerisation of workplace

The workplace customer is king according to the parade of presenters at the latest edition of WORKTECH New York, held at Convene in Manhattan on 4 May 2017

In the nine years since WORKTECH began this conference series in New York, technology has continued to transfer power from the organisation to the individual. Our phones now give us access to anytime-anywhere information.  Ubiquitous wi-fi allows us to more easily choose when, where and for whom we work. Artificial intelligence is beginning to leverage our capabilities, allowing us to partner with machines to expand our capacity.

With increasing mobility and capability, we as individual employees have more power to ask, even demand from our employers that they provide us with the spaces and tools we want.  In response to that, the resounding theme from WORKTECH New York 2017 was freedom, autonomy and choice.

‘Architecture frames the theatre of work’ – design director Clive Wilkinson

The reason for all of our efforts around workplace and technology is to empower both individuals and teams. The conference launched with Chris Fussell, a former Navy SEAL Officer and a partner at McChrystal Group. Having served under General Stanley McChrystal in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Fussell was integral to the process of turning the Special Operations group into an agile network, a ‘Team of Teams’ (and yes attendees got a copy of his book of the same name).  Chris connected his military experiences to the increasing need for cross-functional collaboration in the workplace today, helping us understand what it might mean to have a team of teams of our own.

However, creating teams is not always easy.  The stories we tell about ourselves as a group are critical to seeing ourselves as part of a larger entity. Rosa Riera of Siemens and Andrew Lam-Po-Tang from R/GA shared their experiences in finding real stories from Siemens employees all over the world. They used those real stories to create an employer brand that feels true for the people who work there in order to attract the people that should be working there.

Diana Rhoten from IDEO also shared her thoughts on the challenges of creating alignment within a team. Digital distributed work moves us apart, and she gave numerous stories about how purpose can counteract that by bringing us together.

‘For 125 years we have been connecting furniture, not people’ – Gerard Taylor, Orangebox

Peter Miscovich from JLL hosted a panel on the next generation digital workplace that included Tom Maldrie from Verizon, John Smart from IBM Watson IoT, and Jake Herway from Gallup. These four provided a broad overview of where work is now and where it is going. Statistics from Gallup around workers in the new economy clearly indicate a desire for increasing personal control and a willingness to jump employers when that is not provided.  The panel also talked about the need to balance focus and collaboration, virtual work and fixed work, as well as digital and analogue interactions. One solution does not fit every company or every employee.  Providing choice is a must in today’s talent market.

The BCG office design reduces friction by taking care of every detail – Ross Love, Boston Consulting Group

We know that decreasing the amount of friction an employee feels when trying to do their work will increase engagement and productivity. Ross Love from Boston Consulting Group talked about all of the different ways their New York office design focused on removing friction. Shawn Ritchie from Teem and Benjamin Rehburgh from BCG asked us to think about the office as platform. BCG’s conference rooms are each set up and decorated differently to fit different types of meeting and every room has the capacity to automatically book and unbook itself when people show up (or don’t).

Graeme Harrison from Biamp Systems brought up the theme of reducing friction again – the set-up of a video meeting usually takes 8-10 minutes.  If you want your people to use video conferencing as a more effective communication platform, it needs to be easy. Garth Fielding from Bisley North America suggested that reducing friction includes the ways we make changes to facilities. Not only do people need to be mobile but the furniture that supports them should also be mobile. Teams need to come together and disperse quickly; in today’s market, a mobile storage unit (rather than a wall) allows for a fast and painless transformation of the space itself.

‘Office 365 is a better indicator of collaboration than the floor plan’ – Ryan Fuller, Microsoft

There were also a number of presentations on technology integration and impact. Ryan Anderson from Herman Miller suggested that by focusing on new technologies, we could begin to anticipate how those technologies might impact work. He pointed out that we could see this already with the three big trends: mobility driving more flexible work; consumerisation driving greater workplace choice; and the Internet of Thing empowering both of those trends by allowing for utilisation, location and wayfinding.

As we untether ourselves from our desks, it becomes harder and harder for facilities managers to understand how well their space needs are being met and there were several presentations that began to point to solutions.  Ujjaini Dasgupta from Phillips Lighting talked about the ability of smart lighting to quickly turn any space into a smart sensing space in order to increase utilisation and provide wayfinding.  John Anderson from Plow Consulting shared excerpts and context around a publication that he assembled in conjunction with the WORKTECH team – The Bytesized Guide to Resource Management Solutions.

‘The future of real estate is hospitality, design and technology’- Chris Kelly, Convene

After having listened all day to how and why we create choice for our employees, we heard about new ways to manage that complexity. Ben Munn from The Instant Group talked about space as a service. Co-working is no longer the realm of individual desk renters but is becoming a vehicle for large companies to turn their facilities and hospitality functions over to someone else.

Chris Kelly from Convene, our host for the day, agreed with that vision – he believes that in the future of real estate, landlords will market their spaces as a brand and tenants will be members. Buildings will be organised with street level public spaces, mid-level semi-public spaces including flex workspace, meeting facilities and fitness centres, and the top level will cater to corporations, providing both short and long term leases. This model will allow companies to flex in the same way that individuals, furniture and spaces are already doing.

At the end of a conference full of incredibly informative talks, I am convinced that this really is the future.  We won’t be all open office or all closed.  We won’t be all remote or all present. Those of us working at the intersection of facilities, IT and HR will be working to create complex environments that allow our employees freedom, autonomy and choice.

In this video interview, Clive Wilkinson, design director at Clive Wilkinson Architects argues that a human centred workplace is what companies should be striving towards.

In this video interview, Andrew Lam-Po-Tang, executive director of business transformation at R/GA, discusses using real employee stories to create an employer brand for a project with Seimens.

In this video interview, Peter Miscovich, managing director of strategy and innovation at JLL, talks about a ‘liquid adaptive’ workforce and the future demands of the digital workplace.


Kristi Woolsey is a behavioural strategist and practice lead for creative environments at MAYA design, which is based in Pittsburgh and New York. You can download her latest e-book Designing Culture, published by O’Reilly, here  
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