Only connect: the evolution of the networked office

As organisations future-gaze to the next era of the workplace, this first instalment of three in a series on the networked office looks at the evolution of workplace design and how a holistic approach can build future resilience

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the function of the modern workplace was its ability to connect different networks together within one holistic ecosystem. From human and material networks to technological, informational and hierarchical networks, this inter-connected ecosystem is what has made office design so complex and challenging to perfect. Now, there is an additional complexity as the pandemic has introduced mass-scale remote working to the agenda. Not only must organisations navigate how this ecosystem can operate across fluid and dynamic environments, but also how the office environment can be reimagined to align with emerging expectations and business values in a post-pandemic era.

In this first instalment of three on the networked office, Microsoft has partnered with WORKTECH Academy to examine the evolution of office space and how it has contributed to our understanding of the significance and purpose of the office today, and how we will work in relation to our space in the future. This series aims to bring the networked office into a holistic framework where physical, social and technological networks are considered in the round.

The history of office space

The idea of a networked office is fluid and dynamic. To understand the forward direction of the office today, when many organisations are faced with the challenge and pressure of returning staff to a future-proof office space, it helps to reflect on how the office has changed within its social context historically, The past decade has woven underlying networks that support and sustain office life into the workplace fabric, but these networks have changed significantly in the context of new ways of working and external social norms. This analysis shows how the concept of the network itself has grown in importance and how the physical workplace can act as its enabler.

Modern workplace evolution has long since been governed by external politics and social policy. This is evident through the analysis of the four main models commonly used to describe the modern workplace proposed by Tricia Austin (2007). The first is the economic model that sees the office in the context of efficiency, production, utilisation of resources and cost control; the second views the office as a polity, a place of power, rivalry, hierarchy, decision-making and politics. The third model revolves around the idea of community, placing an emphasis on relationships, belonging, proximity and partnership. The fourth is the ecological model, inspired by Franklin Becker’s studies of the ecology of the workplace (1995), which views the workplace in the context of population flows, interdependence and sustainability.

Now, social norms are again dictating a turning point for the office. Mass working from home has triggered a new digital corporate mindset.

The power of the network

Dr Frank Duffy (2006), co-founder of architects and designers DEGW has described three major waves of change in office design over the past 100 years to suggest how the office environment has shifted from a visual metaphor for power of the corporation to an expression of the power of the network.

The first wave is coined the Taylorist office, after time-and-motion pioneer Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), the movement which gained popularity in the early 20th century used the office as an engine of American economic growth and efficiency. As iconic office buildings such as The Chrysler building were erected in New York in the late 1920s,  we saw the start of a command-and-control approach to work with large, open spaces filled with desks and overseen by supervisors with clipboards. Taylorist office networks were enshrined in a time-and-motion culture based around the efficiencies of the technological innovations of the day – the high-speed elevator, typewriter, electric light bulb and telephone. These workplaces conformed to the hierarchical and siloed culture of leadership, which in turn influenced the way networks were formed. This model was not conducive to inter-disciplinary collaboration and, as a consequence, innovation within the workplace suffered.

‘In the transition from Taylorism to contemporary workstyles, the power of networks to influence how and where we work has grown significantly.’

The second wave of change is the Social Democratic office of the post-1945 era in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. This concept adopts a light and bright post-war reaction to the darkness of world war and Fascism and reflects the rising power of the white-collar unions and worker councils at that time. In its wake brought the social networks of burolandschaft in the 1950s and 60s, the neighbourhood working concept in the 1970s and the advent of the first desk computers and laptops in the 1980s.

A combination of social, physical and technological networks during this period create a more social and more democratic way of working. It also saw the workplace turn from an impermeable symbol of power to a more transparent and connected environment. The Social Democratic ideal in workplace design quickly spread from countries such as Sweden and Holland to the UK and international corporations interested in boosting the social capital of their workforce. The development of Broadgate in the City of London in 1985, which connected workers to the rest of the city through the ground floor public space, reflected this trend.

This model more closely resembles the office of today, however it does not come without challenges. While the networks formed in this type of workplace are more fluid, the formation of networks within organisations was still firmly rooted in place. This means that leadership had to decide where certain teams are located and often the true collaborative networks in the organisation went unrecognised.

The third wave is the Networked office, which emerged around the time of the new millennium to reconfigure time, place and space. It gathered momentum in response to opportunities afforded to the knowledge economy by digital technology. The Networked office today is being led neither by developers (the Taylorist office) nor owner-occupiers (the Social Democratic office), but almost exclusively by service providers. This era of office design is responsive to demand and configured to add value to business processes, not simply accommodate them. It is more flexibly geared to the volatility of business change through modular design and short-lease office space and it is the first time the physical and virtual has coexisted on equal terms in the office environment.

This model reflects the dynamism and agility of networks today. Digital tools can yield data which presents an accurate account of where the most significant networks are within an organisation. When this data is coupled with flexible design, organisations have the power to reconfigure space based on the strength of certain networks at different times. This flexibility can improve internal collaboration and innovation to pioneer new business objectives.

‘Three waves of office design demonstrate the growing power of networks to influence new ways of working…’

These three waves of office design demonstrate the growing power of networks to influence new ways of working. As technology and data collection continue to become more sophisticated, the ability to physically map out different networks in the workplace will become mainstream practice (a concept which will be revisited in an upcoming instalment of this series). This granular level of detail in understanding how physical, digital, and social networks are evolving and developing could allow organisations to predict and adapt for new ways of working in the future.

Looking to the future

The onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic has left many organisations questioning the purpose of the office, with some companies abandoning their physical workspace altogether. The sharp pivot to an entirely remote workforce has left organisations focusing on the digital networks which have expanded throughout 2020. However, it is important not to dismiss the physical and social networks of the organisation.

While the pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to work remotely using digital tools, it has also underscored the importance of networks to how people do their jobs and companies succeed. Research from Microsoft on the impact of the remote-work disruption on some teams at the company measured the impact on collaboration and found employees adapted their work patterns in order to maintain social connections and that overall, networks remained stable and even grew and diversified.

The global disruption has also highlighted the importance of the physical office and its role as a social catalyst for employees. Recent research by Martec Group found that of a sample of more than 1,200 individuals across various industries, demographics and seniority levels only 16 percent actively loved working from home, while double that number (32 percent) of employees claimed to now dislike working from home and do not think their company is handling the pandemic situation well. For the most part the survey found that there was a significant decline in mental health, job satisfaction, job motivation and company satisfaction.

Conversely, the latest statistics from the Leesman Index has found that the average home working satisfaction level (H-Lmi) from its 22,000 respondents is 74.2, which ranks as outstanding according to their index scale. When compared to the average Lmi for the office at just 63, it is reasonable to conclude that home working is beneficial to the majority of employees.

However, when the home working and office feedback was overlayed it is clear that home working consistently does not deliver in some key areas. Working from home not only blurs the boundaries of work and life to the point where there is no longer any distinction, it is also a barrier to conduct inherently social work tasks. Areas of work that have become challenges from home are informal social interaction, hosting visitors and customers, collaboration of creative work, learning from others, and using technical and specialist equipment or materials. These activities are typically social in nature, and this data provides insight into where the office still holds its core function as a place for social interaction.

Given all this, a challenge for many business leaders now is a lack of understanding of how, when, and why to bring people back and what the new workspace models and workspace configurations might look like post-pandemic. It is when organisations begin to question what their offices might look like in the future that the importance of workplace networks really shines through. This is where data, specifically behavioral data that reveals to leaders how work happens within teams and across organizations, is critical.

Our solution to this pressing challenge is Microsoft Workplace Analytics, which unlocks the power of the Microsoft graph to help companies measure patterns of work in the everyday tools people use, enabling leaders to explain and predict the impact of day-to-day actions on the outcomes they care about. By revealing, for instance, which teams communicate and collaborate the most, these insights can help leaders decide which clusters of employees return to the office first, and also help shape office layout in the future. The knowledge gained by physically mapping out social and digital networks and making visible what’s usually invisible allows organisations to be adaptable, flexible, and resilient to significant changes in the future.

Just as the office has physically adapted to the needs and expectations of workers in the past, we are now experiencing another paradigm shift in history where organisations are forced to reimagine what the future landscape of their workplace will be. By understanding how workplace networks have developed over the past 100 years, organisations are placed in a unique position to successfully evolved the office into the next epoch of work.

Workplace configurations have evolved from individual productivity-yielding cubicles to rows of desks in open plan environments and now to activity-based work environments. As more data comes to light about the perception and expectations of the office of the future and the limitations of complete remote working, there will be an opportunity for organisations to build a new workplace which considers a hybrid model of working from a holistic perspective. The pandemic has prompted a widespread workplace analytics push that is providing a granular level of detail in what the office can offer employees that has never been seen before on such a large scale.

The mapping of social networks with the needs and expectations of employees in the future is allowing organisations blueprint a workplace model which is resilient to the future. While many people saw the pandemic as an abrupt halt to business, in many ways it has merely provided a chance for organisations to press the reset button in their approach to redesigning the office of the future.

This article is a WORKTECH Academy promotion with Microsoft.
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