Senior service: the older office workers welcoming change

Our latest WORKTECH Wednesday Briefing looks at the group of office workers most likely to benefit from radical reverses in workplace design towards privacy and flexibility

As the great pandemic of 2020 continues to press the reset button in the workplace, there is one group of office workers who will feel no regret as recent trends in office design go into reverse. Instead, a screeching U-turn on the bustling open office with its free address, serendipitous encounters and ‘bump’ factor planning could be very good news for them.

These are older office workers in their 50s and 60s who have suffered disproportionately from a general move to high-density open plan space since the late 1990s. Research suggests they tend to struggle amid the noise, distractions and a lack of privacy in these environments, although dissatisfaction with open plan offices extends to all age groups.

Big squeeze challenged

The big squeeze on office real-estate over the past 20 years – cramming more people into less space – has been sold as necessary to improve collaboration and communication. However, this thinking has challenged by a number of scientific studies. Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, for example, conducted a study looking at communication patterns of employees inside two large corporate organisations making the shift from cubicles to open plan – they found that the level of face-to-face interaction fell by around 70 per cent in both organisations, with a corresponding increase in emailing and instant messaging.

Well-designed open plan space offering choice can be successfully defended. However, more generally, space efficiency and intensification has been pushed so far in the modern workplace that many organisations now ask whether they can realistically reinstitute office working while controlling the virus. Some researchers, for example Dr Young Lee of UCL, suggest that the six-feet rule around social distancing can easily be accommodated within standard social distancing norms around contact groups which stand at 12 feet – norms which have been disrupted by a corporate obsession with squeezing the assets.

Feeling exposed

Older workers have not appreciated being pushed around but often they’ve been given no choice. Whether senior engineers or senior government officials or senior legal partners, they’ve have been turfed out of their smaller team rooms, numb and angry, into vast, anonymous open plan space, where they feel they themselves to be exposed.

‘Older workers have not appreciated being pushed around but have been given no choice…’

Nor have they welcomed new ways of working that aren’t as flexible as advertised – ways that require being physically present, usually after an arduous daily commute, while simultaneously always ‘on’ in the 24/7 digital economy.

The global pandemic has turned things in the workplace on its head. Many older workers have been allowed to work flexibly and skip the commute – with no discernible dip in company productivity. Now, remote and flexible working are set to become a more permanent part of a hybrid mix.

When that happens, then there will at least be one small cause for celebration among older workers for whom the coronavirus crisis has otherwise brought nothing but anxiety and challenge. Read more about ageing in America here

Time for utilisation tech

Say what you like about Covid-19’s ability to disrupt and sow dissent, but most workplace commentators are agreed on one thing – buildings will need to get a whole lot smarter to manage environmental conditions and occupancy rates in the post-pandemic era. Making the most of utilisation technologies will be the order of the day, but how do we choose the right products and services?  How can we navigate a burgeoning industry?

Our next WORKTECH webinar take place this Thursday, 17 September 2020 to launch The WORKTECH Guide to Utilisation Technology. Join us for an interactive discussion with leading workplace experts, Philip Ross, Futurologist & CEO, Cordless Group and UnGroup, Lars-Gunnar Lundgren, Head of Nimway at Sony, Carlo van der Steen, VP Channel & Nordics for Spacewell, and Lynda Gillson, Chief Product Officer at Spica. Details here

All around the world

Finally, WORKTECH launches an important global series of virtual conferences next month with three major events planned for North America (13-14 October 2020), Asia Pacific (20-21 October) and UK and EMEA (27-29 October). Themes will include reimagining real estate, technology innovation for the new normal, and leadership and employee wellbeing through the crisis. A line-up of expert speakers from around the WORKTECH network is planned, headed by Professor Lynda Gratton, the leading author and academic from the London Business School. More details here.

In our WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, we reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional live conference series paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. This edition is posted 16 September 2020.
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