Silicon Valley on the Seine: how Paris upped the ante on innovation

From the benefits of scientific evidence to the growth of the flex generation, the WORKTECH Paris 2019 conference showed how the French capital is becoming a workplace leader

In recent years Paris has been quoted as the ‘Silicon Valley by the Seine’. This relatively new moniker cements the French capital in the vanguard of Europe’s tech industry and its flair for innovation is seen clearly in the business district of La Défense. It was here, in Sony’s state-of-the-art seminar space, that WORKTECH19 Paris welcomed 18 leading speakers on 26 September to talk about their experience with flexible space, workplace wellness and the next digital era.

Generation Flex

Flexible workspace has dominated industry conversation in the past year and it’s no shock as to why. Christophe Burckart of International Workplace Group (IWG) stated the findings from a worldwide IWG research study – this found that 75 per cent of respondents worldwide consider flexible working as the new standard, while 85 per cent of the companies interviewed stated that they were more productive through flexible working. Two-thirds of these companies even stated that their productivity had increased by more than 20 per cent. The study investigated if flexible space can contribute to the success of a business and found that flex working not only helps to manage various risks (54 per cent), it also plays a role in the success of the company (79 per cent) and improves responsiveness in the market (64 per cent).

A panel discussion between Engie and IWG developed on the idea of ‘Generation Flex’. The panel showcased global insights on flexible working from experts in the space and Engie’s own case study. Philippe Ernandes of Engie explained how the company was keen to empower employees to organise their working days with the objective to achieve their targets, not fill office hours.

John Duckworth of Instant Group also spoke at the conference along with colleague James Rankin. Describing the Instant Group as the ‘Airbnb of commercial’ through the aggregation of data and supply of information in the workplace arena, the duo discussed the evolution of workplace procurement and occupancy.

Green science

Elizabeth Nelson, Head of Research and Innovation at Learn, Adapt, Build, spoke about the effects of sleep, sound, green environments, nutrition, light and activity on productivity, engagement and innovation. Nelson believes scientific research needn’t be restricted to academia and can be applied to business problems to build sustainable solutions. The audience heard how seemingly small changes can majorly impact employees – for instance, greener environments can help to make people more positive, less impatient and less stressed. This was also evident in the work of fellow speaker, Manal Rachdi, founder of OXO architects, who uses nature as inspiration in many projects, particularly when designing eco-friendly buildings.

Culture change

Julia Ghouti, Head of Workplace Policy at international pharmaceutical company Sanofi, shared the story of the organisation’s global journey to move their 100,000-plus employees to activity-based working (ABW). The design process was feedback led for each site and Ghouti noted the importance of structured change management and the crucial need for good communication during such a project. When working in a newly designed space, employees need time to adjust to new surroundings and ways of working, and any new guidelines that come with an activity-based space.

Sanofi’s holistic in-house team guided their employees through the journey to make the scheme an ongoing success. She noted the need to accept that there are different types of people in every organisation. By involving users in the design process, Sanofi was able to design an office that suits all of its employees. Ghouti stressed the fact that ABW workplaces rarely work perfectly immediately, the concept needs to be treated as new and should be monitored and tested regularly.

Inabelle Fang of Willis Towers Watson went further to explain how the global advisory firm’s workplace transformation took place across 40 sites and achieved 100 million USD savings in three years through real estate optimisation and a shift to new ways of working, with the help of partner Workplace Fabric’s Freespace product to create a digital real estate solution. In the same thread of exploring the connected workplace, Gensler’s managing director Philippe Pare and workplace strategist Alice Dubot then demonstrated how digital design in the workplace is here to augment the human experience.

Human + Machine

Local newspaper Les Echos reported that total 2017 funds invested in French start-ups rose to 3.1 billion USD, triple the amount just three years earlier. This innovation has seen an influx of young digital natives all looking to work for the most innovative, forward-thinking organisations.

Smart offices, such as the one showcased by Capgemini and Sony at WORKTECH Paris, are the ultimate attraction tool for new talent. Le 147 is one of Capgemini’s recently opened its smart office in 2019. This impressive project adapts to all user needs, servicing more than 4,000 employees in 33,250 square metres of space, spread over eight floors.

Each space is unique and intended to promote concentration, creativity or exchange. Spaces have been designed to prevent repetition and to let everyone work in their preferred way. The space was also crucially designed to inspire customers by using the best technology to aid visitors and employees through a workplace app. Capgemini stated that the new building has been instrumental in increasing the number of agreements with customers.

George Edward Muir revelled in the claim that artificial intelligence will replace many of today’s traditional jobs and create new types of jobs and ways of working. Muir declared that the reality is that 1 billion functions will disappear before 2025 and no fewer than 1.7 billion new functions will be created. Muir expects that by 2028 we will talk more about ‘humanism’ – where human labour and AI merge. He urged the audience to think of computers with feelings and fixed communication between the brain and machines. He concluded that the jobs that will continue to exist include data scientists, AI and machine learning specialists, software developers, security analysts and organisational development specialists – careers that are already developing enormously on a global scale.

Marco Maria Pedrazzo of Carlo Ratti Associates brought this theory to an urban scale, as he shared how cities are changing and the concept of ‘senseable’ cities. More than just ‘smart’, the ‘senseable city’ is the city of the future: digital, connected, and more attentive to the needs of the people who live there. Carlo Ratti runs a lab at MIT where it creates interactive, digital environments in order to better understand cities, using this data to create tools that empower citizens and transform the urban environment.

As Paris looks ahead to the challenges of 2020, it is clear that French workplaces have been steadily adopting flexible working and digitally enabled workspaces. While WORKTECH Paris 2019 showcased some of the most forward thinking digitally-led workplaces from around the world, it is clear that flexibility is the key to making the Silicon Sur Seine the European pioneer in both talent attraction and retention.

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