Ten top shifts coming to a workplace near you

WORKTECH speakers in Berlin, London and Singapore put big changes on the radar

The tectonic plates are currently moving under the global workplace as a host of economic, technological and cultural factors disrupt where and how we work. Here are Ten Top Shifts drawn from the expert presentations to recent WORKTECH 2015 conferences in Berlin, Singapore and London.

1 From Cubicles to Co-working

Corporates are now in full flight from the cube farm to the funky, friendlier co-working spaces. Juliette Morgan, Head of Property at Tech City UK, told WORKTECH London that the rise of co-working was  “a perfect storm of freelances and corporates both chasing innovation”.

Tech start-ups needed plug-in-and-play workspace, with each new round of investment triggering another space move; corporates needed to learn the wiles and ways of the agile disruptors. Or as Grace Sai, CEO and co-founder of The Hub Singapore, told her audience at WORKTECH Asia: ‘Any incumbent who ignores the threat from a start up – you should wake up. Young people who are working from co-working spaces are seeing the world differently.’

Mind you, corporate cubicles once came with the best of intentions, as Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, reminded us when he described the development of Robert Probst’s 1968 Action Office. This progressive concept aimed at the future knowledge worker was destined to become the cubicle, exported worldwide, widely loathed and eventually a catalyst for co-working.

2 From Design for Appearance to Design for Experience

Architects and designers are paid to make things look good. But appearance is no longer enough. Experience is what counts. As Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency told WORKTECH London: ‘A beautiful visual setting can be undermined by horrible sound.’

The number one complaint in offices is noise, but how many architects take this into account? ‘If you ask an architect what they are working on, they are visual people so they’ll show you a drawing or a model,” explained Treasure. ‘Tell you how it is going to sound? I don’t think so.’

It’s not just workplaces that make us suffer. Hospitals are full of threat sounds that disturb patients. Eight million people in Europe are sleep deprived due to traffic noise. Not all noise is bad at work either. ‘If it’s raining outside, wouldn’t it be nice to hear it inside?’ says Treasure, who believes that bringing nature back into the office is all part of the experience.

3 From Home Office to Office as Home

‘You won’t find all the paraphernalia of the office – the corporate name badges, phones, printers – here,’ said Mitko Vasilev of Cisco, introducing his company’s intelligent facility for open innovation at WORKTECH Berlin.

Indeed Cisco’s OpenBerlin doesn’t look like an office at all, more like someone’s kitchen, studio or living room, and that’s the whole point. Just as people are recoiling from a life of work based entirely around homeworking and demanding somewhere else to go, so workplaces are increasingly adopting those comfortable traits of domesticity.

Is the office becoming a home from home? Juliette Morgan of Tech City UK thinks so. At WORKTECH London, she quoted creative tech entrepreneur Rohan Silva: ‘Offices need to be places where you can relax as well as work because you are probably spending more time at work than your parents did.’ The title of Silva’s most high profile London venture: Second Home.

4 From Control to Curation 

Command-and-control workplaces are out – curated communities are in. The days of uniform office layouts, vanilla design solutions, unchanging lighting and temperature constant within a narrow band are numbered, Rebecca Goldberg of Arup told WORKTECH London; more variety and responsiveness to improve individual wellbeing is on the way.


From ‘engineered serendipity’, a concept discussed by Tracy Wymer of Knoll, to the principles of stage design with colour, light, shadow, projections, framing and screening being applied to office scenes, as Life of Work author Jeremy Myerson told WORKTECH Berlin, the hand of the curator and the community-builder is everywhere.

‘We curate the community as much or more than we curate the space,’ explained Grace Sai of The Hub Singapore. ‘We focus on the soft things that you can’t pay a designer to get right.’ The attention to curation is all part of the drive to innovate – command-and-control doesn’t hack it when it comes to thinking up new ideas. As Kursty Groves Knight and Oliver Marlow, authors of a new report for Nesta on the subject, told WORKTECH London: ‘Space plus creativity plus community equals innovation.’

5 From Fast to Slow

In a world of speed yoga and drive-through funerals, are we addicted to going too fast? Have we forgotten how to switch off, to unplug, to de-accelerate? Carl Honore, best-selling author of In Praise of Slowness, certainly thinks so. He reminded the WORKTECH London audience that Swedes and Germans work less hours but are more productive. His motto: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.’

It is hard to connect to your inner tortoise when new technology is driving the pace of work at ever-increasing speeds. Our addiction to tech in the workplace is a problem, plus that hard-to-shake belief that if you’re not busy, you are seen as failing. Honore is fond of quoting Pasternak in Dr Zhivago: ‘In the epoch of speed, one must think slowly.’

Other agree. Duncan Young of Lend Lease told WORKTECH London that regular breaks, walking and slower food preparation with natural ingredients, instead of diving into the nearest vending machine, creates a healthier and more productive workplace.

6 From Facilities to Hospitality

Is facilities management morphing into the hospitality industry? Signs of change are everywhere. As Ian Adams of FM giant Mitie told WORKTECH London: ‘We’re getting the message that we look after the people in facilities, not just the facilities.’

Mitie recently did a survey with 18,000 workplace employees to discover why UK productivity has, in Adams’ words, ‘dropped off a cliff’. It paints a picture of widespread distrust, of a workforce ‘not on board with the data analytics of change’. Adams advocates closer attention to employee needs.

This is an approach retail and leisure environments take instinctively, as Klaus Sandbiller of European bank UniCredit reminded delegates at WORKTECH Berlin. ‘There is much we can learn from retail,’ said Sandbiller as he leads a rethink of the bank network as a more hybrid, hospitable, engaging, community-facing proposition that also provides a better place for employees to work.

7 From Male to Female

We’ve had a male-dominated workplace, but are things about to change? Experts argue that a better gender balance will aid corporate decision-making. As Kelly Robinson, who developed great workplaces with Soundcloud and Airb’n’b, told WORKTECH Berlin:  ‘The answer is more feminine energy, not more masculine women.’

Robinson’s favourite read is The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio. But there is quite some way to go. Mitie’s survey reported that females are less inclined to question business change due to a perceived negative effect on their career, while Eric Philips of architects NBJJ told WORKTECH Asia that 45 per cent of workers in China are women but only 10per cent occupy executive roles.

At least Google is aware of the feminisation of the workplace with its offer to freeze the eggs of female employees, as Debra Ward of Condeco told WORKTECH London.

8 From Consultation to Co-design

The form was once tick-box consultation. Now it is full-on co-design with office employees.  Participatory design, once confined to community groups and public space projects, is entering the workplace – and not before time.

At WORKTECH London, Ken Lynch of New Zealand bank ANZ took us through ANZ’s Playbox methodology to create flexible furniture to employees’ own specification. A series of workshops identified 14 different ways in which people work, leading to the design of settings with such names as Scrum, Showcase and Exchange.

Academic research backs up the idea that when people have more of a direct say in the design of their work environment, levels of engagement and satisfaction rise. Online tick-box surveys clearly don’t cut it. Expect more co-design activities in an office near you.

9 From Metrics to Mission

In a workplace industry obsessed with data and drowning in information as a result, people are realising that it’s not just the numbers that count – it’s all about doing the things that matter. High mission organisations focused on quality outcomes often fare better than metric-driven organisations fixated on measuring inputs.

As Ian Adams of Mitie told WORKTECH London: ‘You can study the figures but, in the end, people want to know whether the coffee is any good.’ How you use data inputs is also important. These need to be geared more closely to corporate mission, as Philip Ross of Unwork explained at WORKTECH Berlin: ‘Retail works off live data, office property directors need the same level of control to make the right decisions.’

Not everything can be measured, however, as Debra Ward of Condeco reminded us.  She flashed up a Mark Anderson cartoon at WORKTECH London of an executive complaining: ‘Serendipity is up, fluke is doing well but I’m a little concerned about our dumb luck.’

10 From Nine-to-Five to Vibe

Finally, a shift to raise a cheer: ‘Spirit always beats money,’ declared Kelly Robinson of Soundcloud, an Airb’n’b and Headspace renown. The world’s first workspace designer with the official title of Vibe Manager explained to WORKTECH audiences in London and Berlin how spirit is seeping into the workplace.

Zappos is an interesting company, she said, because it recruits on the basis of how well candidates score in their interactions with taxi drivers, waitresses and reception staff, not just in the interview itself. Cultural fit is king. Of course it helps if the spirit has some money attached so all those good vibes can be properly financed.

This is the case with the all-conquering WeWork whose business model is based on a better vibe, with beer on tap, stylish furnishing and generosity of spirit. Devin Vermeulen, WeWork’s creative director, told WORKTECH London:  ‘There’s a paradigm shift in the way people work and design workspace. We’re the magpies.’ Magpies? We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

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