The future of the workplace: looking forward by looking back

I have always been almost pathologically averse to futurology. It’s that smug certainty about the way the world will be that often grates. And right now the ‘future of the office’ is drawing us all in to becoming another of those who claim special insight. However, I have taken heart from listening to Professor Lynda Gratton at Worktech20UKEMEA this week, who welcomed the influx of people now talking about the future of work as the means by which the conversation will evolve and lead to any change. Before I heard Lynda Gratton speak, I had already started to write this blog, in what I described as ‘an attempt to avoid any crystal ball gazing, by looking back rather than forward – back to see what history might tell us.’ Then I had become stuck, because it turns out that finding out about what history tells us is not straight forward. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Let’s get back to what is happening now. It seems that there is increasing consensus that one of the things an office is for, and that in this pandemic is being missed, is for people to gather together, bump into each other, interact and build the foundations for future collaboration. Everyone at Worktech was talking about this in one way or the other. Organisational communities and cultures have been forged in physical places and now there is a growing feeling that people working from home are losing that sense of belonging that physical co-presence brings. WFH can also be a challenge for new joiners and what of clients and other visitors who would have previously experienced a physical welcome and an immediate sense of the culture of the organisation they might be doing business with? However, surveys (Leesman research presented at Workplace Trends 20) now tell us that a lot of office workers like working from home and would like to continue to do so for most if not all of the working week (66% respondents in one organisation, say they would long term prefer to work 3 or more days per week at home). Many have said they are more productive when working from home – productivity being adjudged based on the ability to get on with individual focussed work (Leesman). I was also stuck by some recent work by Dr Caroline Burns and Dr Richard Claydon based on data from The Phrasia global WFH study and presented at Worktech20UKEMEA. They argue that whilst WFH for knowledge workers almost immediately enabled an increase in productivity, ‘successful performance’, in terms of quality of outputs rather than the speed at which those outputs are produced, has decreased over time. That may have a lot to do with the knowledge which people have not being leveraged in the way it would have been previously through chance encounter in the office. This is has been an argument for the enabling power of the office made by many, including by Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay back in 2014 in their HBR article ‘Workspaces that move people’. So, if we assume that organisations and individuals do benefit from coming together in a real rather than virtual space, what is it exactly that will attract people back for at least some of their working week? Afterall people may say they miss seeing their colleagues in person, but for many the effort of doing so may still seem too great.

History tells us that coffee houses were the enablers of the public discourse which fuelled the Age of Enlightenment and a future looking culture open to new ideas, but there is little or no research on their spatial design and its role in affording creative conversations.

In my original blog I wanted to look back in time to three precedents – what you might call ‘gathering space’ typologies – review how they work and, from a spatial design perspective, try to answer the question: what made or still makes them, attractive places to go to? The three precedents I had chosen were:

17th Century coffee houses

Guild halls

Golf clubs

I started to dig around. Coffee houses, the first of which opened in 1650 in Oxford, England, are described as places where so many of the attributes that successful knowledge businesses today aspire to were realised. Their role in the European ‘Age of Enlightenment’ is well documented. Places where an eclectic and non-exclusive mix of people met to pass on news, share and discuss ideas in polite and reasoned debate and where business alliances and deals were struck. Guild halls had a similar purpose to gather people together; this time a more formalised and exclusive common skill-based gathering. Their daily business was done either individually or in small groups and were therefore geographically dispersed from others in the same line of work. The role of guild halls in providing ceremonial gatherings and status is well understood, but also presumably there was (and still is) an element of informal knowledge sharing that went alongside it. Then we have the golf club. These are stereotypically the places where the real business gets done. The 4 or 5 hours of enforced time with a small number of others as you play 18 holes, the social gathering with a larger group back in the club house, the status attached to your golf handicap or being one of the club’s officials, with your name inscribed on the board in the lounge. That may seem a bit anachronistic to some, but if you know anything of Trump and his golf resort Mar-a-Lago then you kind of get the picture.

After a couple of hours digging, I realised that I had only scratched the surface of these gathering space typologies and was really not much nearer uncovering much about how they work to bring people together. Indeed, I had found no obvious research or references about the specifics of their spatial design and how that might contribute to their success as social meeting spaces. There are a handful of buildings in London where coffee houses once operated, but no floorplans of how they were configured and no means even of establishing any pattern in terms of their size or capacity. Golf clubs are so many and varied and there is a big research project in there somewhere. Guild halls might be more easily studied and if there is any research of that type out there on this, it would be good to see it. So, this is where I got stuck. I know something about the business outcomes theses gathering places facilitate but very little about how spatial design contributes to those outcomes.

Nevertheless, there are some tentative inferences that I think can be drawn here. Social gatherings that facilitate business outcomes have been a feature of life over history, and not just in the guise of the ‘office’ as we know it. We should perhaps stop trying to see how to evolve the office, rather go back to basics – a blank sheet of paper – and look at what organisations need in terms of community, culture and relationships and work out from there the nature of both the virtual and physical ‘places’ where this could happen. Other typologies of gathering space show us that sociality is a by-product of another more explicit prime purpose, e.g. drinking coffee, playing golf. Some of those typologies are more ritualised and exclusive than others. Golf clubs and coffee houses work on a model of being relatively small and mostly geographically localised – used by people who live close by. Guild halls have the ability to draw people from further afield. And one thing you do know is that all of these places have distinct cultures and norms just like businesses of today.

So, I am now thinking this is less about how to tempt people back to the office. More that we might now benefit from freeing ourselves from the construct of the office as the place where performance enhancing conversations happen. And I don’t mean that we simply accept the virtual world as the sole substitute. Is it time to think much more broadly about the places where people can come together to make great things happen?  

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