Despite concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations worldwide are planning their return to work. As such, leaders and professional workers ask broader questions about the purpose of the office. The crisis shifted workplace elements out of balance, forcing some to learn technology more quickly and work in the comforts of their home.
Working remotely has always been an option for companies. Even traditional organizations have a percentage of their workforce on some out-of-office arrangement. Nowadays, recruiters also advise hiring departments to include work-from-home as an employee benefit in response to millennial job seekers' demands for flexibility.
Luc Kamperman, a renowned consultant for activity-based working (ABW), talks about how to implement a plan of action in designing a company's future work space. He also raises questions for executives concerning their mindset about work.
Luc is a managing partner at Veldhoen + Company. The Dutch consultancy firm initially developed the ABW philosophy in the Netherlands in the early ‘90s. Luc oversees the development of the North American market, consulting with organizations in workplace strategy and change management. He believes that autonomy, collaboration, and trust are principles that make ABW the future of work.
The pandemic has left significant offices empty, especially during the first few months, as people had to stay in their homes. The resulting work arrangements made the office space a liability more than an asset, with landlords and service providers deferring rental payments to accommodate the businesses' needs amid these challenging times.
Despite this, Luc is optimistic about organizations experiencing a breakthrough in accomplishing workplace strategies that were less successful in the past years.
“There is this opportunity to fundamentally shift our minds on what work is about,” Luc says. “Work is not a place. It's a thing that you do.”
How does this sudden change impact all kinds of companies? For the first time, the workforce spans five generations, which means that the average enterprise has to accommodate a diverse set of needs. Millennials will want to work differently from baby boomers. Hence, it's the job of executive leaders to create harmony at work wherever it may be.
In recent years, there has been increasing prioritization and awareness of company culture by employers and employees. Defined as a set of behaviors on how things are designed in an organization, culture can be akin to a company's personality. A 2019 survey done by the tech talent marketplace Hired.com found that company culture is the second most significant factor candidates consider when applying for a company.
According to Luc, Erik Veldhoen first coined the term “activity-based working” in his book The Demise of the Office. The author emphasized that it wasn't about the loss of offices per se that will make ABW successful. Instead, it's about the approach where spaces become statements of hierarchy or total equality. It raises the question of what an office is really for and why it is needed.
“The same questions are on the table again now more than ever,” says Luc. “I think there is still a need for the office because building the corporate culture is going to be different if everyone worked remotely. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it will be a different skill set that most of us have to learn.”
Based on his experiences, Luc enumerates the different learning opportunities that became available since COVID-19 preventive measures took effect.
• Leadership. Executives turn to their IT colleagues and plan for contingency. At the same time, the latter enjoys swift implementation of projects that help the team make progress. Some junior team members may also find themselves at an advantage, teaching more senior employees on how to set up their work spaces and facilitate calls.
• Integrating Work-Life Balance. In the past, remote work included practicing a nomadic lifestyle or spending the day at multiple cafes. Now, those options do not exist. The pandemic has forced workers to substitute their favored functional spaces outside to every corner of their homes.
• Family. Enduring quarantine at home is an unexpected change brought about by the pandemic. There is no better opportunity to improve time management skills than today, with all home and work responsibilities blurring together.
• Business Travel. As organizations make strategic decisions remotely and across borders, they reconsider the significance of travel as a business essential.
• Physical Space. Facility managers and building engineers learn from this temporary downtime on how to better evaluate the needs of the organization. They would do well to follow executives on the direction they want the company to take.
A person’s immediate environment directly impacts workers' performance. The conversations about the future of work should come with a practical assessment of how people can safely share a space while keeping essential activities productive and beneficial.
“Work is something that you accomplish as part of a team or an organization,” Luc says. “There is always a sense of getting together and having that social connection. I think that the different activities that we're performing still need a physical space, but those activities will change.”
Over the next 12 months, companies will need to look on the path that COVID-19 has helped accelerate, a future of work that is all about team connection, true collaboration, brainstorming, learning, and leadership development.
Luc agrees that good leaders know how to thrive on crisis mode because they've been trained to act on a threat. The better leaders who will emerge from this are those who have taken this time to revisit and rethink how they see the workplace.
“A place is more of a convening spot. But as individuals, we can work anywhere, anytime,” Luc says. He predicts that many companies will reconsider their need for a central headquarters and satellite offices. He also believes that coworking spaces will continue to exist because of the complete flexibility that comes with its business model.
Luc gives an idea of what that blended setup looks like while emphasizing that flexibility is critical. “At the moment, all forms of work spaces will struggle because we can't gather, but in the new future of work, that opportunity exists,” says Luc. However, company cultures will need to adapt.
While data suggests that people do not prefer to work remotely for more than three days a week, the average number of people who preferred to work from home increased after pandemic restrictions. Luc believes that this points the path to a blended solution, rather than a decision between distributing everybody or huddling physically together in the office.
“It's exciting,” Luc says. “But there will be some topics that we will need to deal with better, such as inclusion.”
It's a problem that most companies already grapple with even in a typical in-person office environment. Luc expects leaders to work harder to ensure that all employees are included and have equal opportunity.
Part of Luc's job is to prepare business leaders for change management, which includes enabling department teams to communicate their issues and needs to the executive team. Navigating this conversation is a crucial step in adapting to a more productive workplace environment.
Throughout the crisis response, it's inevitable to have eroded aspects of company culture, especially for teams that never used to work remotely. To this, Luc says the core program in restoring the workplace should be activity-based.
“At the end of the day, it is those activities we are performing that lead to outcomes that we need to achieve. Which of those activities that we feel should be done in an office? What can be done elsewhere, and what can be done at home?” says Luc.
ABW is both a design solution and a strategy. ABW, as a change management tool, amplifies the momentum when establishing a new office to accelerate and support the change. For companies tied to the place where they are working, ABW challenges mindsets and routines, asking questions on what makes the workplace a good fit for everyone.
However, Luc acknowledges that the transition time is unpredictable due to the scale of the pandemic. “We are given this learning period, so let's learn more,” Luc says. “This is a great opportunity to reach out to colleagues and teams, be connected, and understand more what they go through.”
According to a Gallup study, job flexibility engages remote employees, which then drives performance. Engagement should not be treated merely as an exercise to make employees feel happy. It's a management strategy that leads to better business outcomes.
Luc cautions leaders to be adaptable and creative in addressing these changes. “There won't be one new normal,” he says. It's not too late to plan for flexibility. Nonetheless, Luc agrees that those who are implementing some semblance of blended work are already ahead of the curve.
Bear in mind that we cannot impose executives' future work space on employees. A lot of companies, especially Luc's clients, have already transitioned successfully. Once leaders start to think of the workplace as an embodied culture rather than real estate, activity-based working becomes a logical step. Crisis time or not, companies will eventually succeed in their workplace goals as long as they address their employees' needs.
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