Technology Effects Underlined in 2013 Workplace Trends Report

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 11, 2013
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New office design that reflects the changing way people work is among 12 emerging workplace trends for 2013, according to Sodexo’s annual Workplace Trends Report.

Debra Dailey, vice president of workplace experience at Sodexo, pointed to an increased focus on how physical surroundings should reflect and encourage an organization’s objectives. A focus on innovation, for example, would require space that encourages collaboration—even globally.

Organizations are looking for a complete workplace experience, she said, that allows “for greater opportunities to connect and to collaborate in much different ways” and that better fit individual work styles.

Some may work better in a communal space—gathered with others around one large table; in team areas with sofas and low tables; or in one-person glass-ringed “phone booths,” according to the report.

While individual offices are not disappearing, the report noted, “they are shrinking in size, sometimes even in number. … This new design also reflects a flattening office hierarchy,” which appeals to a younger generation of workers, who prefer a more relaxed atmosphere, access to upper management and transparency.

The authors of the report observed that “it’s no coincidence that this mix of spaces comes at a time when the boundaries between work and home grow increasingly blurred.” Organizations are incorporating common areas with spaces similar to those found in a residence (kitchen, pantry, living and family rooms), which complement the more conventional conference and training rooms and team areas.

Dailey advised HR professionals to work more closely with facilities management as their organization rethinks its workspace.

“Facilities management may not have been as connected to HR as they need to be today, because the next generation of the workforce is changing so much,” she told SHRM Online. “We will have such a great opportunity to create more synergies, more efficiency … to help people work better and healthier.”

The first step for HR, Dailey said, is to connect “with individuals who have some responsibility over the built environment and environmental changes, and begin to collaborate” and talk about the strategic objectives around meeting the organization’s needs.

Office as a Tool, Not a Destination

This trend reflects a changing notion of the office: that it’s a tool for work, not a destination for work, noted the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) in a news release.

“Some jobs are best accomplished at a workstation,” the IFMA said, “while others benefit from frequent collaboration with co-workers.”

A research paper by Steelcase, a Michigan-based company that addresses elements of the workplace environment, suggests eight different workspace designs for fostering innovation, such as “neighborhoods” that consist of a central project area for presentations and private space for uninterrupted deep thinking and brainstorming.

“The old idea of the office as a place where you sit at a desk from 9 to 5 is no longer the reality,” and organizations are recognizing that, said Andrew Laing, Ph.D., director of North America at Strategy Plus, a strategic business consultancy that is part of design firm AECOM.

It’s about internal mobility—working away from the desk but still in the office, AECOM pointed out during a September 2012 “Mobility Roundtable.”

“The biggest thing we’re seeing … is designing workspaces for mobility, for shared work environments that let you choose where you want to work when you’re in the office,” Laing told SHRM Online in a telephone interview. “Many people in the office no longer have an assigned workspace.”

This shift toward hybrid environments is not limited to tech companies, he observed, citing pharmaceutical companies, professional services and financial services as among those moving toward a new work environment.

He noted one organization that incorporated a pilot program of a “kitchen table” approach with its senior vice presidents as a way to eliminate silos. They sat at a shared table with their laptops, replying to e-mail, scheduling conference calls and answering questions. When they needed to take a conference call they moved to a meeting room; when they needed privacy they had a room for that.

This hybrid environment “creates more informal, ad hoc ways of working that speed up decisions and, in some sense, helps flexibility,” Laing said, adding that redesigned workspaces also reduce companies’ real estate footprint. Staff can be added without needing to expand the space.

Some leadership levels find this change easier to embrace than others. Senior executives—already quite mobile—usually adapt well, as do the younger generation of workers, according to Laing.

“Sometimes the challenge is with the midmanagement level. … They have a bigger challenge with managing people remotely” or managing employees working in teams elsewhere in the organization, beyond their sight. Midlevel managers also may chafe at the idea that the corner office as a mark of achievement may be a thing of the past.

HR’s Role

“HR needs to be intimately involved [to enable] these programs to be successful,” starting with figuring out what programs will support people working in a flexible, mobile way, Laing said.

He offered the following advice:

*Define the people and jobs that are suited to be mobile and those that aren’t.

*Make sure you have a performance management system that looks at virtual ways of managing people. This is important if leaders and their staff are not always working in the same space at the same time.

*Train supervisors to manage their staff and their own workflow differently.

*Work with your IT, real estate and business leadership groups.

*Consider a pilot program, measuring performance before and afterward.

*Create and communicate guidelines on how employees should work and behave in the reconfigured areas.

“Organizations and HR need to be thinking how they create a culture that is less dependent on physical space,” Laing said, including “thinking more about your rituals or events or shared experiences that don’t so much depend on people sitting [in the office] every day.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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