The Water Cooler Effect
The death of the office, like marriage and newsprint, is one of those things that seems to be always about to happen, but never quite does.
For twenty years pundits have been anticipating a revolution in working practices that would see the end of the daily commute, replacing it with some kind of decentralised network. And yet the vast majority of us still turn up every day to sit at the same desk surrounded by the same faces.
It seems that the advantages of office working go deeper than many analysts had previously imagined. Bringing people together to work in one place may appear inefficient from a simple logistical point of view but creates value in unexpected ways through the ‘water-cooler’ effects of casually exchanged information, conversation and inspiration as well as the softer social morale-boosting benefits of being in company and having a change of scenery.
But something is changing. It’s not just that many employers, especially the big names of silicon valley, are creating fun, colourful, unconventional new spaces to work in that challenge preconceptions of what an office should be, but a new generation of workers is entering the workforce who have only ever known a 4G connected world — and if businesses want to catch the best of them, they are going to have to understand their habits, expectations and aspirations.
These young people are used to taking their workspace with them, not because they are being urged to by forward-looking (or cost cutting) management, but because they simply take it for granted that they will be able to access work and play from a variety of screens wherever they are. Visit a coffee shop in the capital or any other large town any day of the week and they will be there, already plugged in and connected. For this hyper-connected generation the idea of the flexible office space, where the old dispensation of one-worker-one desk is emphatically broken down, is not a gimmick much less anything to fear but a natural extension of their home and work lives.
Businesses that want to compete for the best of this new young talent are going to need to understand just how different the world they expect to work in is. Not just the Googles and Facebooks, but traditional suit-and-tie professions too. Many of us in the business of designing and re-thinking office space for clients are already showing how a bold approach that incorporates a flexible eco-system of digitally connected spaces can not only make the available space more logistically efficient – reducing empty desks, mixing recreation and work modes, tackling the meeting room block – but much more attractive to the best of the new cohort of workers, a group that is being vigorously courted by the glamour of the new digital economy.
It is time to be bold, to recognise that the world has changed whether we like it or not. Primary colours, hot desks, juice bars and meeting pods are not to everyone’s taste but they represent more than just an aesthetic, they are the outward signs of a changing culture that, for the young, is simply the new norm. It has the potential to be vastly more flexible and productive than older ways of working. The office is not dead, but something is being reborn. We should be actively helping to bring it to life.