Opinion: The modern workplace environment is broken

Property Council’s Auckland Regional Committee member, Anna Hill of Jasmax shares her view on the future of the modern workplace.

Please note, this article was written prior to Cyclone Gabrielle, which caused widespread devastation across the North Island – our thoughts are with those impacted by recent weather events.

To say it has been an interesting start to the year would be an understatement. As businesses geared up to return to the workplace, Auckland faced yet another disruptive event. Employees and leaders alike are struggling to catch a break. For some, the floods have been a complete reset, causing significant disruption to transport and infrastructure, triggering many businesses to request employees to work from home. Only a few weeks into the year, a sense of déjà vu emerged across Auckland’s CBD.

What is increasingly apparent is the current workplace environment is broken. Amid mass tech layoffs, continued disruption to schooling, and the are-we or are-we-not in a recession dance, at the same time the competition for talent has never been more fierce. Predicting the future of work has become increasingly challenging.

During the various lockdowns, we began to appreciate the real benefits of face-to-face communication. Yet, on our return to the office and the introduction of the hybrid workplace, open-plan workspaces now feel deserted. As we re-align with our pre-pandemic structure, the hustle and bustle has been replaced with a deafening silence.

When people work from home, they have a lot more autonomy over their environment. This freedom felt during the many months of working from home is one reason organisations face dwindling numbers of in-office employees today. As we enter 2023, we can now begin to reflect, react, and respond to what this means for the future of the workplace and its inhabitants.

The idea of the office construct has been changing for quite some time, this is nothing new, but the workplace is changing because our relationship with work is changing. This is influenced by technical innovations, new generations, the idea of why we come to work and our purpose, driven by the chance we have had over the last few years to work from home.

What’s most important to people is choice – is it your home, a conference room, working alongside your friends?

We need to consider social, behavioural and environmental choices as we return to the workplace. Work is an end-to-end experience, so what are we all after?

Connection

Social connection is crucial – people gain energy from one another, and we need that energy, cross fertilisation, and collegiality to prevent burnout. People want to return to the workplace for the social connection. Offices need to provide an inspiring space that enhances the social benefits of the workplace alongside culture, mental health and productivity. Designing for the developing “water-cooler” environment.

Communication

Tone matters. People want to know what’s going on, keeping employees informed and part of the decision-making process provides a sense of engagement and belonging. Engaging with your employees to understand what they value about the workplace environment and bring them along on any change journeys that may be planned.

Education

Teach what you know. New protocols will be critical in supporting a comfortable return to work. As things change we need to take the time to educate people. Helping people understand how to use new spaces/ space arrangements to their best advantage, alongside share company aspirations and keep everyone informed.

Empathy

At times of uncertainty, it is essential to remember that everyone has had a different experience and response to working from home. Be compassionate, actively listen and be open, some people will be concerned about returning to work, and they need to feel their concerns are being heard.

Greenery

Nature reassures. Introduce or increase Biophilic design to positively impact overall mental and physical health.  The low carbon benefits and social license that comes from working in a space that’s not just good for people, but also good for the planet provides many psychological benefits to the workplace. 

Flexibility

Choice is power, employees should have power to decide where and how they work. A one size does not fit all. Flexibility in experience is important in providing a variety of spaces where everyone can feel comfortable and productive.

Relationships

We crave real faces. The benefits of getting people together should be celebrated. Face-to-face communication is critical, and the workplace enables this.

Familiarity

Old shoes are the most comfortable. Only change what is necessary.

Respite

Disconnect from screens and power down. Research proves that taking breaks positively impacts productivity and reduces health issues.  

Is working from home going to win the battle for the hearts and minds of employees? And what is the right ratio to implement within the modern hybrid workplace?

While we can technically work from home all the time, there are clear social, cultural and economic reasons why we shouldn’t. We need to embrace new ways of working, but this needs to be done alongside a renewed relationship with the office. Shared workspaces act as a space to connect, offering opportunities for employees to gain energy and motivation from one another in face-to-face settings. An inspiring space can enhance culture, mental health and productivity.

As the number of people in the office fluctuates throughout the week, the design of the workspace now doesn’t need to accommodate all staff at once.

Our workspaces are beginning to shift in response with a key trend in downsizing of footprint and tenancy sub-lease.

So how do we accommodate our full team on all in/high occupancy days? And what happens when the workplace begins to really pick back up? What working from home has taught us is that we now aren’t fixed to a standard 1600×700 desk. Instead, we opt for various spaces, including cafes, conference rooms, touchdown stations and the newly coined ‘work deck’ (a protected outdoor office offering a connection with nature) as flexible options allowing employees to decide how and where they work. 

There is also a shift to more of a home or hospitality-style environment. In the office, this cafe-style opportunity is the new ‘water-cooler’, a synonymous meeting space to catch up, connect and share with colleagues. Like the personalisation in one’s own home, a bespoke destination for rest and regeneration is being designed within the modern office. A dedicated space which provides an opportunity to relax, have informal conversations or find a moment of silence without the distraction of technology is being welcomed into the office. 

History tells us that the office will continue to evolve. Today, the office’s role is arguably undergoing its most disruptive shift in recent years. If the past has taught us anything, it’s that the office will evolve again and emerge with a new and adapted purpose that suits the needs of the modern workforce. The future of the workplace is about more than having all the answers, it’s about being prepared for what’s to come. When organisations listen to all cohorts of employees, they have the opportunity to ensure everyone feels welcome and effectively increase productivity. From a design standpoint, the future is found in adaptability, attraction and flexibility. 

Anna Hill

Principal and Interior Design Lead | Jasmax

Anna Hill is a Principal and Jasmax’s Interior Design Lead with over a decade of local and international experience in executing world-class interior design projects across a variety of sectors. With a sharp eye for detail, she draws on experience in residential, recreational, commercial, and hospitality projects to support her multi-skilled design approach, which strengthens Jasmax’s fully integrated design offering. 

Anna’s designs aim to create spaces that convey unique personalities, connecting existing and prospective users. Her design acumen, alongside a comprehensive understanding of different user experiences, allows her to create spectacular design outcomes that align with the specifics of each project. Her track record of delivering professional, well-executed projects is testament to her ability to build strong relationships and negotiate the complexities of large teams, significant projects, and multiple stakeholders. 

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