If we let everyone design his own work place, how will it look like?

Everyone experience their workplace in a different way and has different requirements. So if we let everyone design their own workplace, how will it look like? 

Workplace design

Everyone should have the freedom to create their own workplace. That was the conclusion of one of my previous articles about the future of work. 

A conclusion that fits well with the philosophy of Alain de Botton. The thinker combines two ideas: one about work and one about love. Two very different topics, but at first glance a big common denominator emerges from the lectures and the books of De Botton: everyone is the product of his life up until one point: everyone is shaped by its environment and takes preferences from there. 

The solution for a successful work life balance is to find an environment that takes into account those characteristics according to De Botton. 

When it comes to love, we seem to accept that there is a ‘lid for every jar’: each jar is in search of his perfect lid. But when can we now finally transcend that to those one-size-fits-all workplaces? When do we get it that evry workplace is as individual as that?

Everyone has their own vision

For Vincent Hartman that moment came in October 2015. Hartman (39) is one of the partners at the Remote Year project, in which people work twelve months on twelve places around the world. He is also the owner and boss of SVHF Advertising. At formation he had a clear image of his ideal company: ‘I wanted an Office with a lot of activity and a good, positive atmosphere. That dream disappeared when it turned out that my best people no longer wanted to conform to that picture, for example, because they wanted to move because of their partner.’  The drain of talent made him understand that everyone wants something different of a work area and that it is not their interest to facilitate that’, but in my companies.’  So he re-shaped his company into an organization without a physical office space. ‘ That was last October, and now I’m here. My employees are more motivated because they can now themselves determine where, when and how they work, my overhead went down because I don’t pay rent anymore and I have also managed to win back those talents,’ he says.  It took some time getting used to, but eventually his marketing company evolved as the embodiment of the vision of one man about an agile workplace for all employees. De Botton can take pride.  The biggest downside to these developments? That not everyone is ready for it. ‘I have lost lost because they don’t understand that not having an office anymore does not mean that things are not going well with your company.’ On the other hand, these were replaced by new customers who understand that it can be beneficial.’

Stick to traditions

Many companies stick to the classic office. Speaking about that with Brockwell James, who joined workplace consultants Amos Beech and welcomes me in the brand new Office of CBRE in London, where remarkably, even a whole section was filled with filing cabinets. ‘The UK Government requires that we keep paper records for a certain amount of time. So the paperless office as we like it is not quite there yet.’ About sticking to traditions. James says: ‘it is hard to convince someone who has worked hard all those years to get a private office that now an open-plan office or a home office is the best that can happen to him.’ The current trend, activity-based working, is the step adapt to working to learn to deal with the freedom to create your own environment. ‘The activity-based office has several areas for different tasks. Anyone can search the place that fits best for him or her at that very moment: a meeting room, a focus area, a classic desk in an office garden or an informal meeting in the cafe.’  When prompted, James admits that he evades the open office areas if at all possible: ‘too much noise and interference. ‘What is the future? ‘ People go either way less work in offices. But there will always continue to be space to let people work. How that is going to be filled in, differs per organisation and per person.’

Determine everything yourself

If we can create our own work situation more and more, can’t we just use the specialised workstations on request? One day a focus area for typing a document, a video conference in the following day in a duly equipped studio and close the week with a meeting with colleagues in the pub? Why would an Office still be at a particular companies address?  Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School and author of the revolution, thinks that that is a good idea in any case: ‘everyone will increasingly make use of highly specialised and personalised offices. But don’t underestimate the power of the proximity of colleagues. Employees, especially those who have just started, need an environment in which they gain experience in work ethic and create a bond with the rest of the company. I by no means, predict the end of the office.’  What is happening Gratton explains over the phone, is a shift from a linear career path to an individual work process. ‘Working people will have to be able to do much more themselves and so have to make much more decisions themselves. The automation and robotisation will cause many general jobs disappear faster. That increases the pressure to develop a very own speciality, and that requires a clear picture of what one can and can’t do. 

Technology is a way to do those specialised tasks faster and better, and will therefore be your own choice. Choosing a certain specialised working environment, such as a simple office, focus area, advanced studio or meeting room, too. ‘you don’ need to be in an office or workplace, becausse that is where you have to be after all, but you can do that work better than at home.

Is there such a thing as too much freedom?

Both working remotely as the development of ever more specialised offices are symptoms of a development that takes place in the working human being itself. Many certainties, automatic promotions and dogmas are disappering and we now can for a much larger part determine ourself how our time at work looks like.  That sounds nice, but it will take quite a bit of will power and motivation to curb that freedom and flexibility. If you can’t handle that you mighthave an invisible form of incapacity, because you don’t have full control.  According to Aukje Nauta, former Professor of employability in working relationships at the University of Glasgow, it is so important that freedom is managed properly. She emphasises that workplace design needs to be taylored to the specific task. She apparently finds a lot of response locally because the number of activity in office refurbishment in Newcastle is certainly on the up. ‘ In a society with always opposing movements, people that work away from the office miss the collegiality, from those who wotrk in the office. So even though everyone has an innate urge for freedom and autonomy, there is definitely a need for discipline and appointments.’ Gratton is therefore in favour of workplace dessign that encourages collaboration. ‘Make it clear what someone should do, but leave it open how, when and where it is done. This gives room to the individualism of the individual employees, but in an atmosphere of solidarity and support.’ 

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