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Nick Kemsley

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The future workplace will be a great place

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This article was written by Nick Kemsley, owner of Org-onomic Limited and Co-Director of the Centre for HR Excellence at Henley Business School.

When I was at university, a computer was a building. Until I was around 35, “social networking” was what you did at dinner parties. The way in which we live our daily lives has been absolutely transformed in my lifetime, and the rate of change seems to have increased exponentially in recent years.

However, for various reasons, the evolution of the workplace seems to have lagged somewhat behind that of our wider lives, and I can’t help thinking that there is some catching up to be done. There are surely enormous opportunities in accelerating this evolution in the interaction between the individual and the workplace, and we cannot ignore the possibility that in the future the workplace may not be a workplace! What I want to do is share five dimensions where I feel there is significant potential for the workplace to become a very different, and hopefully better, place.

1. The physical workplace itself

The physical nature of the workplace is evolving to become more engaging to the workforce. I was recently asked to interpret a workplace survey commissioned by Green Park in Reading, exploring how workplace design impacted different elements of the workforce. What it showed very clearly was that different things engaged different demographics, with age being much more of a key factor than (for example) gender. With engagement and productivity becoming ever more vital to employers, we should continue to see increased flexibility in office layout and the creation of more supportive and engaging surroundings (onsite services and facilities, natural light, social spaces etc). I believe we will increasingly see physical workplace design being used as a way of supporting culture and behaviours, for example open plan, collaboration spaces etc.

Further out into the future, who is to say that a place of work is actually a physical entity? With the rise of location-independent working, and increasing commuting challenges and globalisation of talent pools, maybe we won’t have to “go to work” at all!

2. Technology, and the way we interact with work

We all know how much technology has changed our wider lives in recent years, and some of this is beginning to hit our organisations in terms of smart buildings and facility management, flexible working practices, smarter interaction such as media walls and internet video, and more collaborative and creative working through shared virtual workspaces. With RFID technology beginning to enter the workplace, some organisations can show who is where in a building in real time and modify building systems like lighting and ventilation accordingly. Some can already switch data easily between handheld devices and any screens in the building at the click of a button. But there are still challenges including data security and IT system compatibility, privacy considerations and capital expense.

Further out into the future then we can dangle the carrot of technology allowing us to transition seamlessly from play to work on our own personal devices, entering into a more virtual world of work and accessing pretty much anything from anywhere. But what of our need for social interaction? There is a risk that technology simply allows us to work smarter AND harder!

3. The people we work with

We should expect, and are already seeing, an increase in diversity in the workplace. This is driven both by equality, but increasingly also by a viewpoint on diversity which says that everyone wins from having a more diverse workplace. With four generations and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnicities co-existing in the workplace, employees can expect to benefit from a mix of cultures and points of view. This should allow organisations to better connect with customers and to better manage decision making.

We are already seeing the potential of “cloud working” in practice – where employers can draw on a global set of skills as and when demanded. As this becomes the norm, this could take us into a world where skills become more saleable, even commoditised. Work and Facebook may become indistinguishable.

4. The role of the workplace and its fit with the local community

Workplace design is increasingly going to be an advert for the organisation, an extension of its brand and what it stands for. The workplace will become increasingly sustainable and be increasingly connected to the community in which it exists – both in minimising its negative impact such as congestion or pollutants, and in maximising support of local communities through corporate social responsibility. As such, the workplace will become an increasingly values-based entity.

In the future, if we extrapolate some trends, it is feasible that workplaces become more of an administration and infrastructural hub, acting as a central resource to employees who can connect into what they need when they need it. We may also see more shared facilities, hired out to more than one organisation.

5. What we get from it

If some or all of this comes true, then in the short to medium term employees should expect greater inclusiveness, the potential for improved work/life balance, onsite childcare, an increased focus on our wellbeing
Further out, there is potential for us to move more easily between organisations, and maybe even for the notion of “employee” to become outmoded, and replaced by self-employed purveyors of skills, retained by one or more organisations for as long as they are needed, whenever they are needed. Employers themselves become more like “agencies” or “hubs”. This could allow people a more rounded and diverse career experience and greater autonomy.

Summary

In creating this “sketch” of what the future workplace could be like, I am struck by the fact that almost every “advance” has a pro and a con. As technology makes it easier for us to work anywhere and anytime – it risks becoming an expectation. As our dependency on going to a physical place of work every day diminishes – so does our interaction with other people. As our ability to work as a member of a global skills pool increases – the risk we have to manage in terms of continuity of employment also increases. So how much of this we will end up seeing I don’t know, but the potential for change is now there, and very real.

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