By Rex Huppke
Let’s break down the two words that make up “workplace.” (For those of you who aren’t sure, it’s “work” and “place,” not “workp” and “lace.
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The work part hasn’t changed much. It’s still the things we do to earn money, make stuff, sell stuff, teach stuff, etc.
But the “place” part of workplace? That has evolved considerably.
You used to go to work every day because that was the only place you could go to do your work. Now, many people can work from just about anywhere. For all you know, I could be writing this column in the middle of a cow pasture. (The cows suggest you consider a vegan diet, by the way.)
The place change we’re experiencing is presenting companies with a dilemma: Flexibility is increasingly important to workers and technology makes it easy, but it’s still important to get co-workers together so creative ideas bubble up and social connections are made.
A new study by workplace design company Knoll working with UnWired, the British research, publishing and events company, describes the situation like this: “How can a company stimulate innovation when the right people are rarely in the same space at the same time?”
To give a sense of how much we’ve become detached from offices, the study found that desks in companies around the world are occupied only 47 percent of the time and only 23 percent of executives surveyed “actively encourage staff to work in the office.”
“The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to flexible work,” said Tracy Wymer, vice president of workplace research for Knoll. “That’s an option right now that we don’t see going away. So if people are embracing that, how do you get those serendipitous moments where sparks begin to fly and great things happen?”
The basic answer presented in the study is to make workplaces more “people-centered.” Rather than assigned desks, there might be desks available for use when a worker is in the office, but much of the space is dedicated to collaborative work and team meetings.
The technology and infrastructure in the office has to be top notch, making it an inherently attractive place to work, and the services offered in the office, everything from travel and tech support to dry cleaning and bicycle repair, should serve to make it a more desirable hub of activity.
Wymer said that making the workplace both appealing and conducive to collaboration can draw remote workers in without the company having to be paternalistic about mandating time in the office: “It has to be welcoming. Think of it as the office-home versus the home-office.”
Patrick O’Neill, director of the organization psychology program at Adler University, said what’s at play here are “two fundamental human needs that have been around as long as we have been around.”
“One is autonomy, our desire to feel we’re self-directed human beings,” he said. “And on the other hand is our need to feel like we’re part of an interdependent community. We’re social creatures. We die without social contact, we need it as much as food or water. Yet we also need some degree of freedom.”
O’Neill posits that the autonomy brought on by our ability to work remotely, and the willingness of companies to embrace remote work as a perk for employees and a cost-saving measure, may be taking away from our social connection with work.
“What I see happening, and it has happened over the last three decades, is that organizations adopt short-lived management fads,” he said. “They say, ‘What people really need is more autonomy, they need more freedom.’ So we see the pendulum swing to an extreme view that this is what an organization needs. But a sense of community and belonging is lost in that.”
The truth is that autonomy and togetherness are not, by any means, mutually exclusive. That realization is what’s at the heart of the report Wymer and his colleagues put together. Companies need to foster the autonomy of remote work while still finding ways to use office space to support the company’s culture and the connections between co-workers.
“I think we’re negotiating our middle path,” O’Neill said. “Often, as is the case with so many other issues, we need to go to the extremes before we find that. I think that’s what we’re seeing. It’s not either we go on full-on investing in autonomy or we design for social interaction. It’s both.”
He added: “It’s as if there’s a shift in consciousness, and it’s actually happening globally. The mentality is a desire to integrate the fundamental needs of human beings with the strategic needs of organizations.”
It’s clear our sense of place as it relates to work will continue to change. Hopefully company leaders will take the time to think deeply about how they bring people in and together while still giving them the freedom to be alone.
Me, I’m going to just stay here in my cow pasture. It’s relaxing, and I enjoy being among intellectual equals.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune