How has the pandemic changed the relationship between people, workplaces and cities? Or, putting it differently, how do we ‘create workspaces for human happiness?’

Our very own Gemma John, Managing Director at Human City, was invited to speak on the future of work at Turner & Townsend's "virtual town hall" event in March 2021.

Happiness will be a key differentiator as we emerge from Covid 19

In a survey we ran in the UK at the end of last year… An overwhelming 76% of respondents agreed positively from “strongly agree” to “somewhat agree” with the statement that quality of life has become more important than a job versus 7% who disagreed.

Among the 16-24 age group, the figure rose to 81.43% of respondents agreeing with the statement, with only 7.15% of respondents disagreeing. This age group has been one of the hardest hit, with many young people finding themselves seeking their first job experience in the midst of one of the worst global recessions in recent history.

People are weighing up the pros and cons of a job against quality of life … which involves reconsidering where they live, how much time they have with their kids, etc. This raises challenges and opportunities for businesses seeking to attract and retain top talent.

Workspace typologies (Andrew Laing, 2004)

So, how do businesses use their real estate to satisfy the evolving needs to their employees whilst maximising productivity - i.e. generating high quality outputs?

This has been a long-standing question for designers of workplaces. And, many would say that Covid 19 has simply accelerated existing workplace trends. 

In 2004, the well known workplace strategists, DEGW argued that: 

  • Workplace is the city
  • City is the workplace

But, the pandemic doesn't just throw into question where people work, but how people work. As a result, many of the techniques we use today to get work done will have to change - from the way we manage our teams, to the way we communicate with and incentive staff, and also what we measure. We predict that:

  • We’ll see the same types of workspaces, but these will potentially be embedded across a number of spatial contexts - both in cities and suburban areas. 
  • We'll see new types of people will be coming together, with increased mixing between staff and local communities. 
  • We'll see corporate employees forming an intelligent network of individuals connected by new technology.

Most importantly… 

  • Now, solutions will be centred around home. The pandemic has refocused our attention on home life. Employees will choose their workplace based on its distance from home, rather than their home based on its distance from work. 
  • Rather than talking about a workers’ proximity to the office (and the city centre), we’re now talking about proximity to home (and suburbs). This is a fundamental shift in our thinking about work. 

To attract and retain top talent in an increasingly varied landscape, and create a working and living environment that “works” we need to start with the end-user. 

We need to consider human happiness. Here are the most common dimensions of happiness:

What makes employees happy (Robert Half, 2016)

When people are happy, businesses improve their reputation; they receive positive reviews, and attract top talent. Employees stay for longer; there is less churn and reduced hiring costs. 

And, overall, staff are more productive. An extensive study into happiness and productivity by Said Business School at Oxford University has found that workers are 13% more productive when happy.

  • The Oxford University researchers found that happy workers do not work more hours than their discontented colleagues, they are simply more productive within their time at work.

Happiness is going to be a key differentiator as we emerge from Covid 19 and into the new way of working. 

How do we measure happiness? What are the factors that affect it? 

The Oxford University study suggests that the weather can affect levels of happiness. The weather is not within our control! But, many things are within our control.

The good people at Standard Chartered suggest that, establishing what makes people happy, and how it affects productivity, will initially be about letting employees lead the way … and allowing them to show their employers what works and doesn’t work for them.

Measuring happiness will involve triangulation of three sets of data - gathered through employee surveys, corporate sources and so forth: 

  • Measuring behaviours (How do people get work done?); 
  • Measuring employee sentiment (How do they feel about work?); 
  • Measuring business outcomes/results (How are people/is the business performing?).
Three considerations for the future of work (Gemma John, 2021)

In this talk, I’m going to focus on three main variables (if you like) … People, real estate, and future cites. 

People & Society: People’s needs differ, and people will feel differently about incorporating work into their homescape. Many simply want increased separation between work and home. Others find that working from home is providing them with an identity at home that they didn't have before. 

Real Estate: There are different industry solutions, and Goldman Sachs will insist people return to work whilst Spotify advocates a flexible work model. Every company is putting forward a different proposition reflective of its culture - and this will be instrumental in the differentiation of businesses.

Future cities: From the 15 minute to the 1 minute city, cities and towns present different challenges and opportunities. Whilst most frequently found in Northern Europe, how likely is this model to catch on in larger, sprawling cities? 

Three key target audiences in the new world of "hybrid" working (Gemma John, 2021)

People & Society - what are the new expectations of the workplace across genders and generations? 

Let’s start with women. 

  • Many women find a different identity at work
  • But, we’ve heard plenty about women carrying the burden of work and home life during the pandemic.
  • Online technology is a seductive convenience, it creates heightened sense of the number of productive hours available. 
  • Women feel a sense of continual guilt … that they are not using all the hours in the day. How can companies help to alleviate this anxiety?
  • A hybrid solution is essential for these workers who need a separate space in which to be productive.
  • Women want flexible work opportunities, but this potentially makes them less visible. How can companies help women prepare for a raise and/or promotion in a hybrid working environment?

Young people … most impacted by the pandemic, seeking their first job experience in the midst of one of the worst global recessions in recent history.

  • Gen Z / 16-24 year olds are more likely to focus on values, and use brands as a signal of group membership. Being part of an organisation will be important to them, and also being able to signal this through being part of a special space and experience.
  • Gen Z / 16-24 year olds are most comfortable with remote working, and state a clear preference for online services. 
  • Companies will have to provide employees with an element of choice - i.e. blend digital and in-person experiences for maximum effect or weigh up the pros and cons of each when reimagining work and the workspace.

Baby boomers? 

  • Health and wellbeing of baby boomers will be a concern for employers. However, the pandemic has led many of them to retire - or to start consulting or freelancing roles. This leads to a fundamental shift in character of the workplace, which was increasingly intergenerational.
  • What is lost? Perhaps we'll see the disappearance of peer-learning opportunities for younger staff  … who value intergenerational knowledge sharing. Companies need to find ways to retain connections with retired staff through alumni and mentoring schemes

So, we might find genders and generations expressing different needs and preferences with regard to how and where to work. 

Three target audiences in the new world of "hybrid" working (Gemma John, 2021)

Already, companies are coming forward with different spatial solutions that meet different needs.

I’ve mentioned Standard Chartered already, and they’ve come forward with three kinds of spaces: 

  • Home   
  • Corporate office 
  • “Near Me” - flexible workplace 

Corporate office:

  • Increasingly, businesses will realise the importance of providing high quality and flexible space: “We’re not talking about flexibility in terms of space optimisation, we’re talking about the flexibility in terms of the reuse space”, states Lloyds Banking Group.
  • “If you’re a team, then you all come in on the same day. Different teams can use the same space on different days” (ibid). 

Creating a “near me” workspace that is based on:

  • Walkability: Can your employees walk to work?
  • Near transport nodes: Can employees drive a short distance between their home and a train station, and jump on train into central London?

The look and feel of the “near me” office will be more local, with potential for mixed-use and multi-use. 

Businesses will need to consider reducing their carbon footprint, but also their social impact... with the potential for porous ground floors with increased integration with local communities.

The “near me” workspace solution offers up more than “hub and spoke” and a networked model, which we’ll see dovetailing with emerging redevelopment opportunities in cities and town centres.  

  • Reinvigoration of the high street: We'll potentially see “near me” workplaces on the upper floors on the high street
  • Regeneration areas with business innovation hubs and light industrial and maker spaces: Staff can enjoy lifelong learning through paid membership 
  • Consideration as part of shared or multi-use spaces: We'll see increasing popularity of inner city coliving with coworking

As Dan Hill states, “The ‘one-minute city’, the space outside your front door, outside your apartment block or house or whatever, that’s where you can have a very intimate and engaged relationship. That’s your neighbourhood, really”.

Three ways forward in the new world of work (Gemma John, 2021)

When considering all this, we need to think about work as an ecosystem.

It’s not just the space, it’s about the experience. 

  • Corporates will have to carefully consider their values and how this comes through in the design of the spaces and experiences they provide for their employees. 
  • There will be a race to quality, with increased emphasis on spaces for collaboration and activation through careful programming and curation of content.

Here are some summary points: 

  • Recruitment: What package are you offering your employees. You'll have to reconsider corporate incentives because now your task is to make it easier for employees to manage work from home. Businesses will have to consider how to incentivise home-based / near-home workers. Do you offer employees a subscription to business innovation hubs or tokens to invest in the local community … 
  • Culture: Smart technology will play a role in shaping and reinforcing workplace culture. Businesses will have to consider how the corporate culture and brand values are communicated and reinforced digitally. What is the role of VR and other future technologies …. 
  • Productivity: Whilst online technology is a seductive convenience, it also raises levels of anxiety amongst staff. Businesses will have to rethink productivity,  based potentially loosely around set hours, but much more firmly around set outcomes which incorporate both financial and health metrics … 

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