Where are you working from today? Are you in an office space dedicated to your employer and colleagues? A co-working space occupied by any number and diversity of organizations? A café? Library? Home? Anywhere and everywhere?
Time was the answer to that question was seemingly obvious: for so-called office-based “white-collar workers”, it would be, well, the office – a space managed by the organization they worked for that created a shared physical and virtual place for its employees to get their work done. The organization provided the required equipment, software, connectivity, stationery and other “assets” – the necessary tools of the trade for the job at hand.
It’s not new to discuss how the emergence of hardware and software that untethers people from fixed desks is impacting how, where and when we work, as well as the organizations trying to accommodate these more mobile ways of working. Not only that, drivers such as reducing environmental impact and operating/real estate costs are prompting HR to develop flexible and remote working policies. But how is mobile working affecting the spaces, environments and ecosystems that replace the traditional office? How is it changing the city and beyond?
DWG recently hosted an online Digital Nations Group (DNG) Hangout on precisely this topic, joined by a diverse group of participants as well as guests Sabine Guerrero, Linda Kaestner and André Brik, Co-Founders of FlexWork Hub. The conversation explored a wide range of areas, guided by questions such as: “What supports urban mobile working, and what are the challenges?” and “What’s the responsibility of organizations, national and local governments in enabling mobile working?”. Here are some of the thoughts and ideas that were teased out in our discussion.
Responsive urban planning and design
As people not only move out of the office but the population of those who are contractors, self-employed or working for small organizations grows, more is being asked of our public and commercial spaces that are having to serve multiple purposes. Libraries, cafés, hotel foyers, pubs, even restaurants and parks, are all emerging as temporary offices for those with a mobile device who want to get work done in a particular location, either because it feels natural to them and/or through necessity – and they can do so as long as they have enough electrical power and (normally) internet connectivity.
This means that the way in which our cities are designed and planned needs to shift to accommodate this more nimble and active workforce, with people switching between locations and work modes rather than confined to a single space 9–5, Monday to Friday. Creative thinking about how space is used (for example, reimagining the high street), could lead to new opportunities in arenas that are currently undertaking profound changes.
Not just an urban phenomenon
A key theme that emerged in the discussion, particularly prompted by lessons from Brazil, was that mobile working isn’t solely an urban phenomenon. For a while now, working from home has meant that those living in, for example, the suburbs or more rural locations, don’t need to commute for an hour or more into city-based offices every day. This not only benefits the individual and their family, but also potentially increases the talent and diversity pool for organizations.
However, the opportunities trickle out still further: the same trends we see in cities ring true in smaller communities, with local commercial and public spaces supporting mobile workers seeking to get out of their homes, as well as co-working circles and events springing up to support local networking and collaboration.
With the daily migration of workers into cities often temporarily doubling a population, such as is happening in Luxembourg City, where people commute from Belgium, France and beyond, a real strain is put on travel, the urban infrastructure and the environment, in ways that aren’t sustainable. Mobile working can instead have the potential of enriching local towns that are often emptied during the week while also lessening the pressure on cities.
The need for infrastructure and collaboration
There are challenges, however, in creating the infrastructure that supports more mobile working; organizations implementing flexible and mobile working policies and ways of working are just one piece of the puzzle. There’s a very real need for collaboration between employers, employees, governments, and those managing public and commercial spaces, to make sure shifting populations of workers are properly supported.
Brazil, for example, has a connectivity challenge outside its cities, meaning that those who wish to work from home often aren’t able to, instead having to commute to areas with connectivity. Much is promised from 5G connectivity and it may be that as the technology is rolled out it has a profound impact on where and how we’re able to work. But that technology – as well as faster broadband speeds – needs to be distributed evenly if it’s truly to support people and not just lead to a deeper digital divide between the haves and have nots.
Changing office design trends
And what of the role of the physical office, if the mobile worker becomes increasingly common as a working style?
There’s increasing evidence that the open-plan style currently favoured across many offices has a detrimental effect on people’s ability to focus. Instead, what is needed is better designed spaces that provide choices for how people naturally want to work, depending on their current activity and preferences. This, coupled with a more fluidly present workforce, means that the role of offices is changing from being somewhere you need to go in order to get work done to somewhere you want to go to connect with colleagues, as one of various “habitats” in which you may choose to work at different times.
While many organizations have tended to focus on the cost savings associated with cutting the amount of space needed, a shift in attention to creating a habitat that supports people who want to be mobile within the office is the direction in which the design of physical working spaces is moving.
Choice around smarter ways of working
A key element discussed in the Hangout was the importance – and challenge – of choice. We heard, for example, how France Télécom had pushed almost 80% of its employees to work remotely (primarily as a cost-saving exercise), but the impact was that many didn’t want to (or couldn’t) work in this way – and yet they were being forced to. For Scottish Government, providing and supporting choice for people is an important part of its approach, with ripple effects on other aspects of work.
Providing choice and allowing people to work in the ways that best support them will be essential in the future, whether this be how they work via the digital workplace, regardless of where they are physically, and/or creating better, more integrated environments within office spaces. This presents challenges for organizations as they will need to balance the needs of the individual and teams with those of the organization, nurturing supportive cultures that move away from command and control and the “shirking from home” mindset. Ultimately, rather than an either/or approach, it will be about recognizing the many different habitats that people wish to occupy while they’re working, and supporting the many different flows of working as the nature of work itself evolves.
A huge thank you to Sabine, Linda and André, and those who joined us for this fascinating conversation. Next up on our DNG Hangout series will be a discussion on “Bridging digital divides – creating the inclusive workplace”, so keep an eye out for information on how to register coming soon, and in the meantime you can catch up on other insights from our Digital Nations Group initiative
Other resources in the Digital Nations series
- Blog: Why improving the digital literacy of citizens is crucial for both the digital nation and the future of work
- Blog: What digital workplace practitioners can learn from the Tech for Good movement
- Podcast: What universities can teach digital workplace people
- Podcast: How the World Bank digitally empowers the young in developing nations