Ten key trends that will shape the 2014 workplace

Here are our ten key trends to look out for in the way we design workplaces during 2014.

The year 2014 approaches and no doubt a slew of retrospective articles looking back on the past year and what happened and what it all meant. Well we are looking forward, sure in our belief that if you want to know what’s going on in the world of work, it’s always worthwhile taking a look at what is happening with our workplaces. You can be sure that whatever happens to the organisation, the people who work for it and the technology they use will all be reflected in the places we work. Here are our top ten current trends.

 XYZ

Defined as those people born between about 1982 and 2000, Generation Y is the first that has little or no inkling of a world that does not allow them to have constant and instant access to information, entertainment and other people. They are only dimly aware of a quaint lost world of letters and coin-operated phones. They understand technology intuitively and demand the latest stuff. The generation gap has already caused tension in the workplace, notably in the use of social networking sites.

Yet this is also the generation that is driving the ongoing development of flexible working. Within the workplace their influence is felt in designs that are more open, relaxed and collaborative. They are driven by the need for self-actualisation and have a profound interest in ethics and the environment. This evolution will accelerate as the members of Gen Y develop into the next generation of managers. With the first wave of Gen Y now in its mid-20s, we can expect a transformation of working practices over the next 20 years as they develop more influence over decision making within organisations.

Property

The universal use of flat computer screens and laptops and new ways of working have meant that the density at which buildings are occupied has been rising for the past few years. Flat monitors allow furniture designers and space planners to work with rectilinear workstation footprints and the effect has been dramatic. Typically we’ve seen something like a net space saving of up to 25 per cent per workstation.

The challenge for designers, developers and facilities managers is complex and includes how best to adapt buildings that were designed according to different usage and standards, the implications for building performance especially with regard to issues such as acoustics, heating and ventilation and other management issues as people adjust to the new types of space.

Technology

Technology lies at the root of most trends in the way we work. At a management level, the issues relating to constant accessibility, accountability, security, motivation, presenteeism, absenteeism, stress, reporting, communication and identity and so on are to a greater or lesser extent unresolved for many organisations. The important thing is that far from making the office obsolete, technology is in fact redefining our relationship with the idea of ‘space’ just as much as it is with the idea of ‘time’. It also presents us with a number of issues to do with visual privacy and acoustics as well as an opportunity to manage them better, for example with the provision of third spaces, break out areas and private work spaces that people can move to with their mobile technology.

The public sector

The idea that it is the profit motive that is the main driver of change and that consequently it is the private sector that is the main engine of innovation has taken something of a knock in the past few years. In many ways, it is the public sector that has been most innovative in the way that space is designed and procured and – perhaps most significantly – in terms of the environmental impact of buildings. The past year has even seen the Cabinet Office emerge as a pioneer of new approaches to property such as with the introduction of the One Public Sector Estate programme which is essentially a co-working scheme, and we can expect more of the same next year.

The environment

The environment is perhaps the most significant challenge facing each of the professions involved in building design and management. Whether you consider the stick of legislation or the carrot of reduced cost and improved image, this is an issue that is not going away. There is still some confusion about what the risks and benefits of this new world will be, but that is normal, especially given that so many of the new rules are still being chewed over and debated and we are still in the process of establishing a critical mass of case studies, evidence and reporting. We can be sure that the environment will colour pretty much every decision that is taken about the workplace, and that colour will be green.

Cost

Of course, most decisions should be taken with an eye on cost. Probably two. But there is an inevitable point at which cost savings become counter-productive. There isn’t a product or service in the world that cannot be bought just a little bit cheaper and a little bit worse. One of the longstanding challenges facing facilities managers has been establishing the point at which a cost reduction starts to offer negative returns, especially in the mid to long term and especially with regard to a key business issue such as motivating employees, maintenance, identity and the environment. These rules have been reshaped to some degree by the recent economic downturn as the focus shifted towards working through the whole thing, but as we climb out of recession there is a great opportunity for us all to reengage with issues such as life cycle costing, return on investment and cost-benefit.

Inclusivity

It’s not that long ago that the symbol of inclusive design was the wheelchair. The Disability Discrimination Act coupled with the superb research and work done by organisations like the Helen Hamlyn Centre was misinterpreted in some circles so the debate focussed too much on mobility and access for wheelchair users. What we now understand by inclusivity is far broader and embraces access to work and services for a wide range of people, including both a much broader definition of disability as well as the able bodied, not least the growing army of older workers. Providing workplaces that are suitable for all continues to be one of the most exciting and rewarding challenges facing workplace designers and managers.

Flexible working

The story that will not go away. Technology and new management styles have freed us to work in previously inconceivable ways and working practices and cultures continue to evolve, often at a dizzying pace. What is most intriguing about the whole ongoing debate is how it has shifted perceptions of the workplace. Far from spelling the end of the office as futurologists thought around twenty years ago, flexible working has changed our relationship with the workplace. It is many things to many people, especially those for whom the 9 to 5 is no more (or never was). It is a link to the firm, a repository of knowledge, a meeting place, a social space, a source of identity and a source of comfort.

Recruitment

One of the most important trends in human resources in recent years has been that of employer branding. At its heart it is a simple idea – how you are perceived by employees will affect your ability to recruit, retain and motivate them – but its implications are broad and complex. It is also one of the points of overlap between HR and FM in that workplace design, however it is expressed, is nothing less than the outward manifestation of the organisation’s attitude towards it workers. What that boils down to is that the things with which you surround people influences how they feel about themselves, about their work. Offices matter to people and as we emerge from recession,  as the competition for talent intensifies, the expression of identity and values that is reflected in the building will become even more important.

Wellness and productivity

The ground on which this battle for hearts and minds can be won is where it’s always been: getting people to see the links between the workplace and the wellbeing and productivity of the people who work in it. Most importantly for a knowledge-based business, is how you get people to have more and better ideas, to share them with each other as well as clients, put them into action and be happier and feel better while they’re about it.

There is nothing new about the principles behind all of this. Elton Mayo, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted the influential ‘Hawthorne Studies’ at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago from 1927 to 1932.Enlightened workplace design and management tries to give every worker a comfortable space. The research that connects what might be called a ‘humane’ working environment to the happiness and therefore the productivity of workers is plentiful, overwhelming even and it can be frustrating to consider that it is not simply taken as read when specifying a workplace. The idea that health and safety is about ensuring that nobody comes to harm is essential but it is also negative because it ignores the many ways in which our surroundings can make an active contribution to our physical and mental wellbeing. This can be achieved by offering people a variety of spaces in which to work, optimum levels of acoustic and visual privacy and an attractive and colourful interior.