Why go to work

15-10-21

As we tentatively emerge into a post-lockdown world after 16 months working from home, our behaviours, expectations and values are all looking a little different.

Pearson Lloyd is in the midst of an ongoing exploration into Spatial Intelligence – a term used to describe an enhanced understanding of the co-dependent relationships between people, the spaces they inhabit and the products they use. Our investigation considers the demands of space and the needs of its users following the pandemic – unpicking new behaviours, rituals and habits. This research has naturally led us to what we call the ‘new ergonomics of space’.

Across all walks of life, at work, at home, on the move and at play, sometimes subtle and sometimes rapid, extreme shifts in behaviour have been inflicted on us all by the pandemic. Some of these changes will be temporary and some permanent; some disturbing and difficult to adapt to, others welcome and surprising.

Understanding these shifts give us an opportunity to rebalance and rethink the way we conduct our lives, the nature of the city and the purpose of work.

In the realm of the ‘knowledge economy’, the perception of what constitutes work and how we generate wealth is utterly different from what it was just one generation ago. From the repetitive nature of manual data processing that defined work for much of the 20th century, to the 21st-century demands of innovation, problem solving, business models and customer experience, the change is absolute. Data and technology systems and services are now the servant to interactions in search of human capital. Added to this, the seismic shifts in our daily lives inflicted upon us by the pandemic have called into question the very nature of work and how we do it. In a matter of months, the location, tools and timing of its delivery are suddenly in flux.

It is widely acknowledged that the pandemic has been an accelerator of change across all spectrums of culture and society. Our relationship with work and the need to be physically present in the premises of our employer is perhaps the most visible. With the maturing of cloud computing and online collaboration, technology has finally enabled us to operate away from the office in an apparently effective manner. There is no longer a binary relationship between work and home as a new spectrum of spaces in which to work and collaborate emerges. Beyond new models of workplace such as co-working, almost anywhere can now be described as a place of work. With the basics of data and communication tools at our mobile finger tips, this freedom inevitably begs the question: why go to work? From a productivity standpoint, both employers and employees are now forced to define exactly what the workplace provides that the home office does not. After 16 months of enforced separation brought on by the pandemic, there are conflicting emotions as we emerge from multiple lockdowns. Despite the apparent convenience and economy of home working; as individuals, there seems to a common and increasingly explicit yearning to be together again. From an organisational point of view, this need to be together is the lifeblood of teamwork. Being physically present in each other’s company inspires a much greater sense of purpose, trust and productivity than exhausting and endemic Zoom calls. Teams benefit from each other’s strengths, inspire and support each other and are greater than the sum of their parts.

In a strange serendipity, the emergence of Covid-19 has aligned with the maturing of the technological tools to conduct both personal and professional relationships entirely remotely. However, we have all operated in a makeshift manner, making do, hacking our environments, improvising where we can, mixing a restricted home life with a restricted work life. Despite the success of tools such as Zoom and Teams in helping maintain personal and professional connections, we have all suffered from our newly accentuated digital lives. The response is an instinctive yearning for environments and collective experiences that stimulate all our senses, not just sight and sound. Touch, smell and taste, movement and balance and the perception of our bodies in relation to space. Our working lives are richer and more fulfilled when we are physically present. Sharing space with others also optimises conditions for the positive flux produced by chance interaction – unplanned, unpredicted and real – something which simply does not occur in the digital world.

Despite the growing desire to be physically present once again and to share our daily lives in the same space, we do need to reframe why we go into the office. Employers’ reasons to bring their teams together once again are quite different to the motivations of employees to oblige. Employers want and need a healthy, happy and productive workforce and they need to find a new narrative and a new imperative for returning to work. We need to inspire people back into the workplace. In contrast, employees need to feel fulfilled by their work through the community of their workplace; to derive satisfaction from being challenged and rising to those challenges; to have their contribution recognised and valued by their peers; and to be on a pathway where learning and personal growth are embedded into their lives. How can these overlapping needs be fulfilled?

In the future, the office will become a place of learning and of play as well as pure ‘work’. People will come to work because their professional and career development will be facilitated, and because they have a more fruitful and more engaged relationship with their peers and their leaders.

This new set of challenges we face will require new types of spaces, services and experiences. Our post-pandemic lives will be informed by blends and hybrids of both experience and the tools that deliver them, which will demand a new type of Spatial Intelligence and a new ergonomics of space. The binary division of work and play is breaking down – and, from here, it looks as though there’s no going back.