History of the office
Before we can talk about the future of the office it helps to look back in time and take a whistle-stop tour of the history of the office. So, grab your Delorian, strap in and let’s go.
The entire history of the office is only about 150 years old. Before this, there weren't really large corporations and so no need for large administrational offices. The offices that did exist were mainly family offices or small rooms for accounting or money lending. Think Ebenezer Scrooge and you're not a million miles away.
The advent of larger industrial organisations paved the way for the early office. Off the back of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (incredibly boring and long, do not read!) industrialists realised that by reinvesting capital back into their businesses they could make and sell more product and make more money. The more stuff you produce and sold meant more staff and more customers, and that required a new type of work and staff to look after all these people. This work is what today we affectionately call “admin”.
These administrational offices used their very own industrial factories as templates for their design. As a result, they were often cold, dreary, dark places with managers patrolling row upon row of workers undertaking thousands of mundane tasks. There is even an example of an administrational building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 in which the chairs were bolted onto the underside of the desks to allow the floors to be cleaned easily. An ingenious solution for the cleaners but perhaps not an ideal working environment for the staff.
There was little awareness of workers’ rights back then, so you had better not complain or you’d be out on your ear. Humans were seen as an overhead, an inconvenient cost when you’re trying to get as rich as possible.
Innovation allows for progress and if progress means saving money then business owners are all over that, even if it means laying off a few people. And as time ticked on, the office saw the latest tech appear over and over again. 100 years ago contacting your 10,000 customers about your latest whalebone corset offer would be a massive undertaking requiring dozens upon dozens of people. Today, we do that from our laptop before breakfast...and apps like Grammarly even corrects not only the spelling but the tone of the message.
We continue with our lives, seemingly unaware of the pervasive progress machines are making. We don’t know how many jobs will disappear (or be created) because of technology, but it has started already. The self-service checkout machine in the supermarket being an obvious example. How often do we think “I’ve put someone out of work” as we merrily scan our bananas? This is progress of course, and there have been similar revolutions throughout history when dramatic technological advances have seen entire workforces and communities decimated. The industrial revolution being a particularly vicious example, where hordes of Luddites scoured the country attacking anyone with a progressive idea (please do your own research, we may be exaggerating to make a point).
The thread running through the history of the office that holds it all together is people. That’s what businesses are really. They are nothing more than groups of people doing something for other people. Think for a moment about your life and your relationship with businesses. It will surprise you how connected you are with 1,000s of businesses from across the globe. All those businesses employ people who have worked to make your life easier. And you’ve paid them, making their life easier. Even those organisations that we don’t consider businesses act like businesses. We think that businesses are something special and we give them special names like Partnerships and Limited Liability Companies. But at the end of the day, every single business is simply a collection of human beings doing things for other human beings. So when we talk about improving business what we’re actually talking about is improving humans.
Once this is realised, our focus must be on what can we do to improve humans. What are the fundamental things that allow humans to be the best they can be? Luckily, there are more and more people thinking and talking about this and the mores of society are shifting. Today’s best companies are putting their people first and foremost.
What should you be focusing on in the immediate future to make your business more resilient to the changing word? Well, we’ve asked the brightest minds in the industry to give us their thoughts on building strong human connections, creating safe environments, providing for a secure future and the very meaning of work itself:
To understand the importance of culture we need to understand what it is, how it manifests and what you can do to create the culture you desire.
Culture is all consuming; if there is more than yourself in your business you have a culture! Culture is defined by Seth Godin as 'People like us do things like this’ which is reinforced by the implicit and explicit elements that form a culture. What are these elements and how do they interrelate?
Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web identifies six interrelated elements that help to make up the cultural pattern or model of the work environment. The elements are: stories, ritual’s and routines, symbols, organisation structure, control systems and power structures. What are the stories told as part of onboarding / induction; what is the cycle of events that happen daily, weekly, monthly and annually; what is the brand, what is the dress code; how many levels, role titles, recognition and reward systems; and who holds the influence on decision making, operations, strategy and where does it sit; location, team or individuals?
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote from legendary management consultant and writer Peter Drucker; he didn’t mean that strategy was unimportant, rather creating a powerful and empowering culture would be more likely to lead to organisational success. So how do you create a powerful and empowering culture? First you need to be able to measure it.
Ways to make culture tangible end explicit
Measuring your culture is critical to understand where you are now and where you want to be; the Competing Values Framework is a great tool to foster that debate and discussion and creates a common language too. By understanding how your culture is today and what you’d prefer it to be, the right mix of aligned interventions can be used to create cultural change.
Two factors that dominate this process are role modelling of the desired culture by leaders and those who are in positions of power and symbolism; the workplace and how that environment and space is contributing to the desired culture. For example, choices related to furniture and technology are key elements.
Post COVID working, what is the office for?
COVID has accelerated the work style for the majority of organisations; having to adapt and pivot to the restrictions it has brought. For many knowledge workers this has required line managers to trust their direct reports, rather than managing through presentism. Therefore, if the office is not about presentism (as if you need to concentrate and focus many would work at home at a time and way that suits them) we need to consider what the organisation uses its environments for; is it about connection and feeling a sense of belonging? Is it about creativity, innovation and reinforcement that people like us do things like this? Does it provide opportunities to share stories and reinforce role modelling? Is it a place to connect with the brand.
The best organisational cultures that I’ve experienced are those that the personal values and organisational values are aligned. This is especially true in the not-for-profit charitable sectors. But, this is me and this is what is important to me, what’s culturally important to you.
Many of us are relieved to be returning to the office post-lockdown, and discussions about providing the optimum working environment have taken on particular importance. It's encouraging to know that most employers now recognise that the place where we go to carry out our work duties will not only need to be a functional and comfortable space but also one where we can feel safe and secure.
However, as well as feeling secure in our physical surroundings, it is vital to approach our work with a clear mind, which is why our financial wellbeing is so important as it comes not only from feeling stable in the present but also secure with respect to the future - in the same way as we feel about our career. A recent survey (pre-pandemic) found that 53% of all employees are stressed about money with nearly 30% of them being distracted by personal financial issues while at work, and almost 50% spending 3 hours or more each week handling personal finances at their desk. Many of those who are suffering from financial worries are regularly absent from work due to personal financial concerns, citing health issues caused by the burden of financial stress.
Financial wellness includes our relationship with money, having the skills to manage resources to live within our means, the ability to make informed financial decisions and investments, knowing how to set realistic goals and learning to prepare for eventualities ranging from short-term emergencies to long-term needs. All of these vital life skills can only be achieved through sound knowledge which is the reason I provide workshops to empower people to make educated decisions with a focus on guiding them towards action, sooner rather than later. I firmly believe that by making your money work for you, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you would like to know more please contact Zoë Cousens, Founder, Talking Money Matters - Financial Wellness Program. www.talkingmoneymatters.com
As humans we crave and thrive on the connections we make with other people, feeding our personal confidence, character and creativity and our social identity. During normal times, these connections occur in abundance, with our senses being merrily bombarded with rich and rewarding stimulation. Sure, some connections might cause pain or frustration, some may be challenging or fulfilling, and others may be recklessly joyful and packed full of fun. A connection can be fostered and sparked by the smallest of things, a look, a smile, a touch, a taste, a laugh or a word.
Our social interactions over the past 12 months have been extremely limited, in terms of volume, variety and quality. Unfortunately, more stress and uncertainty has creeped in. On a brighter note, the pandemic has accelerated the emergence of new and exciting trends, and the use of digital communication and collaboration channels. However, we are highly sensory beings and digital on its own struggles to facilitate what makes us human; the social collisions and passing smiles, mop-ups and collaborations and the full-sensory and emotional stimulation that occur as we bump along together through life.
This inevitably places a lot of emphasis on the quality of the interactions, experiences and relationships we have during the considerable amount of time we dedicate to working. More so than ever it seems obvious how critical the role of our work experience is to making us happy and fulfilled people, and even to have what we may refer to as fun!
This should also lead to a re-think of the office space itself, how it is used and how this physical dimension and the technological possibilities fit together in a harmonious and holistic way to support the connections we crave and to enhance a positive employee experience. There is countless evidence on how this also leads to more successful working cultures and organisations, where people enjoy what they do and, quite basically, have fun.
It’s not just well worth thinking about, it’s worth doing.
Richard Hanrahan on Belonging
Agilisys have recently launched their “belonging” strategy. Using the passion of the people within the business to create an environment where diversity and inclusion are not trendy terms or the title of unread files or unopened documents. As a collective, the people who work at Agilisys want everyone to feel that they work within a company where they belong. A place where irrespective of who they are, they can bring the whole of themselves to work, hiding nothing and being completely free to be themselves.
Richard Hanrahan suggests that leaders be more intentional about creating a positive and inclusive environment that celebrates diversity and allows everybody to feel as though they truly belong.
“I want to use the influence I have today to create a safe environment in which the organisation’s leaders of tomorrow, can rise up from any background, circumstance, religion, belief, gender, race or live with any disability. To do this we need to be willing to discuss and challenge and learn how to create an environment where diversity is celebrated and everyone is included.
“It won’t all be plain sailing, we (especially me!) will get some things wrong. But I am confident that the launch of this strategy continues us on a journey of inclusivity and diversity where people from all walks of life can find a home and write an exciting new chapter in their stories, and in the story of our business.”
We can’t define fun, as it means different things to different people. But we can define the building blocks of creating environments where your people feel they belong to something bigger than themselves, feel safe and secure, and are making a difference to the world around them. This allows you to create your fun, whatever that is to you. This is not something for the Government, Education or the Heath Service to fix on our behalf. Of course, they have their part to play (remember, they are just groups of humans, just like us!) but we have to play our part too. We are all part of this fantastic human drama and working together is the only way we will improve society for the future that we’re living and building today. It’s not only our responsibility, it’s our privilege.
If you would like to learn more about how POS can help you enhance the connections you make with the people around you, please get in touch.