This article originally appeared on Forbes.com as part of the Forbes Business Development Council.
The future of work, evolution of leadership and changing nature of work are things I put a great deal of focus on in my everyday life. With the way technology is constantly disrupting and driving the way we approach our places of work, it can be really challenging to predict trends.
It was in the spirit of creating my own “crystal ball” that I found a 2017 article from Business Insider that cites a University of Cambridge study examining the impact of commuting. Researchers surveyed 34,000 workers across all business segments in the U.K. Their conclusion was that long commutes are affecting overall health and productivity. They discovered that workers with commutes less than 30 minutes gain an additional seven days of productive work time yearly when compared with those who had commutes of an hour or more. Those with longer commutes have higher rates of depression, obesity and financial worries, and they also get less sleep. According to a 2013 study (via Inc.), they also have higher divorce rates – and the kicker is that, according to one German study (via ScienceDaily), they’re more likely to have children with social or emotional problems.
The headquarters of my company is located in Boston, Massachusetts. According to a study from connected vehicle company Geotab (via Curbed Boston), Boston is tied for second in the cities analyzed for the worst “by car” commute, with an average distance of 40 minutes one way. That’s up from census data in 2015, which showed an average commute time of about 31 minutes. In my experience, there are simply not enough affordable housing options near many people’s places of work to drive these numbers down. This could continue to be a big problem for organizations in major cities that are looking to retain talent.
This seems like a daunting problem to solve, especially given the lack of control most business leaders have over affordable housing. So, what’s the solution? My recommendation for alleviating this commuting nightmare is allowing flexible work schedules to combat congestion. I’m not suggesting working from home with inflexible schedules, but flexible work schedules that allow employees to manage their own time. As Shaun Subel of VitalityHealth said, “Allowing employees the flexibility to avoid the rush-hour commute where possible, or fit their routine around other commitments can help reduce stress and promote healthier lifestyle choices and, importantly, this is shown to actually impact positively on productivity.” Essentially, trust your employees to prioritize appropriately so they can be healthy, use time wisely and produce their best work.
While this seems like a reasonable suggestion, it has bigger implications. If we move to trusting our employees to manage their own schedules, how can we be assured people will be available when we need them to get work done? My mind jumps immediately to how we can alter their physical workplaces. With ad nauseam conversations around generational influences, rapidly advancing technology, the latest process trends and now flexible work schedules, we should leverage space to create desirable destinations that maximize employees’ potential. We should create spaces where people want to work.
Hyperconnectedness, design thinking, agile teams — all of these seem to be entering the office lexicon with booming speed. While these practices have all been in place for a while, they’re now influencing workplace design. In 2010, Gartner identified “work swarms” as one of the 10 key changes we’d see in the nature of work over the next 10 years. The company defined a work swarm as a work style involving “a flurry of collective activity by anyone and everyone conceivably available and able to add value.”
Our places of work are already changing to adapt to this teamwork. We’re already starting to see the shift to a focus on well-being in the workplace. Adopting flexible work schedules seems like a logical next step. It simply means that while we are present within the office, we need to be able to rapidly connect to people and technology to make the most of our time together. We should create spaces that are conducive to sharing information, capturing solutions, iterating rapidly, focusing on work, connecting to remote teammates and supporting temporary teams of varying sizes.
We can’t always support these concepts in traditional space plan and design models. Even in the open-plan office, we’re not necessarily set up to prioritize people working together for any amount of time. I believe our workplaces need to evolve into desirable destinations that are flexible enough to be reconfigured as necessary by employees with plenty of spaces that allow people to shift from teamwork to focus work quickly. Consider creating a multipurpose space in a high-traffic, easily accessible area within your office — for example, you could build a work cafe in the entrance to your space. Create a heartbeat for your organization with a variety of postures (lounge, working and standing height) where people can be social, have quick meetings, and work side by side with a cross-section of teammates. Encourage leadership to use this space to connect and be seen. In addition, technology should be intuitive and simple to use, and it should allow employees to easily connect, collaborate and share information. Not sure what that looks like? Offer connectivity similar to what people experience in their personal lives and introduce screen mirroring through Alexa or Apple devices. Make it easy for employees to display work, share ideas and gain access to remote employees. Prioritize supporting the unique ways organizations function as a whole rather than the focused need of individual “owned” spaces.
This all leads to the point of this article, which is my hopeful visualization and semi-wishful prediction for the future of the workplace: Leaders will embrace flexible working schedules and support employees in the physical work environment with technology and space design that encourage both team and focused work. Offices will continue to put less emphasis on individual spaces and more energy into team areas with a high degree of flexibility. Workplace leaders will be responsible for decreasing commute times, increasing quality of life and producing happier, healthier future generations.
POST WRITTEN BY: Stephanie Brock
Vice President of Sales and General Manager for Red Thread | Helping companies create spaces that support productive, engaged employees.