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Flexible Working - Cool or Cold?

16th April, 2018

Sophie Patikios

For the last twenty years, pressure from increased rents and competition for digital talent against the ‘sushi, slides and skateboards’ of FANG+ companies (an acronym for Facebook, Apple, Netflix, google etc - the new economy giants), have forced wholesale changes to traditional ways of working. Companies have been scrambling to update their office environments. But does this really benefit the wellbeing of employees? This is my take on why I believe it is crucial to invest, not just in building flexible working spaces, but also crucially in establishing office communities.

A common theme in workplace change has been a move to more flexible working. Whether that’s a choice of settings within the office, or the choice to work from home, Starbucks or the beach, employees are being given more discretion over when, where and how they do their work. Everyone knows the benefits: an increased sense of autonomy; reduced travel time and costs; bad hair days that no-one else need know about…But for a significant number of people the downside is a risk of disconnection that easily slips into full separation.

Research by Activity-Based Working (ABW) Specialists Veldhoen+Company indicate that after a move to flexible office space, employees feel more connected to their wider company but a loss of immediate team cohesion. Some respond by creating reasons for interactions, but others start to feel neglected, leading to anxiety and disengagement. In the modern way of working, work is something you do, not somewhere you go, and this - I believe - transforms offices into a vital source of interaction, stimulation and connection.

A self-fulfilling exclusion zone

In offices without assigned seating, the ‘bump factor’ of unplanned interactions that lead to fruitful collaborations is rightly celebrated. For some though, not seeing a familiar face is excruciating, and it doesn’t just end at the desk. ‘Dear All’ invitations to social events might be taken at face value by your colleagues, but perhaps you assume they don’t really mean you unless you’re personally invited. Soon others have a set of mutual touchpoints you don’t have, and the sense of not-belonging becomes self-fulfilling. In a traditional office you’d still have the people you sit next to every day to anchor you. They might have talked too loudly on the phone or worn overpowering perfume but crucially, they knew you and you knew them.  


The building blocks of a community

When LEGO Group opened a new international office in London, they consciously worked towards building a connected community. 60% of this population were new hires and 35% wouldn’t have their manager or any colleagues in the same office (so-called ‘Soloists’). In addition, most roles involved a heavy travel schedule so presence in the new office would be sporadic. Notwithstanding, LEGO Group wanted to create a way of working where people would make ‘better, faster decisions’ by freely sharing knowledge and ideas. LEGO Group engaged Veldhoen+ Company to implement ABW and to help them to design opportunities for connections into the design, technology and through a robust community management programme.

Human-centred design

The aim was for people to feel recognised and therefore significant in their new workspace. Migrants from other LEGO offices had spent years decorating desks not only with the usual photos of family but also their favourite models and “mini-figures”. The project committed that the office should be ‘safe, easy, friendly and fun’. The word ‘safe’ was meant broadly – not just physical safety but also emotional safety. That meant allowing some human ‘messiness’ – blackboards instead of message screens and display areas for treasured models. The blackboards also served as a newspaper; if someone had a baby or a new starter joined, you’d be sure to see it celebrated in giant wobbly bubble-writing. One staircase was designed to double as theatre seating and teams were encouraged to give presentations there so passers-by could sit in. At other times sport or TED talks (nominated by staff) played as people trekked up and down to create a talking point, and the queue that formed for the best coffee (only at the barista station) was highly intentional.

Digital connections

Contributors to the new London Hub Yammer site were ‘nudged’ to ensure content included as many photos and names of staff as possible. A custom-made app showed the names and photos of everyone in the office each day and what floor they were on. This lowered the barrier to finding people or remembering someone’s name, a previous source of considerable anxiety. A Hub playlist was created from staff nominations and anyone could request music to be played from the café Ipad.


Find (any) reasons to bring people together

A unique vocabulary helped create a shared identity: hub occupants were ‘Hubsters’, visitors from other offices were ‘Tourists’. Monthly lunches were established for the ‘Soloists’ (and for the many new starters). Every possible reason to bring people together was seized, the volunteer “Culture Club” organised lunch’n’learns and cajoled colleagues to offer their services as club leaders. Using the blackboard walls as sign-up sheets, clubs for yoga, chess, languages, sports and the ever-popular Pub Club sprang into existence. Anyone could (and did) arrange an event or start a club. There was also a small permanent team of ‘HubHosts’ a hybrid of concierge/ tour guide/helpdesk and most importantly, the people you could rely on to greet you by name and ask how your day went. The hub’s 5 ‘Rules of Engagement’ were explained during mandatory Day 1 onboarding sessions. At first glance a little unfriendly, the rules were implemented on the basis that clear and explicit behavioural boundaries actually feel safer than implicit codes of conduct that bewildered newbies can only guess at.

The need for sustained attention

Assuming companies recognise the need to support a sense of belonging, the second easiest mistake to make is to think that this can be done overnight. Community building needs resourcing until it has enough momentum to be self-sustaining. It can be unwelcome news that this could be long after the official project closes. Many companies have regretted not securing funding for 1-2 years after the implementation phase ends and populations experiencing rapid growth or churn could even take longer.

So how do you justify that resource? One company who is convinced building communities delivers an ROI is WeWork, the giants of the co-working world. In a blog written after they acquired social networking service Meetup, founder Adam Neumann said “As the world gets more and more connected every day through technology, we’re actually finding that people are more disconnected now than ever. When we launched WeWork back in 2010 we saw our opportunity to build community by bringing people together. Everything we did had intention, from designing common areas where people could meet over a cup of coffee, to sponsoring social events where entrepreneurs could meet others in their industry”

Their investors and their clients think they’re succeeding. In 2017 WeWork was valued at $20bn. "They create a vibrant and fun environment and fill it with excited people to energize the work experience," says Benchmark's Bruce Dunlevie.

Ironically, their efforts mean your staff may find a greater sense of community by going it alone in a co-working space full of strangers than in your newly renovated but impersonal offices. My advice? If you’ve saved millions on square footage, save a little more on sushi and invest in a community manager to avoid a beautiful office as empty and echoing as a deserted theme park.

Sophie Patikios

Sophie Patikios has spent her career working with premium consumer brands that also have high aspirations as employer brands: Mars Confectionery, The Walt Disney Company and then LEGO Group. She now helps companies make significant changes to their way of working so that their values and aspirations are more closely reflected in their day to day culture. Her pragmatic approach to addressing resistance balances humanist values with commercial realism and can be broadly summed up as ‘Zero Tolerance, 100% Compassion’

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