Revenge of the office against the digital nomads

Author: Paul | Date posted: January 29, 2013

As the impact of mobile technology has swept across the workplace, the office itself has come under threat. Why bother coming into work at all if we can work anywhere we want?

But while many have predicted the death of the office, a growing number of major companies are staging a fight-back to attract the “digital nomads” back to physical workplaces again.

Unilever's new Singapore office

Unilever’s new Singapore office

We have all heard about Google’s lavish fun palaces around the world but such examples are becoming more common, with newly designed and re-imagined offices that provide compelling reasons for staff to make the journey to work. The logic runs that if the office can feel attractive and engaging to be in, why would we not choose to come to work there?

One of the most ambitious programmes has come from global consumer goods giant Unilever. With 167,000 staff and brands from Persil to Dove, its “Agile Working” initiative – which involved redesigning 45 of its 100 offices  with areas for concentrated individual work, spaces to collaborate and “vitality” areas with treadmill desks, sofas and cafes – is reporting rises in productivity, carbon reduction and employee engagement.

As Fiona Laird, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Unilever, says: “We want our staff to feel and touch Unilever and in the new offices our people can connect, be inspired and feel the brand.”

Since Unilever began its global roll-out three years ago it has reported 35% greater use of office space, 40% less energy waste, a doubling in virtual meetings and 23,000 fewer long-haul flights – with 80% of staff feeling more productive and better able to balance personal and work demands.

Unilever's Colombia office

Remodelled – Unilever’s Bogota office

For Laird, giving staff choice is fundamental to this new way of working. “We are investing in facilities but it’s your choice where you work – home, café or a Unilever office. We notice we have higher rates of occupancy now but people aren’t forced to come to work: it’s their decision where they work on any given day.”

Unilever examined the experience of organizations who had tried an “office-less environment” like IBM and Accenture (to varying degrees) and decided that physical connection still mattered for the Unilever culture.

What is intriguing is that, while technology nowadays enables work to leave the office, Unilever is just one of many companies who fear the fragmentation that can result from mobile working. IBM, a pioneer from 2000 onwards of the “home office” worker approach, found staff in recent years referring to their employer as “I-B-M = I’m By Myself”. Now IBM, like another home working advocate, BT, is attracting staff back to refreshed offices due to its anxiety about employee isolation and a loss of innovation.

Elsewhere, GlaxoSmithKline, the global pharmaceutical giant, has created flexible working spaces for 1,300 employees at its offices in Philadelphia and opened a 200-person office along these lines in Colombia in Spring 2012. Edward Danyo, Manager of Workplace Strategy, says: “We’ve seen a 45% increase in the speed of decision making in the new spaces and our biggest surprise is that within two weeks of the changes most folks say they wouldn’t go back to cellular space.”

Unilever "Vitality zone"

One of Unilever’s “vitality zones”

Meanwhile, at its Seattle Campus, Microsoft  is embedding new technologies into the office environment, moving engineers more accustomed to their own private offices into shared spaces. Martha Clarkson, who manages the “Workplace Advantage” programme, says resistance is natural but that the new environments are proving popular.



Five key lessons on re-thinking your office

  1.  Flexibility applies not only to office design but also to how people shape their own working day.
  2. Big “corner offices” are no longer the “career goal” for young hires – new success badges are in access to powerful digital networks.
  3. Digital change happens fast – physical workplace change takes time – so plan for future office flexibility.
  4. This is the time to experiment – use different locations to trial new office concepts and extend what works.
  5. No one wants to come to an office (however funky) if colleagues aren’t there – so fight hard to attract people to come to workplaces.

Does the office have a future long term?

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