As workers have grown used to working anywhere, the biggest physical change has been in the office itself, writes Dave Ulrich
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Traditionally, we go to and return from work because work is a place. The workplace becomes a second home in which we interact with others, accomplish tasks, and create a new identity.
Through technology, work boundaries shift from place to values. Work can be done anywhere and anytime. We can go to work, but work can also come to us. Organizations are bounded less by space and more by networks of shared values. These values may be around defining and serving customers, meeting investor expectations, creating and distributing products and services, building relationships, and accomplishing tasks. Today, this work may be done in an office, at home, on a smartphone while on a train, in hotels, or in airports.
But the dissolution of physical boundaries has led to a radical change in the bricks-and-mortar workplace, too. In the days when everyone worked out of a traditional office, the focus was on managing personal space, usually by dividing the space up into a series of cubicles. Today, in a time where offices are meeting hubs rather than weekday homes, collaborative space is key. There is a focus on interaction, openness and sharing, while breakout areas offer privacy and solitude.
The best new workspaces are organized around some key principles. These are:
- variety and choice – flexibility in work arrangement
- human connection – mix of private and public space
- social responsibility – social capital and environmental sustainability
A better workspace enhances employee productivity and wellbeing and communicates a company’s culture and identity. Managing workspace begins by categorizing the types of work being done, then creating a living office environment that enables that work to be accomplished. When the work activity matches the work setting, a living office exists where employees want to go to work, not where they have to go to work (see box above). Employees who live in these evolving workspaces are more productive and more engaged.
Employees may also work outside formal work settings, at home and in remote locations. In such places, employees share information with one another through technology links, but they are more formally connected to the organization through shared commitments. The commitments focus less on the means of doing work and more on the outcomes. These remote work locations are of benefit to most knowledge employees who can access and process information in most places. The benefits of coworking spaces are that they often host events and give their clients access to advisors, coaches, investors and partners, providing them even more networking opportunities.
Focus on outputs
As a professor, consultant and author, I am a living case study of working remotely. I share the commitment to ideas with impact, and am passionate about accomplishing work. But where and how I work matters less than the outputs of the work I do.
Dale Lake and I dedicated my first book Organizational Capability to the Toshiba laptop computer that made it possible. We wrote the book, 25 years ago, while on aeroplanes, in hotels, and during off hours at home. This article is being written while I’m flying, will be submitted when I land, and will be read by Dialogue readers in a whole host of settings. My dean holds me accountable less for face time and more for publishing ideas that will have impact.
Likewise, line managers and HR professionals with widely distributed employees need to be very clear about the focus on outputs. Employees who deliver these outputs may be less visible, but more impactful