By | Abhijit Bhaduri |Keynote speaker, Author and Columnist
Jim Keane is the CEO of Steelcase, the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world. At the company’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his office is located in the building where customers are received. Changing the office location to that area was a way for the company to make a statement about the importance of being where the customer is. Space usage is a signalling device and it conveys more than it hides.
Hierarchy and space are an integral part of human nature. Taking up more space signals the importance of the person occupying that space. The extra space in business class or the enclosed cabin in the first-class section signals status. Even a notional increase in space as compared to peers signals privilege.
The king’s palace and mausoleum signal the exalted position of royalty in a world where millions are homeless. Even in a democracy like ours, the official residence of the President of India’s has 340 rooms spread on four floors and five acres. The government allocates large bungalows to top officials in prime locations. In office buildings, the corner office and sometimes the entire floor or the top floor of a building is occupied by a few or even just one single person.
Hierarchy reflects work culture
The leader’s role has changed sharply in recent times. In the analogue era, the leader had all the answers. In the digital world, every employee, including the CEO, is equally clueless. Ironically, in many businesses, the most digitally savvy people are at the bottom of the pyramid.
Yet, in many analogue organisations, the decisions are still taken by the leader who may know the least about how the digital world works.
As I read The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age: Reimagining What It Takes to Lead , put together by MIT Sloan Management Review in collaboration with Cognizant, the contrast between analogue and digital businesses became sharper. Together, they spoke to more than 4,000 leaders across 120 countries to explore how they were preparing to lead in the digital age. The insights are conveyed in the report. <click here>
Most leaders underestimate the extent of change, the speed of change, and the extent of their preparedness. Just 12 per cent of respondents strongly agree that their leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward. Only 40 per cent agree that their companies are building robust leadership pipelines to tackle the demands of the digital economy. Forty eight per cent feel their organisations are prepared to compete in digitally driven markets and economies. While 82 per cent believe that leaders in the new economy will need to be digitally savvy, less than 10 per cent of respondents strongly agree that their organisations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy.
Workplace designs still remain horribly non-egalitarian and non-inclusive. Most HR leaders never ask employees if the workplace helps them do better work. When employees are told to move to a new office, they are almost never asked if they like the new office layout.
Yet, workplaces play a prominent role in employee engagement.
Experience drives engagement
In the digital business where speed matters, it matters that the leader works alongside the rest of the employees and perhaps even customers. Zuckerberg works from the same kind of desk as everybody else. Start-ups often cram workstations cheek by jowl and the founder is seated inconspicuously pecking away like any other employee. That may signal an egalitarian work culture, but is it effective?
The LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report for 2020 talks about employee experience as one of the four biggest trends driving talent. Employee Experience they found, was driven by the 4 Ps — People, Place, Product and Process. The relationships with colleagues and customers are described as people. The physical environment, whether in an office or remote place, impacts the employee experience.
Workplaces need to foster more interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity. Teams need to engage with each other constantly to iterate and build on each other’s ideas. One of the IT majors in Bengaluru has more than 25 buildings that came up as business and employee strength grew. The challenge of crawling through the city’s traffic snarls means that most teams are not co-located.
Open offices make it impossible to do deep work where one needs to work undisturbed. It takes almost 23 minutes to go back to the same degree of depth after an interruption from a colleague or the beep of a message. People need different kinds of space to do different kinds of tasks. Some need a group. Some need isolated space to do deep work.
Multitasking is inefficient. So is the overdose of collaboration. Too many team meetings lead to fatigue, stress and burnout. In the case of creative work, the initial phase of brainstorming needs people to bounce ideas off each other. In the execution phase, the ability to do long stretches of deep solitary work needs the office to support both phases.
Toys, trinkets and trophies
Proxemics is the study of human use of space and how population density affects behaviour, communication, and social interaction. The research done by Steelcase finds that the workspace must create four privacy dimensions.
- Acoustical — what you hear
- Visual — what you see
- Territorial — the boundaries of space
- Informational — what is revealed and concealed from each other
In the western world, privacy at work is defined in terms of the degree of sensory stimulation, whereas the extent of access to information defines privacy in Asian settings. Some companies like Apple limit information sharing across work silos. Your colleagues may be working on a secret product launch that others may read about only in the newspapers.
“When the employees are engaged, the signs are visible in the workplace. They display their toys, trinkets and trophies,” says Praveen Rawal, the MD of Steelcase for India, APAC and the SAARC Region. Toys and trinkets refer to the stuffed toys and photos. The photos can be with colleagues and moments with the family. The trophies refer to the awards they may have won or the certificates of recognition.
The increasing importance of the workplace design as a strategic lever for shaping culture needs to become part of the CXO vocabulary. What kind of work settings enhance the feeling of engagement with colleagues and which work settings encourage individual contribution time need to be consciously designed. How we do our work has changed. The workplace design has to catch up.