Our mobile devices mean we are constantly connected and contactable – by friends and colleagues alike. This has blurred the boundaries between our personal and professional lives. In response to this, many organisations are moving towards agile working – where employees choose when, where and how they work. This is changing the way we use offices, transforming them from uniform cubicles to flexible environments that support collaboration and a dynamic workforce.
Digital innovations have changed the way we communicate – both in our personal lives and in the workplace. The internet has put a huge range of social tools at our finger tips including social media, instant messaging, video calls and on demand access to information. Meanwhile, our mobile devices mean we are “mobile, collaborative, always connected”.
No generation is more attuned with the digital world than millennials – those born in the 1980s and 90s. A recent insight report by professional services company PwC summarised this generation’s natural affinity with the digital world as follows: “They have grown up with broadband, smartphones, laptops and social media being the norm and expect instant access to information”.  What’s more, as they join the workforce, they are integrating into the workplace the technologies they use in their personal lives to enhance communication and innovation.
By 2025, 75% of the world’s workforce will be millennials.  This shifting demographic, combined with continual innovations in the digital world, is changing the way we work – and where.
Today, we are almost constantly contactable and can use our devices to respond instantly to correspondence, alerts and events. However, this connectivity has blurred the boundaries between our work and personal lives – as we often use the same devices for both. In the past, working life meant “being at your desk by nine, an hour for lunch and several tea breaks before clocking off at five”. However, John Eary, Agile Working Consultant notes: “we no longer restrict working activities to ‘worktime’ and personal/social activities to ‘non-worktime’ [instead] the boundary between the two has become porous”.
With staff checking their work emails in front of the telly, or scanning social media on the way to a meeting, the idea of work-life balance has transformed. We can no longer simply tally up the number of hours spent in or out of the office. Instead, we must consider ‘work-life blend’, i.e. the integration of our personal and professional lives.
For 15 years, organisations have offered employees flexible working options – giving them some manoeuvrability in terms of their working hours or the option of remote working. However, agile working takes this a step further by introducing the dimension of “autonomy”. The digital world has now given people the tools to choose when, where and how they get their work done. Agile working allows them to select the most effective blend of technology, working hours and locations to achieve their objectives. Far from an extravagant job perk, agile benefits employers too. PwC comments “There is evidence that employees are more productive if they have greater autonomy over where, when and how they work”.
The result is a fluid workplace where people come and go based on the tasks at hand; for example, dropping into the office for face-to-face meetings, remote working for tasks which require focus, or dialling in from a coffee shop on the way to a client meeting. In organisations where staff aren’t restricted to a specific desk or set of hours, the office itself is beginning to evolve too.
During a recent online discussion on flexible working, Virgin listed some of the workplace configurations which have sprung up in the wake of agile working, including: “remote working, open plan offices, co-working spaces, increased connectivity, hot-desking”. This list supports Harvard Business Review’s observation that “digital-savvy employees are beginning to demand that their spaces adapt to how they work, rather than vice versa”.
Paul Allsopp, MD of business consultancy The Agile Organisation, reflects this in his comments on how the office should suit dynamic working styles: “The office should be configured to suit different needs with touch-down bases for homeworkers dropping in, round tables for team work, private boothsand lounge areas for informal business”.
The good news for businesses embracing agile working is that liberating employees from a traditional cubicle can also unleash performance. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor”, says Scott Birnbaum, Vice President of Samsung Semiconductor. He remarks that collaboration and innovation occur when “people collide”. This is supported by Yahoo whose Chief of Human Resources acknowledged “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions”.
These views are supported by evidence from the Harvard Business Review: “our data suggest[s] that creating collisions – chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization – improves performance”. In recognition of this, they encourage the adoption of an agile, open environment which forces employees to “bump into unexpected people, and allows them to claim spaces and shape them for brainstorming sessions”.
In this way, our workplaces are beginning to reflect the way we behave online – they are collaborative, responsive and non-hierarchical. Perhaps this is why the CEO of leading telecommunications company Telenor encourages employers to “think of offices not as real estate but as a communication tool”.
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