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Too Much Information: The Unintended Consequences of a Hyper-Connected Workplace

Image © Anna Dziubinska. In a world that’s constantly on the go, how can the office assist in providing employees with the balance they desperately seek?

It’s open season for the workplace.

The UK has one of the highest percentage of open plan work environments in the world, and has, on the surface, appeared used to and comfortable with this way of working for quite some time. Look a little deeper, however, and this may not be entirely true. While the physical infrastructure of the workplace has evolved more towards an open plan environment, it is the speed at which the metaphysical infrastructure of today’s workplace has rapidly transformed our approach to work that is having a profound impact on people’s ability to work effectively.

It is well documented that the UK records some of the highest working hours in Europe, yet has some of the lowest levels of productivity. We need to understand what is creating this paradox and we believe there is a causal link between these rapid technological advances and the physical workplace.

The ‘metaphysical infrastructure’ centres on the rise of virtual collaboration tools, known as unified communications and collaborative technology. It is estimated that the global sector for these technologies is set to exceed £52 billion by 2020, and with 78 percent of companies already planning implementation, it is clear that mobility and collaboration are soaring up the business agenda. These new collaborative technologies have created an unprecedented level of flexibility in the workplace, reducing the real estate requirements and thus the overhead costs of many firms. But they have also proved to be counterintuitive in many ways.

With a greater proportion of the workforce now liberated from the confines of an office building, work is happening on an ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ spectrum, and this has unwittingly cultivated a generation of workers who are struggling to disconnect from work and whose working day extends to out of hours over weekends and during holidays. We’re seeing a modern workforce struggling to work within the office environment, while not being able to switch ‘off’ from work mode when outside of this environment. Today, it would seem that disconnectivity, not connectivity, is the new holy grail of productivity. Today’s information overloaded workplace and stressed out workers are behind the increasing trend towards mindfulness programmes in the workplace, yet only a handful of organisations are training their employees on how to disconnect from work, and the majority aren’t acting at all.

In our latest 2016 UK Workplace Survey (WPS), it would appear that it is the people with limited autonomy and choice of where to undertake the tasks to work effectively who are being let down by poorly planned offices and it is estimated that this negatively affects around 8.2 million UK workers. The need for a more ‘balanced’ environment is becoming increasingly urgent and organisations need to recognise their role and responsibility in outlining protocols on how employees can cope with excess information and protect them from being overworked.

Image © Gensler: Edelman’s London workplace provides a diverse set of areas to suit a variety of work modes

At home in the office

In this age of pervasive technology, organisations should recognise that the world of work isn’t binary. Flexible working is not a choice between working in the office or working from home. It encompasses working away from a specific desk, be that in break-out spaces, conference rooms, cafes, libraries and in locations outside of the office. Yet the paradoxes continue - 70 percent of people in our survey stated that, when given the choice, they would prefer to work in the office, but in order to do so effectively, they also require various places and spaces that match their changing work activity needs to maximise their productivity throughout the day.

In large metropolitan cities – especially cities like London – this choice of working from home is also not an easy option for many young people, for example. The ever-increasing cost of living in London has led to a huge rise in flat sharing for the so called ‘Generation Rent’ and many lack adequate space or facilities to easily work from home. When faced with an ‘impoverished’ open plan workplace in the office it can be a double hit on their own effectiveness at work as these much needed alternative work spaces are just not available. Many people without choice and autonomy simply can’t choose to work from home to be productive and they can’t work productively in the office either. So how do we address this dilemma?

Ultimately, good design really does drive workplace innovation. We—and many others within the industry—have been saying this for some years now, but through our Workplace Survey, we have discovered some important statistical evidence that supports this. We found that the top performing companies were the ones that have invested in good design in terms of having a balanced environment. The notion of a one-size fits all workplace solution is outmoded, and organisations are increasingly aware that design and provision of space needs to be tailored to their specific sector and organisational culture, rather than a fad-following, generic formula.

It is clear that there are many critical drivers aside from great design that come into play when creating an environment that fosters choice. A leadership culture change based around trust, results and a more empathetic, or ‘emotionally intelligent’ workplace is at the heart of fostering innovation. Employers have a duty to implement solutions that invest, diversify and empower the employee to innovate within an office innovation ecosystem.

Openness, transparency and trust underpin this new ecosystem and a well-considered, balanced open plan office can be highly effective in driving greater innovation, through choice.

Philip Tidd is one of the global leaders of Gensler's consulting practice and has spent the last 20 years working across Europe at the sharp end of where business and buildings/spaces meet. He regularly works across the city and office scale and is a passionate believer in harnessing the power of creative insights to solve clients’ complex problems. Contact him at philip_tidd@gensler.com.