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UK Workplace Survey 2016: Bridging the Gap

Gensler’s 2016 UK Workplace Survey marked the official launch of the survey’s key findings and extended report. Image © Gensler.

This post is part of a series of blog posts on Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Surveys.

With a dramatic gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the UK workplace, it is imperative that businesses bridge this gap if they are to unlock innovation in the workplace. At the same time, it is equally important that businesses enrich the human experience and help people optimise their performance at work.

As a research-based design firm, we use data, evidence, analysis and insights to fuel creative solutions to the core questions facing today’s hyper-connected workforce. Our most recent insight study, the 2016 UK Workplace Survey, officially launched on Sept. 6 at a client event in London. Joined by a panel of industry experts and workplace specialists, we asked the question, “How can the workplace be a catalyst for innovation in today’s organisation?” The ensuing debate brought to the fore some interesting observations.

Panellist Juliette Morgan, partner at Cushman & Wakefield, is an urban technology specialist with more than 12 years of international experience in developing and managing property for tech and biotech companies. Kicking off the discussion, Juliette rightly pointed out that even though we’ve had technology in the workplace for quite some time, it actually hasn’t aided in freeing workers from their desks. “We haven’t got to a point where we’re trusting the technology and the people using the technology enough to allow everybody—not just managers—to choose their work settings. There is a massive tech wave going on, but it’s the human engagement and trust associated with it that is preventing people in the workplace from being innovators.”

So what about the ‘consumerisation of real estate’? Exemplified by the likes of WeWork and Second Home, Juliette noted that while businesses are increasingly seeing the value of how a connected workplace can benefit their organisation's productivity and innovation agenda, they need to understand that this isn’t an office aesthetic, it’s an ecosystem. “We need to be really careful as designers in the building community, to not impose a design formula or magic serum and suddenly you’re all going to be more innovative. It’s about the menu, the work settings and the trust that goes with it. None of those are design interventions, they’re cultural changes.”

Gensler’s UK Workplace Survey panel of industry experts and workplace specialists. Image © Gensler.

As Bupa’s Chief Wellbeing and Public Health Office, our second panellist, Fiona Adshead, leads work on behaviour change, workplace health and creating pathways to make people healthier in a commercially sustainable way. Although the survey did not specifically address wellbeing, Fiona still felt the findings related more to wellbeing in the workplace than the average person would expect. “When I’m thinking about people who are going to be innovative, they’re going to be people who are feeling really great.” As well as some of the more obvious things (are you eating properly?), she saw many of the drivers identified—autonomy, control, meaning, relationships and collaboration—as being incredibly important to wellbeing. “When we’re thinking about wellbeing, we’re really thinking about how people can be the best they can possibly be, because wellbeing isn’t an end in itself. When we’ve been looking at the model of wellbeing, we’ve really looked at it in a very broad base.”

The more that we can design environments that foster social relationships and promote the psychological wellbeing of staff, the more we can bridge the workplace ‘engagement gap.’ “When we feel the most creative and most innovative are probably the times when we’ve not been stressed out about the report we’re about to write,” Fiona said. “Workplaces create the environment for wellbeing; they create the context.”

Panellist Kursty Groves, a workplace innovation consultant and author of Spaces for Innovation, has done extensive research and travelled the world in a quest to understand what really drives workplace innovation. She agreed with Juliette’s points on fostering innovation ecosystems in the workplace, but also said that when organisations think about designing innovative spaces they can fall into the trap of automatically focusing on the space first, rather than providing a space where innovation can flourish.

In large and small companies there’s a chance of organisations taking a cookie-cutter approach to developing these creative spaces. Kursty spoke of how, during this process, they tend to also skip the question on what innovation means to them, as it can be hard to define. They first need to ask themselves these difficult questions as the key to creating the best innovation spaces is to define what innovation means to that organisation. “Is it about complete disruptive innovation or is it about a culture and a mind-set where actually people are able to make decisions in the moment and solve problems? This is where, autonomy, control, trust and choice comes in, but with that also comes responsibility and this is a place where a lot of organisations are falling down.”

Gensler’s Workplace Survey panel discussion covered a wide range of themes and trends affecting the future of work. Image © Gensler.

Our final panellist, Jeremy Myerson, is a professor, leading international academic researcher and activist in people-centred design and innovation from the WORKTECH Academy. For Jeremy, the release of Gensler’s report and use of language such as “the have’s and have-nots’” is very timely and captured the zeitgeist in the UK this summer. His wealth of knowledge in this field stitched together the underlying themes that underpinned the survey. “If we look at the history of the office, we’ve had the management-led office, and we’ve had the engineering-led office. In the 90’s we finally had the design-led office, and then the style-led office, and there is a backlash now developing against the hipster aesthetic, but we’re still waiting for the people-led workplace.”

Pointing out that more is needed to be done to understand the motivations and the aspirations of people throughout the organisation, Jeremy also pointed out that being away from your desk doesn’t always make you more innovative. “If you look at all the academic research and studies they say that actually innovative people are not spending all day in one giant brainstorm; they’re actually spending a lot of time on their own doing private precipitative work. So the idea that the open plan office can tend to celebrate collaboration over concentration is a problem and the survey puts its finger on that.”

Highlighting that innovation and wellbeing is not just affected by the office, he elaborated upon the importance of location and the pull being seen in the U.S., the UK and Europe to the centre of cities, and how a city can often be the source of innovation, and the source of wellbeing itself.

The processes of how buildings are designed and workplaces are procured still needs a lot of work. The panel discussion emphasised the fact that the management who provide the briefs to architects and designers fail to reflect on the full needs across the organisation, and that this needs to be approached from a business, cultural and space perspective, with more co-design processes within the workplace sector.

The more we open up this industry dialogue, the more we can break down the silo between the haves and the have-nots.

Jane Clay has over 25 years’ experience in workplace consultancy and strategy. She works with companies to get the best value and use from individual buildings and entire real estate. She provides strategic advice on current and future use of buildings; the importance of location; and how companies can anticipate, facilitate, accommodate and implement change. Contact her at Jane_Clay@Gensler.com .