Stereotypes that blind us: designing the places and spaces we work

30 May 2023
6 min read

In the good ol' days, knowledge workers went to the office to work, and went home to have a life. Back then, the popular press touted the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Now, the headlines promote hybrid as the preferred way to work.

That said, the words 'hybrid' and 'work' need to go their separate ways. All the media fuss about 'hybrid' actually diverts attention from the real problem – the discomfort management feels in discovering their deeply held assumptions about work have been turned upside down.

All it took was one global pandemic to derail decades of management theory. Ripping apart regular routines that reimagined the commute. Time has been redefined. Workers have been liberated. The revolution has begun. 

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'Hybrid' alludes to a stop gap measure, a course of action to placate us until the insanity passes and we can all just get back to normal. But the 'work anywhere, anytime' genie is out of the bottle and will never go back in.

Employer mandates to return to the office are not going to go well. A recent global survey found that 72 per cent of employees reported that a contrived hybrid set-up was simply exhausting. The forced, staccato nature of such a working arrangement, together with the lack of autonomy, is taking its toll and proving to be unsustainable.  

The hype around 'hybrid' is a provisional notion in search of a value proposition. 

The answer does not dwell in the where, it resides in the who and the how. A recent report stated that the question of: "Where do you want people to work?", should be replaced with: "What unleashes a person's potential, enabling them to be healthy and productive, regardless of where they do the work?" 

Unfortunately, presenteeism has become a 'thing' 

Is 'being present' a cause worth fighting for? Or is it simply an 'old world' assumption that physicality is the precursor to productivity? What assurances does management have that if you're present in body – you're also there in mind and spirit? Shouldn't the first question be… what is the 'real work' to be done? Then, what is the best way to come together to do it?

It is the way in which we show up that should be recognised and rewarded. We show up when we give someone our undivided attention. We show up when we dedicate time to patiently chip away at a problem. We show up when we add true value to the team effort. We show up when we respect the individuality of others and are mindful of how we spend their time.

To truly show up is a personal commitment to connecting and collaborating with your colleagues showing up is not reliant upon being present in an office.

We say we hate meetings. But do we in truth, hate to love meetings?

If we are rewarded on our activities, then surely the busyness of non-stop meetings is proof of our productivity. Yet unproductive meetings abound, hijacking time, money and energy. 

Ineffective meetings cost organisations an estimated $37 billion annually. Another study showed that 71 per cent of senior managers find meetings unproductive and inefficient, while 62 per cent stated that meetings don't bring the team closer together. Not very compelling reasons for managers to spend an average 23 hours per week in meetings. 

So, with or without a hybrid-working model, the basic premise of a meeting must be revisited – especially if leaders are trying to ignite innovation. Meetings can be a good use of time if they are thought of as an object of design, rather than the default. 

Meetings should be designed to be fit for purpose, not time forever lost to the 'busyness' vortex. So don't fall back on hourly increments, if 15 minutes will suffice! And just invite those who really are required to get to a result. Design your next meeting backwards from what it is you're trying to achieve. 

Once that's done, then consider the best way to come together – be it virtual or face-to-face. Next time someone says 'let's have a meeting' first question the necessity, then design it accordingly.

Diversity of minds – more than skin deep 

According to a Forbes article, indispensable employees make great contributions to their companies not only through revenues and profits, but also through qualities and habits that improve company culture. 

This includes creating a positive environment for collaboration and co-creation, building up reliability and loyalty, fostering creativity, skilfully navigating work relationships, and becoming a brand ambassador for the organisation. 

It's in the way we complement and balance each other at work – not only through ideas, but through values, work ethic and habits – that we are able to bring out the best in one another.

Employees are more engaged and committed when they can be their authentic selves and work in ways that align with their values and preferences. In our work environments, diversity should include celebrating individualism in ideas, perspectives and unique contributions. Beware of becoming stuck in a stereotype – creative productivity comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be achieved in all kinds of places.

So what about innovation? 

Ever since hybrid work hit the headlines, leaders have agonised over how they were to innovate if everyone was scattered all over the place. Serendipity is lost. Creativity is stifled. The list of objections goes on. The act of innovation, however, is far more nuanced. Maybe we need to be more innovative about the way we innovate. 

Offices provide space. People provide intellect and creative discipline. So, it is the meeting of the minds that matters most – be it face-to-face or virtual. People inspired by purpose will always find a way to come together to accomplish something great. 

If executive management invests more in supporting an innovators mindset and reinforces the creative potential in their people, they will see a much higher return on their investment – more so than dollars spent on fancy furniture for a new collaboration space. Design a culture that embraces creativity first, then (and only then) consider how to best design the places and platforms that promote co-creation.

Obsolescence awaits the exalted prefix 'hybrid'. Let's just get back to work! Work that allows each of us to be our best, most creative selves in the environment that allows us to make the meaningful contribution we humans are driven to do. 

Note: This blog is part one of a two-part series. Part two will be published 20 June 2023.

Maureen Thurston
Written by
Maureen Thurston

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