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Workplace of the future

Flexibility means hot-desking, remote working, smart technology and inverted management hierarchies

An increasingly competitive landscape is forcing businesses to rethink how their workplaces operate. Instead of decisions being passed from the top down, more and more organisations are collaborating with employees to create a thriving workplace year-round. Doing what’s best for productivity means not only embracing change but challenging tradition. If you’re trying to build a culture that facilitates communication and ideas, for example, then the starting point is your physical workplace.

“Employees want design options that allow them to move into a different environment depending on the task they are doing at the time,” says Brían Suttonof Great Place to Work in Ireland. “If they are working on something that demands a collaborative approach, can they move into an open lounge space? If it’s work that demands quiet time, can they move into a relaxed, noise-free environment? The trend of using office design to support performance has now gone beyond the tech world and into industries such as pharmaceuticals, finance and manufacturing.”

Vodafone’s New Ways of Working programme opened up the organisation so no one has an office or even a fixed desk, including the chief executive. By shelving traditional ways of managing people based on attendance and administration, the company has engineered an environment where employees collaborate more, productivity is up and costs are down.

"We've been on a journey, really, since launching New Ways of Working in 2012," says Caroline Littleton, interim head of HR people operations. "Just moving to a hot- desking approach was quite a significant transformation at the time. I think as human beings we feel a bit connected to our space and our things, so we knew from the start this was not something you do 'to' people but 'with' people. One of the reasons it has been so successful is because we all workshopped that process and took the journey together."


Collaboration is integral, Littleton explains. One example is Vodafone’s ThinkWell programme, managed by staff who have been appointed as wellbeing ambassadors. Employees can use their ThinkWell app to plan gym workouts or book treatments, including sessions with a dietician or physiotherapist, in the building’s wellness centre. “Having employees drive that agenda is how we maintain engagement,” says Littleton. “We have people at all levels of the organisation who are passionate about various topics.”

Remote and flexible

Arguably the most prominent trend emerging within workplaces is the demand for flexibility, whether it's in terms of time or location. "One decision-making criteria of the younger generation is, 'Will there be an ability to work remotely or flexibly?'" says Elizabeth Dukes, co-author of Wide Open Workspace and co-founder of iOffice, a facility management software provider. "Companies have to offer that now but, at an organisational level, there's still a fine balance in terms of supporting the enterprise. It's important that the locations you do invest in are designed to encourage people to come there, connect with others and feel part of the team."

One of the most important elements of transitioning to a modern workspace, she adds, is having a strong technological foundation. “That needs to be fluid and configurable so you can easily adapt to how your organisation is going to change – because it is going to change. A huge amount of technology being used in our personal lives is now cascading into our professional lives and you need to be able to engage those tools in a way that adds value for the worker.”

Core Media, Ireland's largest media communications group, invested in remote working technology as a matter of necessity. "We're in the service industry and although nine to half-five are supposed to be the core hours, that just doesn't happen," says Catherine Fitzgibbon, HR director at Core Media.

The company replaced desktop phones and computers with mobile devices that can access its system from anywhere. Rather than have staff feeling they’re constantly on call, however, Core Media has introduced some initiatives to encourage a healthy work-life balance, including seminars on mental health, while also instilling employees with a sense of autonomy.

“We give employees free access to remote working whenever and wherever they want. There are no rules or restrictions around that. We also introduced an email policy where employees are not allowed to send emails between 7.30pm and 7.30am. It’s to stop people sliding back into work mode when they’re meant to be at home enjoying their personal space. That’s been a game-changer for us and a lot of people ask about it, including clients. You’d be surprised at how effective that can be.”

Riot Games, a computer game developer and publisher with offices around the world, was established in 2006 with a manifesto of guiding principles. One of them is that the business behaves like a sports team: a meritocracy that values action over bureaucracy. "As soon as you join the company, you automatically get trust," says Paul Breslin, European managing director of Riot Games. "With most other companies, you have to earn that over time."

Promoting transparency

Although Breslin sees his mobile phone as his office – “Everything we do is stored in the cloud” – he’s effusive about the cross-functionality of the company’s new set-up in Dublin. It’s an open space with whiteboards almost everywhere and a design that promotes transparency.

“We’ve inverted the traditional management hierarchy,” he says. “For example, I work for the team. They don’t work for me. My job is to support and encourage everyone to reach their full potential by removing any barriers. One way we do that is by focusing on an open-feedback culture. That can be challenging for some people but we want everyone to speak honestly on any topic because it helps mitigate any potential conflict or misalignment.”

At the Dublin office of SurveyMonkey, the world's leading provider of web-based survey solutions, the design is just as deliberate across everything from the colour scheme to the furniture and plants. The idea is the environment makes the staff feel part of a single team, explains Suzie Rogers, SurveyMonkey's HR business partner for the UK and Ireland.

Just this month, the office introduced a mindfulness room where employees can take some time to play with jigsaws and colouring books or even do an e-learning course – but there are strictly no meetings allowed. This is a business-free zone.

The key to making these initiatives effective, Rogers explains, is to make sure everyone buys into the idea. Simply following a trend or paying lip-service to a concept isn’t going to benefit anyone.

“It’s one thing to say you’re flexible and to have breakout areas, but you actually have to live that,” she says. “You can’t let it just be an external perception. A lot of tech companies come to Dublin and want to create this image of a successful business that’s great to work for. But as soon as you come through the door, sometimes the reality is a little bit different. That’s why you have to communicate clearly around these decisions. Transparency is a great advantage.”