Viviana: Axel, I’d be very interested to start by hearing what you think the future world of work will look like. Can you draw a broad-brush sketch for us?
Axel: The world of work is clearly going through a transformation as a new understanding of what work is spreads across the economy. It is the younger generations who are asking for more responsibility and more freedom to take decisions – first and foremost when it comes to how and where they work. In the future, issues such as free time, family, and health will become more important, as will the search for motivation and a meaningful purpose. Taken together, all of this will of course not leave the working environment unchanged: in future, working in an office is more likely to be an option rather than a requirement, for instance, and as such, companies will have to offer employees something to tempt them into the office. What is interesting about this, however, is that for all the freedom they already have, people are once again looking for something they can belong to, for something that feels like home – and this is something an office can provide. At the same time, it will have to be unique, a space which inspires and encourages creativity while being good for health and wellbeing in terms of ergonomic furniture, lighting and natural light, air quality and temperature, and – importantly – acoustics.
In view of this, I would say that, generally, offices must be places where employees feel good, a home from home.
Viviana: Where are we at the moment? To what extent have companies already started to create this kind of feel-good environment?
Axel: In Germany, lots of organisations have already started down this road, but haven’t gone particularly far – and many haven’t yet made even a tentative start. Many of the companies we visit are still very “classic” in terms of their structures, i.e. individual offices for management and (frequently decidedly unwelcoming) open-plan spaces for staff. In these kinds of environments, it becomes clear to see just how the workplace affects the spirit of the company. One the other hand, there are lots of companies who take the working environment and, above all, their staff seriously and create exemplary spaces in which to work. Overall, the start-up scene puts a lot of effort into making places of work which are attractive to potential members of staff and which encourage innovation and creativity; the global tech players, too, such as Google and Microsoft, are also right at the forefront of this development. Nevertheless, classic German Mittelstand companies are now increasingly recognising the value and the potential of the working environment, and organisations from a diverse range of industries are now approaching us – including highly-traditional family firms. My prediction is that, in ten years’ time, the vast majority of employers will have adapted their workspaces to match the changing needs of their staff.
Viviana: Everyone is talking about agile companies, agile methods, and even ‘agile culture’. What does all of this actually man and how is it affecting how workplaces are designed and developed?
Axel: Yes, “agility” is the word on everyone’s lips – and yet different people often mean different things when they talk about it. Originally, “agile working” is a concept from the world of IT development; when software is being created, agile methods and processes such as Scrum are used to speed up development cycles, and thanks to its proven success, this is the principle lots of companies are now looking to implement in their own processes. Introducing agile should, however, be approached with due caution, as the company in question needs to be ready for the change. An organisation which has a strongly top-down leadership culture, for instance, can only be agile to a certain extent because the staff’s ability to organise their work and take decisions independently is usually strongly limited. What this means is that agility cannot simply be implemented by decree from on high; rather, it takes a long time to make an organisation agile and the path to agility needs to be walked step by step. There has to be a structural, cultural, and spatial change on all levels of the company concerned, led and driven by management; without this, agile will neither be genuine nor will it succeed. Whatever the approach, the working environment has to offer agile teams enough suitable spaces for cooperative working patterns: the team area is used for a range of activities (e.g. group meetings, small circles, focussed work); as such, it should be flexibly furnished and equipped – we do this with multifunctional spaces and furniture.
Viviana: In many industries, it is getting increasingly difficult to find highly-qualified staff. What roles does the working environment play in recruitment?
Axel: Yes, there is a genuine War for Talents across a range of industries. Due to their often remote locations, old-fashioned structures, and unattractive office spaces, medium-sized family-owned companies in Germany’s famed Mittelstand are having a particularly tough time recruiting good candidates. Given that highly-qualified people looking for jobs can now take their pick of interesting potential employers, it is obvious that companies with an open and supportive corporate culture are ahead of the pack here. Another aspect which sometimes gets overlooked here is that, as it will be almost impossible for young people to afford roomy, impressive houses and flats, an attractive, generously proportioned workspace can play a surrogate role here. Moreover, the generation now coming onto the labour market has high levels of brand affinity; as such, companies which don’t just propagate their brand message to the outside world, but also anchor and live it internally, create a strong pull factor which attracts new talent and retains existing members of staff in the long term.
Viviana: Increasingly, companies are offering their staff health and wellbeing benefits such as free gym membership or massage appointments. How do you view this trend?
Axel: Health and wellbeing are indeed gaining in importance in the world of work – and that is a very good thing. It’s important after all, because healthy staff are happy staff who are more motivated, more productive, and more present – i.e. they don’t need as much time off sick. At the same time, it’s quite a difficult issue to get a grasp of and many organisations don’t have the confidence to tackle it. Surveys within companies show that staff and management have a varying degree of sensitivity when it comes to health and wellbeing: as far as a lot of firms are concerned, simply offering knock-down gym memberships and sticking a salad bar in the canteen is more than enough. Staff, too, are often unaware of just to what extent their working environment affects their health; many don’t even know that there are things out there which could improve their workplace, let alone what they are. Other companies, meanwhile, have quite comprehensive health and wellbeing programmes which staff don’t actually use for fear of being seen to be slacking if they take time out for a massage or to go to the on-site gym. This shows the full importance of an integrated concept of both mental and physical health which is adapted to the corporate culture in question and the requirements of the company’s staff. It should be based on a culture of trust and respect in a working environment which takes account of light, temperature and air quality, and ergonomics. When we create concepts, we focus specifically on stress factors such as unwanted visual distractions and – above all – noise nuisance: we try to design them out of the plans. Once all of these basic prerequisites are in place, additional offers such as fitness packages, relaxation spaces, massage appointments, and a canteen with healthy organic food are all eminently sensible.
You might also be interested in “Creative thanks to coworking?” by Ursula-Beate Neisser.
Axel Praus, Managing Director at workingwell. After studying commercial engineering, Axel Praus has been advising and supporting large-scale corporates as they develop and implement future-orientated property strategies. In setting up the workplace design consultancy workingwell, Axel’s goals was to create a company in which the physical and psychological needs of individuals are anchored firmly at the centre. With his team of experienced designers, he creates user-orientated working environments which draw together all aspects relevant to employee wellbeing, to innovation, and to identification between staff and organisation. His goal is to help companies ready themselves for the challenges of the future.
workingwell is a Munich-based consultancy for workspace design. Set up in 2017, it currently counts 20 members of staff at offices in Munich, Cologne, and Winterthur (Switzerland). The team combines years of experience with strong design consultancy competence in strategic workspace organisation and analysis, interior design, planning, implementation, change management, and workplace technology. workingwell prides itself on producing concepts for workspaces which combine all relevant factors in increasing employee productivity and wellbeing as part of one holistic package.
This interview was conducted by Viviana Plasil, Head of Marketing & Communications Germany at Cushman & Wakefield since December 2017. She leads the Marketing & Communications team, has extensive knowledge in Digital Marketing and will build and expand this area at Cushman & Wakefield Germany.