Three workplace innovations to act on now

The workplace doesn’t look like it used to, and many would agree that is a very good thing. If you walk into the offices of some of the most admirable companies, whether it be Patagonia (whose office lets you do everything from surf to hang out with your kid) or Automattic (who don’t have an office), you can tell right away – they do things differently. Maybe that’s why they’re kind of really killing it? 

If you've realised your business would benefit from evolving the ways in which people work, you are on the right track. But changing a company doesn’t happen overnight. There are, however, small ways you can start to implement some of the biggest trends permeating innovative workplaces – and you can start right now. 

1) People choose where they work in and out of the office

Going remote: Giving responsible and self-motivated adults the flexibility to choose where (and when) they work has been shown to boost productivity and reduce costs multiple times over. But if you are a traditional company that lacks the proper infrastructure to do remote work well, just flipping the switch overnight is not recommended. Start small by running tiny experiments. For example, invite people to volunteer to work remotely for one day. Choose a small group of people to start with – maybe you begin with people from just one team or one department, or maybe you choose one person from every department to go remote. Do what makes sense for you and try it out for one day. Establish expectations, modes of communication, and how you will be measuring performance for that day. If chaos does not ensue, repeat this every week for a month. Assess whether technology might facilitate remote work (Slack, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Trello, and Asana are popular tools). If the experiment does not fail, make it bigger. Invite more people to go remote but this time make it twice a week. Adjust the terms as you go and learn what does or does not work.

Nomads in the office: Flexibility over where people work also applies to the office. Rather than being assigned and confined to the same desk every day, companies are designing offices to accommodate completely different ways of working. Some parts of the office will be closed off with a desk and chair for quiet focused work, while others will have couches for comfortable collaboration, and other areas may have walking desks and pull-up bars for a more active workstyle. This is what happens at Upwork, for example, a global freelancing platform, whose people are not assigned to any desks but instead move around different parts of the office throughout the day. Again, you can start with small experiments and then scale up. 

2) People design their own space

If people are physically present in an office, the design and structure of that space can make a big difference on how they perform. Corporate Rebels, Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree have travelled to more than 60 progressive companies across the globe to learn about alternative – and successful – ways of working. Joost summarises the trends they have seen: “Most of the inspiring offices we encounter are designed around a large open space as the central point where people randomly meet. There are smaller offices anyone can use for private conservations or intensive teamwork, but their glass walls also promote transparency, and there’s options in tables and desks for work as well as places to relax.”

But choosing the design for your employees only imposes your values on them whereas the space they use should reflect what is important and motivates them. For example, if health is a value, one may choose a walking desk and may migrate to windows so they are exposed to natural light, which has been shown to affect sleep quality and a myriad of health factors. “People often know best what works for them and what they need to perform their jobs as best as they can. The most inspiring workplaces provide their people with this freedom,” Joost explains.

If you are leading a team or a company, collect feedback on how people how like to use different parts of the office. Do they need designated quiet areas for focused work as well as areas for noisy collaboration? Do they prefer wall paint and couches over chairs and whiteboards? Something as simple as moving some furniture around can make a big difference. Plus, once people are involved in the decision-making, you may be surprised by how much initiative they will take and their willingness to volunteer some of their own resources to bring the vision to life. 

3) Leaders join the normal humans

It starts with leaving the corner office and extends to decision-making and owning projects. One key trend the aforementioned Corporate Rebels have seen is having leadership sit and work in the same circumstances as everyone else. Joost offers his advice: “As a leader, go buy a sledgehammer and use it to destroy your corner-office, along with all other status-symbols. This will create equality and greatly increase transparency. The flow of information will be far faster and the knowledge of the crowd is used more effectively, boosting innovation.”

This concept of removing hierarchies and barriers between people in seating plans spreads to processes, collaboration, and decision-making. Author, speaker, and entrepreneur Josh Allan Dykstra explains that “the core of making decisions lies in understanding that we all differ in our expertise, what energizes us, and the way we see the world. So as a leader I acknowledge that I have really big blind-spots and that’s exactly when I need my colleagues to step in and be involved in the decision-making process.”

Similarly, Chuck Blakeman, also an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and long-time thought leader on progressive work culture, calls for a natural hierarchy that forms on the basis of people’s expertise rather than their title: “It would be hierarchy that's agreed upon and authority that’s derived from merit. People choose to submit based on your strengths in a certain area rather than the title you were assigned.”

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If you remember nothing else

The greatest trend in the workplace is trying different things. From holacracy to self-management, remote work to day care in the office, companies are trying many alternative ways of working to find the culture and places that unleash the best in their people. The key is to always test out a new approach with tiny experiments that can be adjusted and scaled as you go. If they don’t work out, the risk is as small as the experiment, but think of how great the risk must be to never try to do better at all? 


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