The “Future of Work” has become a buzz word. Suddenly, plenty of books, conferences, and articles cover the topic. The reason is simple: the rapid advancements in technology are changing the ways in which we’ve performed our jobs until now. This has created confusion and uncertainty but also exciting opportunities to rethink how and where we work.
To shed light on the future of work, I’ve reached out to Julia Schlegelmilch, a PhD Researcher who is investigating remote and collaborative work, and I asked her to share her findings and insights with us. With Julia, we talk about the fascinating ways in which work is shifting, and through an imaginary journey to work environments, we learn about the design and science behind inspiring workplaces.
Tell us about your research. How did you get excited about the new ways of working to pursue a PhD?
I’ve always been someone precise and who wanted to know all the details. So, if I encountered a problem or even a physical thing I didn’t understand I – literally and figuratively – wanted to take it apart to get to know all bits and pieces. From there, going into academia just fit!
When I started studying, my interests were how people work and what the influence of their social and physical environments are. Why do some people enjoy their job and others don’t? How do people deal with the obstacles that they face? In my psychology bachelor, I chose the specialization ‘Industrial Organizational Psychology,’ which revolves around topics such as motivation, performance or collaboration – all within organizations.
After that, I continued along this line in a master program in Change Management and Human Resource Management. My path into academia was already carved out by then because I enjoyed writing two master’s theses while many people rather dreaded writing even one. While drafting the second one, I became fascinated by new ways of working. Luckily, I found a PhD position at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where I could research exactly that, and that’s what I have been doing since then.
What does your research explore?
My focus is on knowledge work. Some new ways of working are, for example, coworking spaces, location-independent work, crowd working, gig economy– just to name a few. The fun part is that they aren’t fixed but constantly evolving, which makes them so fascinating to me. There is always more to learn about them!
I’m looking how technology is part of transforming how we perform our work and the new ways of working that emerge.
While you see new ways of working starting out as a trend, some have become established over time such as the coworking spaces. There are different kinds of coworking spaces with diverse ends varying from merely sharing office facilities to fostering collaboration. Many articles are available about the great benefits of coworking spaces. However, it’s also a fact that most coworking spaces are rather expensive, so they aren’t accessible to everybody.
How does work culture change?
In the past, workers were thought to be inherently lazy and in need to be directly surveyed to control that they stayed productive. Nowadays, knowledge workers are assumed to be more independent, responsible, and autonomous. They’re often in charge of when and where they work as opposed being under the constant supervision of managers to stay productive. Also, the role of the manager is changing because of less and different monitoring and control tasks. Sometimes managers transform into coaches.
What is most recognizable is that assumptions towards what work is and our roles are transforming.
Of course, some jobs lend themselves more than others to support these changes and people’s personal preferences play a role as well.
In which ways does it influence the working environments?
With the change in work culture, workspaces change as well. Office desks used to be arranged in long rows all facing the manager to allow for complete supervision and control. Nowadays, companies are transforming their offices towards open-plan spaces with ‘clean desk policies.’
However, it is important to realize that a change in space design needs to be accompanied by a change in mindset as well.
A dramatic shift in the workspaces modifies and often challenges established routines at work. Others are ‘designed to maximize chance encounters,’ such as Google’s new campus. Space design concerns not only function but also fun, aesthetic, and even personality. Some aim to blend elements of private and work life, for example, by creating a ‘living room’ and offering workouts in the workplace.
We often hear how ‘Millennials’ are reshaping the workplace. In which way do they differ from the previous generations?
Millennials (born somewhere in the 1980s/1990s) use technology as an inherent part of their life. Also, they tend to stay longer in education and focus on self-actualization –often through work. When we refer to millennials, we mean those who have grown up in developed countries that are not affected by war.
Which kind of employer will be successful in retaining her employees in the long run?
The change in work cultures comes with a change in the roles of employees and managers. It’s important for employers to not only be aware of this but also support their staff. Besides that, technology continuously allows us to work more flexibly in terms of time and location. In a way, work has become unbounded, yet it requires us to (re-)create the boundaries ourselves. For some, this is challenging. Choice, autonomy, and flexibility are the key terms.
Employers and employees are not yet using the advantages to its full extent. Perhaps, they are still clinging to old models, are scared of the change or are bound by laws to do so in some cases.
The transition to flexible work arrangements – or even virtual work arrangements – is slow but evolving. The office still offers some advantages, but employers need to find ways to recreate those in more adjustable settings if they want to hunt and retain the right employees. Also, not everyone wants to work flexibly, so again ‘choice’ is a keyword.
Sleep, fitness, and nutrition are the three pillars of people’s well-being. How do you see these gaining traction to enhance employee well-being?
We can already see it happening. Employers enable their workers to visit gyms for free, provide healthy meals in the canteen or awareness workshops about healthy habits. It’s fun even more with gadgets. For example, a friend of mine received a Fitbit charge from her employer as part of a big campaign to support people in becoming fitter. And she says that everyone participates by challenging each other to exceed their daily step goal! It’s not only personal awareness but rather a change in the social environment(s). Both work and private life overlap.
Your research takes you a number of coworking spaces. What can we expect to see in the future?
During my visits to coworking spaces in Amsterdam and Berlin, I noticed that they all made an effort to create a creative and inspiring vibe. Spaces are abundant with colorful interiors, motivational slogans, different work areas, and a lot of exposed brick and design furniture.
The next generation coworking spaces need to reclaim their unique character. For example, it could incorporate the local culture and engaging with the local community.
The more environments I visited, an awkward feeling of familiarity emerged – even during the first visit to space. Later, I came across an article on The Verge about how our tastes are harmonizing to the point that interiors become interchangeable. And this is what I was experiencing! The downside of such a familiarity is that the spaces lose their distinguishability.
Which tips would you give an entrepreneur who plans to open a coworking space?
Recently, I came across two articles that made me think about this. First, an article in deskmag where seasoned coworking space operators shared their advice. Amongst many, they suggested that your problems are a great source inspiration. The problem you want to solve will influence what kind of space you design and what people you attract.
Second, you could also take a different perspective and ask yourself “Why offices still exist?” The author suggests that it’s because they foster collaboration and communication, build transparency and create an experience. Many coworking spaces (re-)create these reasons but going beyond these, seems to be where the future lies.
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