Franz Kühmayer is managing partner of the strategy consultancy KSPM, which specializes in future-oriented forms of work. He also works as a trend researcher on these topics at the Zukunftsinstitut. For him, the office of tomorrow will be built around flexible models of working and management as well as intelligent building structures. After all, to ensure a successful future, we need workplaces to be hubs of innovation.
The Ability to Innovate Is the Key to Success
Much of how structures and processes are organized in companies continues to be based on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s triad of management principles: the division of labor as a reduction of complexity, efficiency as a factor of productivity, and the “one best way” as the measure of our actions. But as successful as these principles of the industrial age have made us, their relevance for the future is questionable in our knowledge-based society. Companies’ challenges often lie in precisely the opposite of Taylor’s principles.
The challenge is no longer how to divide a department into smaller teams, but how to improve collaboration between sales and production or between marketing and logistics. We no longer work separately, but together—and therefore we must build and maintain cooperative structures, not just within the company, but especially beyond the boundaries of the company. In temporary, project-like structures, the company’s employees work with customers, partners, suppliers, and consultants for a short period before moving on to other structures. Those who succeed in implementing these forms of collaboration not only structurally but also operatively will have an advantage—and this also means creating the right infrastructure that changes just as dynamically as the fluid organization itself, as cost-effectively as possible.
As contradictory as it may sound in these times of cost pressures and flat growth, increasing efficiency will only be able to make a small contribution to success. Admittedly, it is always possible to optimize ongoing operations, but to compete it is less important to be oriented toward lowering costs than toward increasing value. “The history of the office … is also a history of duplicating, sorting, retrieving, rediscovering. … The office is the company’s memory,” Hans Peter Treichler wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. But the success of the future will depend less on a good memory than on good innovation. Thus, future-oriented work environments focus less on structure and order than on creativity and innovation. The key question in this context is: How can we design an office in order for people to have their best ideas?
This question can be answered on a variety of levels and points away from standardized offices with the same desks, the same chairs, and ficus trees scattered in the corners for motivation. Just as there is no average worker, there is no average office.
Managing from the Middle Means Egalitarian Architecture
The concept of managers who draw their status from a generous corner office of their own with a secretary’s desk in front runs counter to not only the organization of work in modern companies, but also the logic of career advancement especially among young high potentials.
Highly educated managers in particular admit that senior management can no longer unite the sum of the company’s competencies—the world is too volatile, dynamic, and complex. Companies that have recognized and internalized this derive consistent organizational steps from it: Guidelines from above are reduced, responsibility is delegated to corporate units, and employees are given greater degrees of freedom. Such an organization requires more communication, both horizontally and vertically. Managers who hide in their fancy offices will rapidly find themselves hopelessly lacking in influence. Thus, especially for managers, smart approaches to work mean increasing their contact areas, multiplying their possibilities for interaction, and of course also continuing to find quiet spaces for concentrated work—though to the same degree as other employees. In light of flattening hierarchies, this results in an egalitarian architecture instead of one oriented toward old-fashioned status symbols. Representation no longer means being proud of a dedicated office in the universe of the office landscape, but having an entire office landscape available that lends status due to its innovative abilities: the wood-paneled 50-square-meter boardroom is now a 5,000-square-meter status symbol.
This also corresponds with what motivates Generation Y. While in the past material advancement was a sign of a successful career, today qualitative criteria are increasingly replacing quantifiable symbols. It is no longer having a BMW 5 Series as a company car that counts, but the ability to make use of a wide spectrum of multimodal mobility—and success is expressed in meaningful work, enticing opportunities for development, and promising possibilities for collaboration. How should an office building that expresses and supports these values be structured? In any case, it should be far more multifaceted and urban, since where the boundaries between work and personal life are becoming increasingly blurred, architectural boundaries can no longer be maintained.
From Individual to Team Productivity
After all, many people are increasingly asking the question: Why go to the office at all? In the past, this question was easy to answer: Because this is where the means of production of knowledge work were located: typewriters, files, phones. Today we have all the means of production in our briefcase or in our pocket. Technology thus questions the traditional role of the office as a workplace by offering the freedom to work from anywhere.
In light of the increased mobility of employees, ideas about innovative office environments often start with facility costs: Why keep an office for 1,000 employees if only 450 are present at any given time? But this is about much more than just space efficiency. With this development, the office is transforming from a place of individual productivity to a place of team productivity. There are clear symptoms of this in many offices, with half-empty expanses of desks, but no room in the massively overbooked conference rooms. At the same time, informal meeting places—such as cafeterias and lounges—are developing from break areas into centers of work. Smart working is not about saving desks, but creating a multifaceted work environment in which innovative abilities and employee productivity can blossom.
The Solution: Smart Building, Smart Working
For providers of office buildings, the smart building is a clear differentiation of their offerings and a response to their customers’ needs. This is easier to implement in a single-tenant building, and more challenging in multi-tenant scenarios. However, clever building concepts draw particular advantages especially from the diversity of their users: Corporate coworking creates opportunities for large companies as well as startups; formal and informal collaboration zones not only within the spaces of individual users but accessible to everyone in the building create a bustling hub of innovation beyond the boundaries of the users.
Another consequence is the marked increase in networking within the building, which becomes smart through the integration of complex sensors as well as in the literal sense of the word. Indisputably, home automation is currently more advanced than the digitalization of office buildings. But for those who strive to be energy-efficient and cost-effective while also maximizing user convenience, proptech is a must. The spectrum ranges from intelligent garages for electric cars to the analysis of flows of people to optimizing climate and energy zones to the dynamic assignment of areas according to the tasks at hand.
For the users of office buildings, smart working means a more intensive engagement with themselves and the company’s landscape of value creation in the future. Often a structured approach is missing: The corporate advisory firm Pierre Audoin found that modernizing workplaces was on the agenda in 85 percent of companies, but over 60 percent had not defined a workplace strategy. And yet, such a strategy is an essential requirement for a successful implementation. The components of this come from the triad of architecture, technology, and organization—beyond best practices, which can always only be an inspirational starting point, but must be independently interpreted through company-specific concepts such as culture, strategy, and brand. Analytical ability at the intersection of building expertise and strategy expertise will be increasingly important, with an emphasis on best fit rather than best practices.
Hubs Rather Than Dream Offices
In addition to its functional requirements, the office of the future will need to promote identification with the company. This is not just about making the brand visible internally and externally—branding alone is not enough. Rather, it is about creating a space that reflects and shapes the corporate culture, creates enthusiasm, and fosters innovation. It is not about superficialities and design as ornamentation, but about a deep understanding of the network of relationships and actions in a company and its ecosystem. As work environments change, their function as hubs will become a crucial element, since especially the best minds are attracted to the meta-design of a place. Along with all its functionality, the office of the future should also seem attractive and be an iconic place where people feel they need to be. This can only be successful if architecture and leadership interact.
Franz Kühmayer is managing partner of the strategy consultancy KSPM, which specializes in future-oriented forms of work. He also works as a trend researcher on these topics at the Zukunftsinstitut.