Businesses have talked about becoming more flexible in their work culture, open in their leadership, and collaborative among teams for practically as long as the Internet has existed (and probably longer than that).
But with the rise of mobile technologies and the shedding of 9 to 5 norms, instead of paying lip service to these ideas, corporate cultures are now finally being forced to adapt or face losing their competitive edge with both customers and employee recruits.
At an event held at Microsoft’s Technology Center in New York City, experts in work culture gathered to talk about these changes. “We’re seeing huge experiments now in major companies,” says Adam Pisoni, co-founder of the office social networking site Yammer, which Microsoft acquired in 2012. “For years, there’s been increased tension between the old and new ways of working without translating into action. Thirty to 40-year-old ideas are now coming to fruition.”
An organization with 1,500 people used to build an office for 1,500 people, with 1,500 desks. Now, employers can get away with less, but they need to think differently as workers adopt different work schedules, and stay at home and travel more. Even when in the building, they may want to move around, rather than being chained to a dusty cubicle. This kind of “out of the box” office design thinking used to apply mostly to tech companies, but now it’s all companies. Take Delphi, an automotive parts supplier with 126 sites worldwide that is piloting flexible work spaces. “We’re trying to be more flexible to improve from a retention and burnout standpoint. We want to integrate tools and workspaces into people’s lives,” says IT vice president Andrea Siudara. “It’s more about results than it is about desktime.”
The physical space is still crucial to productive work but it needs to become more adaptable, says Ryan Anderson, director of future technologies for Herman Miller. He says Herman Miller is creating a new taxonomy in the way it designs furniture, recognizing that people want their physical setting to match their style of work. “We’re moving beyond work function to work modes,” says Anderson. “When someone says, ‘we need to collaborate,’ that could mean 20 different things … we need a new vernacular.”
Companies are becoming more and more driven by outcomes. “It’s not about what did you do for 40 to 48 hours this week, it’s about results,” says Alan Lepofsky, collaboration software analyst with Constellation Research. “The concept of a consistent 40-hour work week doesn’t for anyone anymore.” Trust is the new currency. “For your boss to say, I don’t need to see your punch card anymore, that’s a really big change.”
Office social networks have made it easier for CEOs and executives to seek feedback from employees and for teams to collaborate from far away. “Front-line team members are now talking directly to the senior VP,” says Grace Chanpong, communications and technology manager for Jamba Juice. “These are new waters for people to navigate.”
On the other hand, there are challenges in getting people to participate and making them comfortable. Jamba Juice is offering one-on-one coaching to some staff. It’s particularly hard for middle managers, says Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of the bestseller Open Leadership. They are used to being “gatekeepers.” “Instead of being gatekeepers, they need to become facilitators,” she says.
Li also notes it’s a mistake when some offices try to shut down non-work-related interactions online. She says that serves a useful purpose of allowing intimacy and friendships to form, even remotely, which will in turn encourage people to share their knowledge with coworkers who they don’t work with directly. “People don’t share because they like a project or brand … they share to help people who they want to see succeed.”