Rethinking the Workplace: Why We Need to Move Beyond Buildings and Focus on First Principles

The workplace debate should shift to first principles and focus on fundamental concepts rather than physical locations to design innovative solutions for employee engagement and productivity.

By Mark Terry, Managing Partner at Digital Conversation

The workplace debate has been a hot topic since the pandemic began. Organisations need help finding the best solution for their teams. The typical discussion focuses on the three H solutions: Home, Headquarters, or Hybrid. However, it’s time to shift the debate and concentrate on workplace first principles. Agreeing on the fundamental principles of a workplace will help organisations design workplaces that employees want to work in, no matter the location. However, to get there, we need to stop equating workplaces with buildings and start considering workplaces as a concept.

Making the mental shift

The workplace is not just a physical location; it is a concept that involves various typologies such as coffee shops, factories, shops, offices, and homes. We associate the workplace with buildings, leading us to consider solutions from the commercial building construction and property remodelling sectors. This approach puts too much emphasis on energy, materiality, and specifications, which can influence our thoughts and limit our creativity.

Instead, I recommend organisations start with establishing their workplace’s first principles. This first-principles approach helps us consider the fundamental conceptual components of our workplace. For example, a first three principles of a workplace might be:

  1. A workplace needs to help people work and have the potential for improved productivity.
  2. A workplace must provide visibility of other people at your organisation and the potential for improved communication, interaction, and relationships.
  3. A workplace needs to provide awareness of other’s work activities and processes and the potential for improved collaboration, knowledge transfer, innovation, and company culture.

Workplace solutions with a purpose

These three principles represent the fundamentals of ‘our example’ workplace. Therefore, any chosen workplace solution must provide a clear line of sight to these principles. For example, a Herman Miller Aeron chair offers an ergonomic seating solution for workers for prolonged periods. In contrast, their Setu chair has a smaller footprint and shorter back. Both solutions help people tackle different types of work, such as desk work and meetings, which align with principle one.

Using a common framework of understanding helps organisations assess existing or new solutions. For example, does our current London office encourage the visibility of coworkers? Or, given our geographically distributed teams across the UK, Europe or Asia, is the London Office a poor (and expensive) starting point? This approach helps an organisation clarify what’s important and where they see current deficiencies in their workplace.

First-principles thinking helps organisations imagine new solutions unencumbered by traditions or orthodoxy. For example, the Metaverse may be an outlandish approach for many to the future of work. Still, successful technology companies are currently committing tens of thousands of engineers and billions of dollars to reimagine a workplace that tackles the fundamentals from a different perspective. This thinking enables us to approach challenges with an open mind, free from traditional thinking.

To illustrate this point, consider the companies twentytwo Bishopsgate and Reality Labs. Although they are different types of companies and product sets, they are both thinking about the future workplace. As a result, it’s possible to imagine Zuckerburg’s Reality Labs repurposing twentytwo’s current tagline of “WE IMAGINED THE BUILDING WE’D WANT TO WORK IN” for their virtual reality headsets. They may offer different solutions but tackle the same workplace problem.

The future workplace

In conclusion, to understand the future workplace, we need to postpone – however tricky – discussions on the three Hs, consciously divert our attention from the commercial building sector and start with workplace first principles. As we shift our thinking towards the fundamental principles of a workplace, we can develop innovative solutions that promote employee engagement, productivity, and satisfaction, regardless of the location. We can design workplaces we want to work in, leading to happier and more productive employees, stronger teams and organisations.

About the author

Mark Terry is a Managing Partner at Digital Conversation: a Workplace Consultancy & Engineering firm specialising in how Spatial AV technologies create humane workplaces.


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