Connection in our workspaces: An insight from our workplace futures lead

Connection is important. The loss of physical connection was the first hurdle we faced as the pandemic took hold of society and is a key challenge we still face today. As we enter 2022 with a magnifying glass on culture and connection, I've been reflecting on what I learned working with the Loneliness Lab and how it can inform the next-gen workplace. 

Pre-pandemic, Vivek Murthy (ex. Surgeon General USA) had declared a loneliness epidemic, with the same effects on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In 2017 the Co-Op and New Economics Foundation found that 9 million people in the UK suffered chronic loneliness and the impact of it was costing the NHS £600 per person p/a; and costing businesses £2.5billion p/a in absenteeism, productivity loss, low tenure/loyalty and overall loss of engagement. 

There is a business case here for investment in connection. In 2018 Lendlease co-founded The Loneliness Lab, an initiative to reduce loneliness in our cities through design of place (the physical hardware, technology, programming/software, and policy that incentivises good design).

The cost of loneliness to businesses is especially relevant today, as workplace experience is up in the air for so many and the Employee Value Proposition is front of mind. Almost every organisation I am speaking to has a finger on the pulse of the Great Resignation (or Great Disengagement at least), making us question – how have our traditional ways of working in the past 2 years affected connection and a sense of belonging? What makes people feel (or not) plugged in to company culture when they work remotely? While productivity for many has gone up, burnout has been classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation (WHO)! So, the status quo doesn’t seem to be working for everyone...

We spend a third of our lives working (whoa!). Workplaces – the practices and experiences they foster - are vital to the cultural revival we need to experience across our cities. As offices start to re-fill, innovators and early adopters are finding ways to experiment with operational components of future working and workplace systems - such as management structures and styles, the employee value proposition, hybrid real estate and digital solutions, cadence of the ‘work week’, the list goes on. The success of businesses will depend on whether they ask the right questions, continue to temperature check and build flexibility into their approach as the landscape continues to change. We still have a lot to learn, to experiment with. So, here are some ideas, based on the research, to help capitalise on this transformation opportunity, putting connection at the heart of it.

Throughout our conversations with the Loneliness Lab community, five recurring themes (or conditions) emerged about what it takes to design connected places. How can these conditions influence the next generation of workplace? And can we adopt these as trends for the offices of the future.

(Note we’re purely talking about connection here – other drivers like mentoring and talent attraction are for another chat…)

 

1.       Place based

A 2019 Loneliness Lab survey found people who work from home experienced highest rates of loneliness, but mobile workers were some of the least lonely – perhaps a result of choice of when and how to connect? Early in the pandemic Google CEO Sundar Pichai said “We are working on some borrowed time, in terms of the relationships you have and connections you have.” Sure, we’ve come a long way in the past 2 years with advancements in digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams and the Metaverse (where Bill Gates said most meetings will be held in the next few years), but I am a huge advocate that time physically together is key to building authentic relationships. (Are people who’ve only met on social media really friends?) 

After 2 years of remote working, the next-gen workplace needs to answer the question ‘why would I leave home?’.  A recent survey of Lendlease customers found that what people miss is ‘places’ not ‘spaces’ – this means amenity, community, and experiences will pull people back, not aesthetic.

 

Recommendation: Design for ‘experience’ – things that attract people to come together, connect us and provide moments of delight in our day.

It's important that experience is authentic to each place and a community’s needs, but we’ve learned there are universal experiences that can help to nudge natural and deep connections, and a sense of belonging. We’ve also learnt that this means going further than implementing more ‘collaboration space’ into offices. For example, access to nature, the outdoors and spaces for self-reflection are just as important for connection as time together.

Engagement through the loneliness Lab drew out interesting insights to the different types of relationships people desire from work, and what experiences can be orchestrated to nudge each of these respectively. Relationships we explored ranged from social friendships and trusted colleagues to a network of weak ties and a sense of belonging to the organisation. See more insights in the Workplace report

 2.       People-centred

Extended remote working has cemented the concept that our community of people is connected by relationships and not the spatial boundaries of the workspaces we once defined "work" by. Having a place to create shared in-person experiences is important, but physical design is just the beginning. If in future we work in a flexible and distributed way, our social glue will need to work much harder than before to attract people and create experiences that earn the commute. The promise of ‘collaboration’ isn’t enough - does anyone else remember jumping from meeting room to room throughout the day and not really connecting at all? The role of FM and operations is broadening to embrace relationship and community management. And we are seeing increasing adoption of digital tools that enable more than just seamless experiences as we return to the office, but inspiring and exciting ones.

Recommendation: Invest in experiences and behaviours. Attract people by orchestrating meaningful experiences together in commercial spaces - through community management, activations, event programs and place curation.

For example, a company-run colleague app, or a place app that connects the wider community of neighbouring organisations to each other and to shared activities and events. The [email protected] app in Stratford invites local residents and visitors to get involved, too, and has a human on the ground to build 'real life' relationships. 

Beyond experience, these tools help to keep a real-time finger on the pulse.

 

3.       Flexible and diverse

A key driver in someone being 'willing to connect’ is feeling authentic, welcome and able to be the best version of themselves. People need different things to thrive - physically, emotionally, culturally. The workplace offer, be it a digital tool or mixed-use neighbourhood, now needs to support 5 generations of lifestyle, different backgrounds, abilities, and personalities, plus the many new job roles coming out of the woodwork. 

Recommendation: The next-gen workplace needs to consider 24/7 activity and ‘whole-life design’ if it is to nurture a thriving community. At minimum, this means the base infrastructure on which the workplace sits - the place, not just the building or space - needs to be inherently healthy and inclusive. Design places that foster connection between people but also respect the need to have meaningful time alone. Access to nature, permeability between buildings and the ground plane, and a mix of retail and lifestyle amenity all play a role.

An example of this at IQL - we’ve been working with the Centric Lab (a brilliant, smart and inspiring group of people!) over the past few years to ensure we are connecting health ambition with broader place (outdoor walking, relaxing, exercise, commutability, and quality of blue, green space). Also, to understand the best design balance that enables people to be at their physical and mental best. This means free of urban stresses, and that strikes a balance between 'vibrant and inspiring' and 'sanctuaries to restore and re-energise'. This balance is key for deep and creative thinking processes that knowledge workers need today to thrive.

 

4.       Iterative

Looking at the rate of change today - across business strategies, organisational structures, daily needs of people, projects and teams - investment in a static workplace design that is expected to last for 5-10 years seems a ridiculous concept. As we have shifted in and out of lockdowns, flexibility (core and flex options, flexible leases, amenity on demand, etc.) has been a hot topic. Flexible real estate supports operational resilience and cost saving and designing places and spaces that are flexible can lead to better connection and a sense of belonging, too.

Recommendation: Enable individuals and teams to transform space in real-time. Having the agency to ‘make space your own’, and to help shape the longer-term evolution of it over months or years as needs change can be so very powerful in building a sense of belonging.

5.       Participative

For me, this means two things. 1) It’s about actively building trust, giving permission to participate and as a result building a sense of belonging. Engaging and motivating employees is key to driving cultural change. Employers need to ask: what can we do to really understand the change gap and take the journey together? What experiences can we curate to help people feel they are participating?

2) A new wave of participation is emerging. We are seeing a growing interest in shared purpose at neighbourhood scale - people starting to cluster around partnerships rather than competitors.

Recommendation: In real estate decisions, consider the opportunity to engage people in the local business community. How welcoming and permeable is the entrance and ground floor? Is there access to a variety of shared public space? What digital platforms are available to enable both passive and meaningful interaction? What local events will provide enhanced opportunities to connect?

We are still learning, but let's not waste this opportunity. Let’s adopt these office of the future trends now, for a future with better connection, a culture of care and belonging, and happy, healthy people and communities.