With offices worldwide lying empty, at The Circle Line we’ve been asking our capital’s urban experts for their views on how we’ll work in a post-Covid, perhaps post-office, world. The leaders of some of London's renowned design and architecture practices - Conran + Partners, Michaelis Boyd, Tom Dixon Studio, Squire & Partners, Neiheiser Argyros and Bogle Architects - explore the issues here.
Work has become synonymous with office. The office is so central to our lives it spawned its own tv series.
Take the office away and what is left of the company? What happens to corporate culture? The crisis is clearly having a far-reaching effect on current work culture. But how deep will it go? And what can we learn about creating a successful corporate culture long-term?
Office politics doesn’t respect distance. Even when we work remotely, micro-managers still micro-manage, it just happens via the daily timesheet. People still dominate meetings, they just do it on Zoom. Team members can still become invisible, dictators still issue orders. It all just happens via Slack.
Working in an office highlights behaviours visibly – we see the team stand-ups, the junior buried at his desk, the manager racing around ragged. Without an office, the “how” we work is harder to spot.
Now we find ourselves in a new reality where, as Ryan Neiheiser of Neiheiser Argyros describes:
“We converse through a digital collapse of space via Zoom, looking up each other’s nostrils, exposing the unselfconscious interiors of our domestic space to each other.” – Ryan Neiheiser
And yet we adapt; we see the positives. Neiheiser notes, “Stranded within our individual islands of quarantined space, we nonetheless achieve a new kind of connection… an intimacy that is simultaneous with, and even a result of, our distributed global condition.”
Similarly, Tim Bowder-Ridger, Principal at Conran and Partners was surprised to find how well the team at Conran are working: ‘We never assumed that we would be able to technically cope with remote working as well as we have – though perhaps this is in part due to us working across the world and being quite used to communicating through screens.”
As Alex Michaelis of architecture practice Michaelis Boyd says “Lockdown has proved that while offices are of course useful, they are not a necessity and whilst I believe in the importance of the office in terms of both productivity and team spirit, flexibility in where you work from is now very important.”
The positives are also something Henry Squire of Squire & Partners recognises – “Less time spent travelling, far more efficient, nice to be around family a bit more…”. However for Squire the negatives outweigh them, “Social interaction and people are at the absolute core of everything we do … We are now much more disparate as a group. And from a mental wellness point of view, I believe it’s important to slightly separate work from home physically.”
And what about the impact on creativity, and the collective intelligence and shared serendipity that comes from working closely and fluidly in the same space?
Bowder-Ridger finds this is where the impact of remote working really hits. “The lockdown does constrain the creative stream we enjoy, sitting together over butter-paper and 2B pencils in hand”.
Ian Bogle of Bogle Architects agrees: “Physical isolation precludes those magic moments in a studio where you can knock around ideas with colleagues, challenge preconceptions and make mistakes. And that’s the key – because sometimes those very mistakes open doors, sparking that moment of creativity into life.”
In fact, as creative people most agree, as Michaelis says “I do miss the spontaneity and flashes of brilliance which come from free flowing conversation.” and Squire, “We are better when we are together, collaborating, learning, drawing energy and ideas form each other and the huge range of people we meet and talk to.”
“Whilst The Rolling Stones can do a concert from their individual sitting rooms, they are better when they are together, feeding off each other and the crowd …” – Henry Squire
We think how we work ultimately matters more than where. Even with social distancing, we can still find ways to create together, to draw from the energy of others, to harness those serendipitous mistakes. We just have to be more aware and more imaginative. With the difficulties there will also be learnings; here is a chance to evolve our corporate culture, or even to begin again.
Relationships are the heart of this. As Squire notes,
“Social interaction is at the very core of human experience”.
Within every group system thousands of unconscious messages are conveyed, roles taken and positions adopted. Tone of voice, timing of comment, facial expression – one by one it is these behaviours that create a culture.
But those behaviours, and the results that creep in, are hard to spot, wherever you work.
There is a new organisational paradigm emerging called “Teal”. This framework throws known principles of company management in the air and lets the pieces land in a whole new order.
For a start, it throws out hierarchy. Colleagues are equals and Teal research advocates self-management, with no managers at all. It also invites staff to bring their “whole” selves to work (no automatons), and allows corporate and individual purpose to lead and evolve, to take on a life of its own. There is less reporting and planning, and more focus on values, trust, conflict resolution and creating stronger human relationships.
This shift is testament to a new, much deeper, psychological consideration of what it is to thrive at work and in the world. And it gets results. As the Barret Culture Centre notes:
“Values-driven organisations are the most successful organisations on the planet,”
A crisis tends to jolt our thinking, at least for a while. Michaelis see us “Letting go, slowing down”. Neiheiser comments that “This new collapse of the local with the global brings with it the space and time to observe the details”. Squire considers there will be “more emphasis on personal space and a reinforcement of wellness, both mental and physical”, whilst Jonathan Formento, visualiser at Tom Dixon Studio, sees an impact on connection and values:
“The connectivity right now will guide the problem-solving mind going forward. What we face is a new challenge of how to create a more meaningful approach to our work – one with reason, meaning and good intent.”
Perhaps the crisis will evolve our behaviour. And perhaps this will lead to a new era in our individual success. Eventually this new approach may even take our modern corporate world in a new, more enlightened, direction.
The Barret Culture Survey backs this up: values and behaviours drive culture, culture drives employee fulfilment, employee fulfilment drives customer satisfaction, and customer satisfaction drives shareholder value.
At The Circle Line we agree. So we offer a whole new approach to helping unlock individual and collective potential.
We use applied psychology to focus on behaviours, embed values and so drive value. It starts with a “Company X-Ray”, a deep-dive into your team dynamics by a certified psychotherapist, radically shedding a new light into the corners of your organisation. We then implement a programme bespoke to you: leadership training, workshops and personal 1:1 sessions with accredited professionals. It’s all designed to help your teams and individuals develop and connect, to enhance your culture and so take you to an even more successful place.
It’s not always an easy process; humans take time to let go of long-ingrained habits and integrate new ones. But with awareness and commitment from leadership – for culture is shaped from the very top – it is possible to create the kind of work culture that becomes your competitive advantage.
At the end of the day, business is about people. As Bogle says, “We need architects to be architects, not machines.”
And that goes for all of us.
To explore these ideas or discuss the London Corporate Culture Experiment, talk to: [email protected]
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