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Wednesday, Dec 11th

Is the smart office of the future even an office at all?

Is the smart office of the future even an office at all?

As we usher in the new year, business leaders will be looking at how they can adapt their workplace to drive greater productivity, engagement and collaboration. The last five years has seen countless businesses modelling tech brands like Google, by investing in in-house perks such as beer taps, table tennis and pick and mix stands. While gimmicks like this are effective ways of getting new employees in the door, do they really have a positive impact on performance?

Research produced by Microsoft has found that only 11.4% of European employees feel highly productive at work. When businesses drill down on the reasons behind this, the most common concerns are having no quiet place to work and "visual noise" - distractions which pull employees eyes away from their desks. With employees already struggling to concentrate in a normal business environment, pool tables don't seem like the right answer. In fact, business leaders should be asking themselves whether a traditional office with four walls is really the answer at all.

Remote working is becoming increasingly popular, and whilst it still generates hot debate, research has found that remote workers are actually performing better than their on-site co-workers. In fact, there are some businesses who have moved to a completely remote working model, stating that this has improved not only employee productivity, but also satisfaction, whilst mitigating the costs associated with a physical office.

Small businesses may be most drawn to this solution. Traditionally, small businesses might have felt compelled to hire space, despite it being unaffordable and sometimes unnecessary, because technology was not advanced enough to make flexible working viable. But with the continued evolution of smart digital tools, decision makers will be better placed to determine: is an office truly right for my business?

Collaboration

To answer that question, we first must consider the issue of collaboration. Naturally, being physically present in a space with other people makes collaboration more likely – and more necessary.

Furthermore, as organisations have been working to remove the physical boundaries in the workplace, this has sparked the open office revolution – fewer walls, and a steadfast objective of making collaborations faster and easier. And it works: open meeting spaces and communal areas such as kitchens and sofa spaces all have the desired effect of bringing together people in a more comfortable, and creative space. But while this means that colleagues can more easily speak with teammates and share ideas, it can also create a lot of unnecessary sound and movement which may impact employee productivity.

Technology increasingly allows us to overcome business challenges and has birthed a multitude of web-enabled collaborative tools designed to help bring teams together, without the office. As businesses explore more flexible forms of working, technology is making it simpler and cheaper than ever before for businesses to overcome the obstacle of distance and preserve collaboration.

Google docs was the first of its kind for collaboration platforms - allowing multiple people to work on a single document simultaneously and bounce ideas off each other in real-time. Since then, the market has grown enormously, with tools from Asana to Flock helping workers work well together, regardless of location. Research shows that online collaboration tools like this can improve team efficiency and enable employees to stick to their task for 64% longer than those who are working alone. The reasons behind this are no surprise - employees have faster access to information, immediate feedback and can more easily manage documents and tasks. And of course, while designed for use in an office context, these tools can perform the same function for remote teams.

However, investments like this have to be aligned to a business's working environment. A purely people-centric approach to collaboration can risk undermining the business if not fully thought out. There is no one size fits all solution in terms of collaborative technology; the right decision needs to balance business-centricity with working culture and depends very much on the desired outcomes of the company.

Productivity

What about productivity? Across Europe, workplace productivity has seen limited growth since 2010 and this ongoing concern from business leaders has led to widespread discussion about how to improve employee output. In the office, it's easy to monitor progress and check-in with employees, which is one of the primary reasons it has remained a constant in the running of a business.

Research found that a lack of clear goals was the most common factor behind project failure and for workers inside an office, this should not be difficult to mitigate. However, for companies with remote workers, the question of how to set objectives and gauge how employees perform against these is crucial. As cloud has become more commonplace, we have seen a rise in cloud-based project management solutions, which help widely dispersed teams achieve objectives.

Productivity solutions, such as Trello provide better visibility of project goals and deadlines to ensure teams, wherever they might be based, stay on top of work. In fact, 77% of high performing projects reportedly used digital project management software to stay on track. The evidence suggests these offer good ROI and puts to rest concerns about being unable to track or relate employee progress.

Engagement

In the past, organisations feared that without face to face contact, remote employees would feel disengaged from work. We used to think of a physical experience as more engaging than a virtual one, because we can touch, hear, see, smell or even taste it and it has a total effect on our attention.

However, if you look around you today, the majority of people will be engrossed in a digital device, whether that is a phone, tablet or computer all creating unique and immersive experiences. Sage identified the key factors that impacted employees' engagement including, an agile environment, connected community, co-working space and purpose. If we evaluate each of these aspects, these are all things that technology can achieve.

Video conferencing, for instance, is now a staple in workplace communication and is connecting colleagues around the world. In one global study, 92% of employees surveyed believe that video collaboration technology helps to improve relationships and fosters greater teamwork. It also allows for employees to cultivate a co-working space in an agile environment; individuals can meet their teams from a coffee shop in London or even a hotel in Bali.

In the future, widespread implementation of 5G will make this form of communication even more life-like and immersive. With higher speeds and lower latency, 5G will make virtual reality meetings a possibility, enabling employees to feel like they are actually in a room with their colleagues. It begs the question, if you can create a life-like enough simulation of a physical space that meets the needs of employees, do you need a real one?

Satisfaction

Workplace design and technology go hand in hand, and increasingly they are one and the same – entire office environments are available on digital workplace portals specifically designed to meet the objectives and values of an organisation. Ultimately, the question of what the office of the future looks like for your business comes down to the type of organisation business leaders are trying to create. Collaboration, productivity and engagement are key to the long-term success of a business, and we have seen how technology can help to drive this whether in an office or some remote location.

However, key in all of this, is selecting tools and a workplace design that enhances employee satisfaction. When employees have the freedom and tools to work in their own way, their satisfaction grows exponentially and for businesses this marks improved productivity, reduced churn and a bigger bottom line.

While there is no single solution, and a combination of a physical office and remote working capabilities works for most enterprises, companies today have more freedom than ever to consider whether they need four walls to make their business a success.

By Dana Eitzen, Corporate & Marketing Communications Executive at Canon SA.

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