Workplace evolution

After two years of fretting about the ‘new normal’ it’s clear that there isn’t going to be one. Organisational dynamics require people to be physically present most of the time. Employees need to engage with one another; see and hear their leaders; and receive behavioural cues from their managers. Customers prefer human contact for anything beyond routine repurchase decisions. Companies have adapted really well to the structures of the pandemic, but no one in their right mind would wish this to be prolonged.

But let me rephrase my opening statement: there isn’t going to be a new normal unless we decide to deliberately create one. And that presents a real opportunity to overturn the workplace paradigms of the western Industrial Revolution, now more than two centuries old. It might even help us to discover the keys to motivating the multigenerational workforce that we now employ. Four age groups with distinctive and different attitudes to life and work – truly a Human Resource Manager’s nightmare.

But we should not leave the reshaping of the workplace to the HR Department. This is a job for the leadership team, as is the creation of an organisational culture. Indeed, as the late Professor Edgar Schein of MIT Sloan business school famously opined: ‘The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you.’

The working environment you create is one of the pillars of your organisational culture. It’s a combination of workplace design and working atmosphere, and it needs to be optimised for productivity. In Africa, most leaders are surprised to hear that open plan offices may not be the solution. We have rushed to replace traditional dark paneling and overstuffed plush chairs with something brighter and better. Something, if we are honest, we have seen in the pages of American business journals and have come to covet. Without realising that American work culture can be brutally aggressive, stifling collaboration and productivity, and making work a hateful place to be. So far removed from African culture as to create an immediate emotional disconnect between employees and their daily work.

So, if you are a leader putting a few shillings aside to freshen up your workplace design, here are three recommendations to consider:

  1. Demolish windowless meeting rooms. Great ideas rarely come from the bottom of a dark hole.
  2. Replace Open Plan with Team Rooms where homogeneous groups have the privacy to build their social cohesion and practise collaboration.
  3. Create a non-hierarchical space in which to eat together. Remembering that the word company comes from the Latin to ‘eat bread’.