Workplace futures

29 : 03 : 2016 Bleisure : Gen Z : Office Design
Film by Kathryn Ferguson and Ana Kinsella for Selfridges says Work It! campaign, London

We first observed the rise of Bleisure, the convergence of business and leisure, back in 2009. Since then, the boundaries between work and play have dissolved drastically. ‘We are seeing workplaces that are more intelligent, connected and human-orientated – a move from facilities management to hospitality,’ explains Jeremy Myerson, co-founder of the The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. This hints at the convergence taking place in workplaces that are now as much about leisure, wellness and hospitality as they are about observation, quantification and efficiency.

Employers have been fixated on Millennials for years, but members of this cohort are now in their late 20s or early 30s, and are not the young guns they once were. For clues on the future workplace, we need to look towards members of Generation Z, who will soon enter employment and bring a host of strange habits and fresh expectations with them.

‘Tomorrow’s workers are not seeking lifetime employment. They are seeking lifetime learning. They connect, create, contribute and collaborate whenever and wherever it makes sense,’ says Philip Auerswald, economist and author of The Coming Prosperity. Rather than following the three life stages of education, career and retirement, members of Generation Z are looking for more flexible working patterns and lifelong learning.

According to Emergent Research, more than 40% of the US workforce, or 60m people, will be independent workers in the next five years. This has led to a boom in co-working spaces, with big names such as WeWork and Second Home making huge market gains in recent years. Less familiar offerings, such as Tribes in the Netherlands, have introduced quirky features such as office elders and mentors.

Mobile digital connectivity also defines this next generation of workers. Half of the world’s population will be using mobile devices to access the internet by 2020 and the number of mobile internet users in the developing world will double to 3bn in the same period, according to GSMA intelligence. This has given rise to a peripatetic workforce that is comfortable setting up shop just about anywhere. New services are playing to this shift, such as Jobbatical, which enables people to take extended sabbaticals while working.

Wellness is another trend set to transform the future workplace. Instead of creating stress and anxiety, the office environment may soon become a therapeutic space. Mood-enhancing foods are just one of the ways that this trend may manifest, such as Dr Smood’s smart foods, which have attracted interest from big employers such as Goldman Sachs. We will also begin to see wellness reflected in office design. Situ Fabrications recently incorporated an immersive James Turrell light sculpture into the office design for an unnamed New York client.

It’s not all mood lighting and emotion-enhancing snacks however. With 47% of employment in the US at risk over the next 10–20 years due to the threat of automation, according to the Oxford Martin School, the next generation of workers are sceptical about the promise of a job for life. Already, Lex Machina software predicts the outcome of patent disputes more accurately than lawyers and eBay’s algorithms settle more than 60m disputes a year – three times that of the entire US legal system. White collar professions may no longer be the safe bet they once were.

This is leading to a boom in entrepreneurialism, with 63% of Generation Z expressing a desire to study entrepreneurship, according to a study by Northeastern University. Employers are adapting to accommodate this by offering opportunities for intrapreneurship within their corporate structure. The Net Set app by Yoox Net-A-Porter Group was subject to an internal pitch process for seed capital and Sony’s First Flight is a crowdsourcing venture that funds projects developed by employees. To keep the future worker on board, employers will need to open up and offer more opportunities for the individual.

Long-term career success is increasingly about individual skill sets rather than traditional criteria such as a first-class degree. ‘I’m not going to employ someone because they have a degree in journalism, I’m going to employ them if they have the right tone of voice on Twitter,’ says Thomas Gorton, editor of Dazed Digital. This might sound like the end of days, but respected employers, such as Penguin Publishing, are removing degree qualifications from their recruitment criteria in the recognition that they no longer reflect the skills needed to succeed in the modern media landscape.

Increasingly, workplaces need to be built around the people that inhabit them rather than as a means of controlling them. Take a hint from Generation Z and harness the best of digital technology, but also remember the importance of physical space, serendipity and human emotions. If the first wave of globalisation was about countries and the second was about corporations, today’s business environment is all about individuals. The workplaces that best adapt to this thinking will be the ones that succeed, while the rest will fade to grey.

For more on the future of the office, see our 2016 Workplace Summit Report