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Minimum Direction

For the past twenty years, workplace ideologies, constructions, and implementations have revolved around a single word…. more. As a crucial component in maintaining an organisation's competitive advantage, attracting desirable individuals, and retaining valued ones, the current workplace has been found wanting.

The modern workplace finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with an identity crisis spurred on by the unexpected shift to home offices. that, these domestic settings prove to be as effective, if not more so, in supporting employees' focused work, compared to the traditional corporate environments they once inhabited, should be a hugely embarrassing indictment of the real estate industry.  

Hope is never a great strategy  

Rather than take a leaf out of Apple’s philosophy, which values simplicity, focusing on the fundamentals and jettisoning anything that is not essential, the reaction by companies has been to offer… even more.

Revamping the workspace, swapping out individual desks for more interactive setups. Offering more perks, gadgets, and incentives in search of an all-encompassing "employee workplace experience". All of this in the poorly disguised anticipation by employers to incentivise a return to the office and maximise time spent on site in the hope of yielding greater output.  

The justification for colossal capital and operational costs associated with these revamps remains unclear. It appears as though organisations are in a Pavlovian trance, trusting a belief system without any substantial evidence of its efficacy.

The pandemic-induced exodus from offices forced a paradigm shift and the historic reliance on offices was suddenly in question. Data collected at this time remains valid in 2023: the average home is better suited for the average knowledge worker than the average office.  

The overriding hope is that eventually, employees will naturally choose to return, creating a self-sustaining "chain reaction." However, this false idea of enhancing the office and its elements, is based on the hope that everyone will be back in full force five days a week. Hope has never been a great strategy.

Form follows function

Currently, return-to-office plans are facing significant roadblocks. Why? Because offices frequently neglect the nuanced needs of their users. The creation and curation of these places has lost touch with the practical requirements of employees and the essential infrastructures needed for them to perform optimally. Compounding the issue is the lack of clarity among employers regarding the purpose of their workplaces.  

Form follows function is a principle of design and architecture dating back to the early 19th Century. Whilst still valid the equation is no longer applicable because organisations have neglected to try and understand the employees functional necessities or their intended activities.  

Back to basics  

It is now imperative for employers to redefine the purpose of their workplaces. This must start with a deep dive into the true value of physical spaces to an organisation.  

This revelation poses a challenge for traditional offices, designed solely for work purposes. Early diagnosis pinpoints a critical failure: activities requiring acoustic privacy are better supported at home than in open-plan offices. While offices excel at collaborative 'we work', they consistently lag behind homes in supporting solitary 'me work.'

The core challenge is that corporate offices have lost sight of their crucial role in supporting deep, individual work. The relentless pursuit of higher place productivity comes at the cost of team wellbeing and productivity.  

Between March 2020 and today, a simple transformation occurred, employees adapted their homes for optimal remote work support while employers were preoccupied with schemes to lure employees back to what are fundamentally unchanged offices.  

Employees modified their homes to enhance remote work support, but employers hesitated, grappling with the notion that only employees physically present in the office could achieve a singular organisational purpose.

If you buy into the notion that “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. You will not be surprised to learn that those with vested interests in the real estate sector, have been reluctant to change and, reject the necessity for any form of correction or transformation, while designers continue to present visually appealing schemes, hoping to portray workplaces as the collaborative saviour of business.  

Changing work patterns  

From a data perspective, a full system reset is imperative. The workplace's functional purpose has subtly deviated from supporting what employees are there to do. Work has not become more collaborative; instead, it has grown more complex as advanced automation eliminates menial tasks and knowledge work is becoming more complex.

Employers and designers must reclaim the essential principle that the form of a workplace should derive from its intended function. For most employees, focused tasks are critical, and if the corporate office fails to support such work, employees cannot be blamed for having a compelling reason to stay home.  

While offices should reinforce community and collaborative endeavours, they must also support increasingly concentrative tasks. Recognising employees' changed work patterns is crucial, especially with the prevalence of video-first communication and the pandemic-induced habit of back-to-back schedules.

The Minimum Viable Office  

Neil Usher’s concept of the Minimum Viable Office (MVO) revolves around the idea of creating a workspace that fulfils the essential needs and functions with the least possible resources, ensuring efficiency and flexibility.  

Much like the Minimum Viable Product in the business and product development realm, the Minimum Viable Office emphasises the core elements necessary for a productive work environment without unnecessary frills or excess.

In practical terms, the MVO incorporates the fundamental components required for a functional office space, such as ergonomic furniture, good but basic technological infrastructure, and a collaborative atmosphere. The emphasis is on creating an environment that supports the essential activities and workflows of a team or organisation without unnecessary complexity or costs.  

The MVO concept is particularly relevant in the context of the evolving nature of work, with remote and flexible work arrangements. It recognises that the traditional office setup may not be essential for all functions, and organisations can streamline their physical workspace to meet the minimum requirements for effective collaboration and productivity.

By embracing the Minimum Viable Office, businesses can optimise resource allocation, reduce overhead costs, and adapt to the changing dynamics of the modern workplace. It encourages a focus on functionality, adaptability, and the integration of technology to create a workspace that aligns with the needs of the workforce and the goals of the organisation, promoting a lean and efficient approach to office design and management. Establishing the basis of a new minimum viable office, will aim to compete with homes for the best place to work.  

The reset is based on the belief that building a positive corporate culture is easier when colleagues value time spent together. The call does not mandate office attendance but underscores the importance of workplaces understanding the nature of the work intended to be done there.

In essence, the form a workplace takes should directly result from the functional requirements of the employees it accommodates, derived from a clearly communicated organisational purpose.  

Form follows function, and function follows purpose.

People  I  Place  I  Performance

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