· Features

Down with the desk: the emergence of the super-flexible workforce

The office is evolving. In the bad old days of hierarchical structures and cellular offices, people barely interacted. It was rare for an employee to visit even a colleague’s desk, let alone a different floor.

These times are long gone, but now the office is moving beyond the open-plan spaces that are commonplace today. Remote technologies, flatter organisational structures and a multi-generational workforce are demanding ever more collaborative and flexible spaces. But although there is a desire for the space and flexibility to allow 'free-range' working, cost pressures are continuing to mount on organisations, and square footage has to work harder than ever before.

We are witnessing an unprecedented generational stretch in the workplace. The average retirement age continues to rise, while at the other end of the spectrum Generation Y has been steadily filling our offices for nearly a decade. Generation Y now spans new graduate trainee roles right up to middle, and often in smaller or rapidly growing companies, senior management.

This new breed sees itself at the centre of an interconnected web of contacts across your organisation, rather than at the bottom of a traditional hierarchy tree. Well versed in social media, Gen Y expect their physical space to replicate their highly collaborative and democratic online interactions. With short-term career expectations they demand workspaces and working methods that adapt to support their results, rather than process-driven focus.

Technological innovations, from interactive walls and intelligent surfaces, to major advances in remote communications, are also driving greater and easier collaboration between office workers, field workers and home workers, creating an increasingly mobile workforce.

So how can businesses continue to foster engagement and loyalty among diverse generations under more mobile working conditions?

Offices are human environments; they need to be designed with people, to work for people, and to meet their ever-changing needs and motivations. It is time for organisations to start thinking in completely new ways about workplace design. I predict the rise of the super-flexible workspace: environments designed to be entirely adaptable to suit a workforce and marketplace in constant flux.

A lot can be learned from university and college students, who tend to work anywhere that suits their needs: parks, cafés, libraries - even on the floor! Some of us might even recall working this way. So why, when we go to work in an office environment, are we suddenly happy to chain ourselves to a desk? Do we even need a permanent station in the future workplace?

Some of the world's most pioneering brands are asking themselves just that very question, and it's not only young technology outfits. At PwC for instance, the firm used the move to their new flagship More London office to do away with permanent desks, and introduce new technologies to encourage more collaborative working. Employees log in to a central system each morning to be allocated a free space in zoned business areas. It's not only encouraged greater collaboration, as staff sit next to a new person each day, but it's freed up valuable square footage to fit in more social and client spaces.

Yet currently this is the exception, rather than the rule. Too often companies allow their crucial workspaces to be designed and specified in a vacuum without any consultation with employees or the contractors that will ultimately have to make the space a reality.

HR professionals have the ability and responsibility to unlock the full potential of the office. A well-designed space will impact staff engagement, morale and productivity, improving retention and enticing new recruits. It will encourage collaboration to drive innovation, and physically enable its occupants to adapt to a changing world.

By advocating these possibilities to your company's senior leadership, and also alerting them to the implications of future trends, you have the power to influence whether your office is an uninspiring, rapidly-dating holding pen, or a super-flexible workspace of the future.

Chris Booth, managing director at fit out and refurbishment company Overbury