Economic recovery, the changing psychological contract and the future of the office

display_img_01There has always been a link of one sort or another between the labour market and office design. So, as the UK’s unemployment statistics continue to fall, they remain moderately high and there continue to be structural changes in the nature of work, typified by this year’s debate about the growing use of zero hours contracts. You have to wonder what impact structural changes,  levels of unemployment and redundancy (around 4 million in the UK since 2008) have had on the way we manage and design our workplaces. There is no doubt that the downturn combined with the structural changes in the way we work have had an effect on demand for commercial property, but what will it all mean in the longer term?

Some things are certain. The principle asset in the economy – data – continues to grow at an exponential rate regardless of any downturn. We talk about Big Data for a good reason, and it’s getting bigger all the time.  Earlier this year CSC produced this interactive infographic to try to visualise it all, presumably on the basis that the numbers, when written down, are too ludicrous to grasp and the terminology too bizarre to understand.  I mean, ‘zettabyte’, really? So the key feature of the new global economy – the ability of people to generate and apply information and knowledge – will continue to be one of the most important influencing factors on decisions about the workplace.

This is particularly important for new and growing businesses. The commercial superstars of tomorrow rely on employing knowledge workers and keeping hold of them for as long as possible. Success not only breeds success. Nowadays it employs it.

This has led to the conundrum that has dominated management thinking over the last two decades is this: if your main asset is knowledge and that knowledge is to a large degree locked up in people’s heads, how do you attract those heads to your organisation? Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this riddle that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking and why workplace design has focussed increasingly on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. It has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the focus on community and the growth of third space with its sofas and cafes.  It has pushed on the idea of employer branding. And it’s driven a new emphasis on knowledge management.

The main consequence of this is a new aspect to the psychological contract between employer and employee. Regardless of what is written in any formal agreement, there is a new unspoken contract which means that employers have to find new and improved ways to attract and retain employees. A quietly thriving economy not only offers us increasingly employment and skills shortages in certain sectors but as a consequence also hands the whip hand to employees who are able to demand new and better job conditions in exchange for their supposed loyalty.

This shift in the psychological contract has in some ways now been enshrined into legislation, especially with regard to the right to ask for flexible working, but also because it is increasingly hard wired into the minds of the people who are running things and employees.

Obviously these softer attitudes are not about to be swept away by the advent of Gen Y as decision makers. Although the differences between the people of this generation and those which preceded them (and who are still working),  this is the first generation of people that has no conception of a world that does not allow them to have constant and instant access to information, entertainment and other people. They are only vaguely  aware of a quaint lost world of coin-operated phones, faxes, letters, four channel television and – just imagine – no Internet, because there are dim and fading echoes of that world around us.

Each of the four generations still active in the workplace takes the new world of technology,  constant access to information and Big Data for granted in its own way, but each also has its own relationship with it and this can cause tensions in the way workplaces function. This technological generation gap is one of the major causes of tension in the workplace, as Chris Murray, Head of HR Technology of PwC argued in this week’s issue of Human Resources magazine.

The current economic climate is likely to change the already transformed relationship between employer and employee in the form of a new psychological contract. In turn this will be reflected in new cultures and hence new designs and new ways of managing the workplace. As we emerge from the current crisis, the soft principles that have shaped workplace design over the last few years are sure to become increasingly important factors in business recovery and success. In short, expect more sofas and cafes and a greater focus on the needs of the individual worker.