Work and Life Are Blurring—and That’s Good, Says Report
A new report by Staples Business Advantage confirms what we already knew: workplace wellness matters.
Interior of Makeshift Society, a co-working space in San Francisco. Image courtesy Mark Wickens.
The following post is the third in a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship to the contemporary workplace. These posts have been supported by Staples Business Advantage in part to bring light to how the workplace is changing, and in part to encourage participation in Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition – a must for any designer interested in workplace wellness and productivity. The issues brought up in this installment get to the heart of why the office deserves special attention from designers. If you are among those who also feel that these concerns are pressing, we encourage you to submit your proposals here.
Attaining work-life balance is still as hard as ever. Even with more options for flexibility, Ernst & Young reported last year that one-third of employees felt this imbalance skew more and more towards the demands of their job. Guilt, burnout, and stress are the unhappy products of how this disproportion plays out—on the one hand a feeling of professional underperformance, on the other a neglected personal life.
But increasingly, the gaps between life and labor are being questioned by a new generation of leaders, by a rising incidence of employee dissatisfaction, and by technologies that afford different forms of collaboration. A new report by Staples Business Advantage confirms that work-life balance is being supplanted by work-life integration. The Staples Business Advantage 2016 Workplace Index reveals some of the prevalent feelings in office spaces across the United States and Canada. The survey was conducted online with over three thousand office workers and decision makers. Boundaries are blurring, they found, partly because people still find their office to be the most productive for work, if not the most inspiring.
The study dismantles the illusion of the 40 hour week—91% of participants reported working more than that, at least occasionally. The resulting rate of those who experienced burnout is unsurprising, yet unacceptable, at 40%. Most blame heavy workloads and tight schedules, but the study suggests that employers can make use of design-oriented solutions to outfit a more dynamic, inviting workplace. Here are some of the suggestions from that report and others on how to approach the future workspace.
Design & Technology
On the workers’ wish list are things like natural light, private spaces, and lounge areas with furniture that is both ergonomic and versatile, like standing desks.
Employees also value having options in their office’s layout. Increased distractors, noise especially, have been casting doubts on open-office plans, but workers in no way intend to draw back into cubicles. The love-hate relationship employees feel towards their offices largely boils down to a paradox where privacy is pitted against collaboration, and productivity against inspiration.
Another report by the innovation consulting firm PSFK that came out later this year similarly considers how offices might deal with this paradox. One of their most interesting proposals is the Nomad Desk app, which allows employees to reserve space at different desks throughout the office, in cafeterias, and in common workspaces.
Open plan offices at fashion retailer Everlane’s San Francisco headquarters. Image courtesy Aaron Wojack.
Wellness & Flexibility
Benefits of modern workplaces like telecommunication and flexible work schedules are theoretically on the rise. But Ernst & Young found that there is a sense of repercussion tied to taking advantage of these highly valued perks—one in ten employees (and almost one in six millennials), feel there are unwanted consequences to their flexible schedules.
Similarly, Staples revealed that while an overwhelming amount of workers say that breaks increase their productivity, they hesitate to take them because of guilt. The disconnect extends to wellness programs like gyms and nutrition services. People value wellness and flexibility when choosing where to work (more than half look for initiatives like these in future employment), but in practice feel uneasy about making them a priority for fear of how it would be perceived.
Wellness programs decrease sick leave, improve employee turnaround, and positively affect bottom-lines, but are not enough by themselves. Similarly, Well-supplied break rooms and versatile spaces have the potential to become psychological respites. Companies must reinforce and actively encourage breaks and congeniality.
Work-life integration has already begun to change internal structures in places like Adidas, where they have an entire department dedicated to it. Reports across the board suggest that integration might even benefit from changing the language used in companies. One of PSFK’s recommendations is shifting the view from ‘employees’ to ‘advocates,’ for example.
PSFK also suggests changing traditional presentations to prototyping sessions, which incite a more participatory and hands-on approach. After all, Staples found that there is a prevailing sense that meetings go on for too long and accomplish too little.
If the idea that ‘what you do is who you are’ is becoming a reality, work must include a sense of fulfillment that reflects personal priorities and values. For example, Staples found that almost three out of four people give some weight to eco-friendliness when considering a new job. ADP Research Institute’s 2016 Evolution of Work study states similar data, citing 89% of their participants will pursue work with social impact.
At the same time, PSFK found that 41% of employees currently felt their contributions are insignificant to the company’s overarching goals, perhaps due to a lack of an adequate welcoming package. PSFK poses one example of how to tackle this by providing new hires with a Cultivate Onboarding Kit—a concept designed by the firm YourStudio to underscore the employee’s new relationship to his or her work environment.
Another suggestion by ADP is for companies to provide non-linear jobs that make it viable to keep careers going longer—60% of the participants they surveyed believe that in the future there will no longer be a standard retirement age. If so, companies must aim to design themselves as places where work and life can thrive in equal measure. With trends like these, it seems crucial that studies by Staples Business Advantage, PSFK, and others continue to unravel what these spaces might look like.