We’ve seen several businesses investing huge amounts of money in creating office spaces that foster creativity and boost workforce morale. Take for example Google, which provides employees with pool tables and bowling alleys, or Apple which spent an estimated $16.7m on a gym at its new headquarters.

Kitting out your office with these expensive features may be appealing, but whether the facilities improve business performance is still up for debate. There is little doubt though, that developing the right workplace environment is something many companies struggle with. For instance, a recent report from Leesman found that 46% of UK employees feel their current workplace doesn’t enable them to work productively.

However, when companies attempt to improve productivity, it’s important, now more than ever before, that we focus on the people who do the work rather than the place they work from. There needs to be a recognition that working habits are changing, and modern employees prefer to work in a different way than previous generations.  With that in mind, the tools workers use to carry out their responsibilities are often more significant than the location.  

Open plan problems

There is no doubt that changes to workplace environments are well-intentioned, but many have failed to help individuals to perform effectively. The recent trend for employers to turn their offices into open plan spaces is one such example.

By providing a large, airy work environment, business executives hoped that employees from different departments would intermingle and this would help spark collaboration. It was felt the greater engagement would also help to make staff members feel more included in the wider business operations.  

Although, while they may have succeeded in creating more sociable workplaces, these spaces have several drawbacks:

1.      Ability to focus

An environment where employees stop to chat every few minutes creates constant disruptions and can be a nuisance. It can hinder concentration and seriously impact productivity. Sometimes workers need a quiet spot, so they can focus on the task in hand or hold a private conversation with a colleague.

2.      Collaboration

The idea that an open plan office will inspire collaboration is good in theory, but not always in practice. BT futurologist Dr Nicola Millard has been highly critical of this argument. She points out that unless staff are in close proximity collaboration is still unlikely to happen in reality. Having processes and digital tools in place to facilitate and encourage teamwork is far more effective – regardless of where members may be located.

3.      Flexible working

We need to recognise that the place of work can now be anywhere, it’s no longer exclusively tied to an office or factory. The growth in mobile technology has given rise to flexible working, which is allowing employees to work from home, a hotel lobby or wherever they may be. Dr Millard describes these employees as ‘shoulder-bag workers’, who can fit their office in a rucksack and shift their working environment to wherever their team wants to meet – be that in the office or a coffee shop. Supporting this style of working has become particularly significant since it became a right to request flexible working arrangements.

Meeting modern employee needs

From a HR perspective, this type of untethered working has major implications. With an increasing number of employees preferring to work flexibility from remote locations, it is vital we have tools in place to support them, wherever and whenever they want to work. 

Departmental heads can put tools in place to assist with collaboration and project management. But staff, who are operating offsite or outside traditional office hours, also need access to basic HR functions. What HR systems are in place to manage absence, expense claims or log hours worked? These requirements have resulted in many companies deploying employee self-service platforms that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

When staff are not present in the office, it also creates other problems. For example, it becomes trickier to manage wellbeing and identify when a problem may exist. This makes these digital tools even more crucial as they can help highlight warning signs, such as persistent lateness or absence.

As organisations take steps to improve employee productivity and adapt to modern working practices, it’s important that HR departments keep pace with these changes and facilitate changing behaviour. Especially as staff are operating more remotely than ever. With the right HR systems in place, companies can then stay close to employees regardless of the location.