People hate their jobs and workspaces. In fact, a full 66% of the American workforce claims to be disengaged at work. Yikes. But today’s business leaders didn’t sit around and do nothing. They took note and responded with the more “fun and collaborative” open office plan. And how is that working out?

Is Open Office Killing Us?

“Open-plan offices kill productivity, according to science,” reads a recent Inc Magazine headline. “Open office plans are as bad as you thought,” a Washington Post headline reads. So apparently that plan isn’t helpful either. But more importantly, people trying to fix this problem of engagement at work are missing the critical point. The solution isn’t about open or closed office; it’s about flexible office space. Flexibility is the future. I’ll explain why very shortly, but let’s take a brief look at the world we live in first.

Our work is changing because our world has irrevocably changed. We can’t assume that technology and the shift to knowledge work isn’t fundamentally upending the way people engage a physical workspace. Every 12 to 18 months, computers double their capability. That means in just 6 years computers will be about 32 times more advanced than they are right now. Wowza. The amount of technological advancement that happened in 2001 happens every 30 seconds today according to research by The Emerging Future. We can no longer approach work from the same industrial mindset we’ve used for well over 100 years. Maybe that’s where the disconnect is happening?

Don’t You Want Off the “Assembly Line” too?

When I read headlines about “productivity levels” in the office, I think of Henry Ford and his assembly line. It conjures this idea of continued optimization to be an efficient “assembly line” for work. The traditional thinking goes that increasing the bottom line can only be done by reducing costs and increasing efficiencies of people. But what if our work was no longer just about increasing efficiencies? What if technology took the place of efficient work, leaving humans to solve creative challenges and tackle innovative ideas? In this scenario, work is about influence, collaboration, flexibility, and inspiration.

A recent Fidelity research report found, “better quality of work life is worth a $7,600 pay cut for millennials.” The challenge we need to recognize is not the open or closed office plan as much as a breakdown in the way companies want employees to operate. Much of the work done today is not about cranking out widgets at ever increasing rates. Today, projects require sprints of focused work and times of deep collaboration. Employees require creative collaboration across functional teams at certain moments and isolated focus at others. The future of work is not an open office or closed office; it’s flexible workspace that is dynamic to an individual’s needs. We need space that can adjust to the shifting environment and innovative challenges employees tackle today. We must eliminate the horrible breakdown between the work employees must do that space they must do it within.

“Be more collaborative, here is your high walled cubicle.” “Think deeply, here is your seat in this loud open office environment.” Do we see the irony?

This isn’t about an age or a generation or a certain style. This is about a changing world that requires different types of work than our real estate has been serving over the past century.

Your physical space has a significant impact on your work. Those that see collaborative office plans only through a lens of reducing productivity are missing half of the equation. People are stressed at work today because their space doesn’t line up with the work they are asked to do. You can’t give people an open and collaborative space while asking them to do rote work with great efficiency. That will cause all kinds of frustration. The environment has to align with the required output.

“In a world where money is no longer the primary motivating factor for employees, focusing on the employee experience is the most promising competitive advantage that organizations can create,” writes Jacob Morgan, the author of, “The Future of Work.”Creative problem solving isn’t about efficiencies between 9 AM and 5 PM. Would you sacrifice 10% efficiency for a 30% increase in talent retention or a more robust culture? How valuable are creative solutions to your greatest challenges? These things may be more powerful today for some businesses than simply increasing productivity by 3.7%.

Office space needs to reflect not only the work that you do but the way that you do that work. It needs to indicate the kind of people you want to attract and partner with. Though an open office plan or a shared workspace may slightly decrease productivity in a certain sense, it may substantially increase the type of talent that you can attract and retain as a company. Certain kinds of talent may be more attracted to a different kind of office plan than something that is segmented and walled off.

We need flexible spaces that adjust to our work, not people that adjust to our space.

Can’t Office Be A Simple Subscription?

So what is the solution? I’m experimenting with this new idea of “space as a service.” The concept I’m launching here in Omaha is called Populus. Today, software as a service (SAAS) has taken over most of the products we use. A flexible product that lives in the cloud, which is constantly updated and rented on a monthly fee instead purchased outright. For those that can remember, this has not always been the case. At one time you purchased Microsoft Windows on a CD ROM and you owned it. Then, when a new version launched a few years later, you purchased it again. Today, I pay $10 or $15 per month for many services that are constantly being tweaked and updated. Netflix, Dropbox, Dollar Shave Club, or Stitch Fix are just a few of these products as a service. Why shouldn’t the workspace in which we spend a third of our life operate the same? At our current rate of change, it will likely be only a year or two (maybe less) until the needs of the space change again. Shouldn’t your office environment constantly adjust to these needs in a flexible way?

Today, I believe people need access to a flexible and inspired space for which they pay monthly and receive a fully featured office as a consistently updated service. Some of their work may require focused time in a private office. Some of their work may require collaborating with other companies and networking. Sometimes their work may require hosting large groups. Their work may happen overnight or on the weekends. How do we give individuals and small businesses access to space that serves them in each of these roles? I hope to solve this problem of flexible space as a service with Populus.

The idea that research has debunked open office space isn’t wrong, but it is missing the point. Open and flexible office space is not about the industrial revolution mindset of increasing productivity by a percentage point. Flexible office space, a more collaborative type of workspace, is about culture and knowledge work. It’s about a space that can respond to different kinds of work needs. It’s about attracting and retaining the right type of talent. Your workspace should reflect the way you work. That’s why we’re building the future of work at Populus.

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