Forum examines future of technology, workspace design


Fifth Third Bank’s offices across its multistate footprint are being redesigned to feature a more open concept. Courtesy Ross Van Pelt, RVP Photography

Speakers at a recent event said in a rapidly changing world, it will be more important to have a business strategy guiding all technology and workspace decisions.

Grand Rapids-based workspace design company Custer, along with local law firm Rhoades McKee and Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, hosted an event Oct. 18 called “The Future Forum: Exploring the New Frontiers of Technology, Workspace Design and Employment.”

Speakers and panelists included Keith Brophy, technologist and director of Business Lab, Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan; Rich Benoit, workplace consultant, Steelcase; Sara Molina, VP of design and development, Custer; Marisa Griggs, employment attorney, Rhoades McKee; and Shannon Solomon, assistant VP and workplace program leader, Fifth Third Bank.

In presentations preceding a panel discussion, each speaker shared views on how the workplace and employment may change in the coming years based on what Brophy called the technology “earthquake” happening now and the “tsunami” of workplace change to come as baby boomers exit the workforce.

Some focused on the millennials and the emerging Generation Z, while others discussed the way baby boomers — the second-largest generation in the workforce today behind millennials, according to a Pew Research Center report in April — adapt to change.

The speakers said companies should adopt the technology and workspace design that will drive business results, implement change management plans to ease transitions and develop policies governing the acceptable use of employer-provided mobile devices for legal compliance.

Design as a driver

As a consultant, Benoit spends time with Steelcase customers around the country using research findings to help organizations shift their thinking about design.

“Every organization is looking at how you create great business results. That’s why we’re in business,” he said. “And the world of work has changed exponentially now, whether it’s through technology or it’s through some of these other mechanisms. But we really start to leverage the idea that work is all about an experience. And the reason experiences are important is they drive business results.”

He said having access to the internet of things and office settings optimized to each type of work done throughout a day has been shown to affect the way employees think and change their behavior.

“We look at the factors that are drivers and that are enablers — tools like the phone in your pocket, the laptop, the high-definition video conferencing — all of those things are tools that are embedded into space and enable people to do their best work,” Benoit said.

In an age when employees often can work from anywhere, he said providing personal and high-quality virtual connections, superior technology and appealing surroundings will help draw people back to the workplace.

Design as a problem-solver

Molina, of Custer — which is a Steelcase dealer — said the workplace of the future will need to evolve to solve today’s problems, including technology oversaturation.

“Technology is going to proliferate — the ‘always on’ kind of work mentality. We’re already having it. Nobody shuts down at the end of the day. We’re overstimulated,” she said.

“The work environment itself has been an area of reprieve. It has to promote good work/life habits, not just work/life balance. Balance signifies a balance of time, whereas habits signify the quality of the work environment.”

Molina said at most companies today, people, place and technology are supported separately when they should be treated holistically.

“The solution is people, place and technology together,” she said. “Steelcase and Custer believe that employees are everything and that in order to provide this healthy ecosystem, we have to consider the sum of these three. They have to work together in a cohesive manner.”

Molina said she believes offices of the future will be referred to as “smart buildings” to signal ecologically, socially and technologically smart developments beyond LEED certification and basic connectivity.

“The office building needs to react for us. We’re talking about the introduction of the internet of things and AI (artificial intelligence), and these are things that we just can’t predict,” she said.

Molina noted capabilities that already exist — such as workstations that tell users when to move for wellness, touch or sight-activated vending machines and appliances, and “Rosie the Robot” as a receptionist — will become widespread, in addition to quality-of-life provisions in the workplace.

“In order to promote balance, we’re going to have to provide for those higher-quality spaces that we are talking about: areas of respite, areas to recharge, fitness/health facilities, a mother’s room/lactation rooms so we can just kind of have a moment to ourselves to do human things.”

Design on display

Solomon, of Fifth Third Bank, is leading change management and technology implementations for the bank’s OurWorkplace redesign, an open-plan office environment being rolled out in the bank’s 10-state footprint between 2016 and 2022.

She echoed Benoit and Molina’s findings that transforming the workspace changes employee behavior.

“We’re not just giving our employees new technology; we’re not just giving them new furniture and a fresh coat of paint,” she said. “We are giving them more options. We’re giving them variety. We are enabling mobility in the space that I have not seen before.”

The “options” include height-adjustable desks; frosted glass office walls that provided acoustical separation and visual privacy for HR personnel and those that handle sensitive data, while also letting more light in; huddle rooms; commons; meeting rooms with glass whiteboards and wireless audiovisual conferencing on TV monitors; 100 percent mobile technology for employees, including Bluetooth phone calls from laptops instead of desk lines — the list goes on.

Legal risks

Griggs, of Rhoades McKee, noted equipping employees with so much technology comes with built-in risks companies need to plan for proactively — including the need to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

FLSA requires employers to pay nonexempt, or hourly, employees for hours they are “suffered or permitted to work,” she said, including a pattern of repeated after-hours work from mobile devices, even if employees say they are OK with doing it for free.

To prevent after-hours work by employees at companies that have a “no overtime” policy, Griggs suggested employers don’t issue company cellphones or laptops to nonexempt employees and have IT block them from connecting their work email to their personal phone. In the event of a violation, employers still have to issue overtime pay but are free to discipline the employee according to company policy.

Griggs said other issues that likely will increase in the future include the commingling of personal and work data on personal mobile devices, creating issues in the event of sudden resignations, and the handling of sensitive data off-premises, both of which already are concerns.

Managing change

Brophy, of BCBSM, said change denial and resistance led to the death of companies like Sears, Toys R Us and Radio Shack, so it’s important for business leaders to keep an open mind.

“Typically, when companies die or lose their relevance, it’s not a lightning bolt that comes out and sweeps them away. It’s the ship slowly heading toward the iceberg.”

He said the “earthquake beneath our feet of technology transformation” and the “tsunami of a workforce shortage” as baby boomers retire means companies need to take steps now to ease the transition.

“The change will come more rapidly than we’re used to, so a couple of coping strategies include building a company of change warriors with different skill sets that are needed. You need someone that’s flexible, resilient and curious about the world that will embrace the change” and will buy into “the psychology of encouragement,” Brophy said.

Fifth Third leverages “change champions,” according to Solomon. Benoit said the same is true at Steelcase and often looks like millennials working “shoulder to shoulder” with boomers to ease pushback, in addition to clear communication from management.

“People will always push back on what you’re doing because they don’t know why you’re doing it,” Benoit said.

“If any of you are familiar with Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle,’ it goes back to the why. People don’t argue with business strategy. So if the business strategy is to create a more open, accessible environment to make the leaders more available … then people tend to get a little less concerned about what you are taking away from me because the why is all about improving performance.”

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