In this interview, Claudia Manca, an assistant professor at the University of Bologna, discusses the challenges and tensions that arise from flex office and hybrid work policies, as well as how companies can design better spaces and managers can create productive conditions to help employees thrive in this type of office space. The interview covers her research that identified three key contradictions in collaborative workplaces that can create problems, and she shares her insights on how companies can make flex office policies less stressful for employees.
Watch the full interview:z
These days, the buzz of the business world is the “Future of Work” and how the workplace has been turned upside down in recent years. This workplace upheaval is, of course, driven by a surge in remote work and widespread adoption of “flex office” policies in the wake of the global pandemic.
If you ask Claudia Manca, researcher and Future of Work expert from the University of Bologna, that future is already here — and has brought with it some clear challenges of the flex office model.
As a researcher in the domain of flexible work and workplaces, and an assistant professor at University of Bologna and Bologna Business School, Claudia is an expert on workplace dynamics. Having conducted extensive research into the ways in which flex office and hybrid work have impacted both workers and businesses, much of her work has centered on the challenges and tensions that arise in these alternative ways of working.
We sat down with Claudia to dig deeper into the risks and opportunities of hybrid work:
How has the modern workplace changed?
In the last decade we have seen work and workplaces undergoing a dramatic transformation. Compared to 10 years ago, we now see many companies providing staff with options to work flexibly across multiple locations, often even outside the main office.
For example, many companies are implementing collaborative or flexible workplaces that we can depict as a sort of organizational coworking, an internal coworking, that aims to support collaboration across formal organizational structure like hierarchies, roles, and departments. These collaborative workplaces include what we call “activity-based design”, where permanently allocated desks and cubicles are replaced by shared floor sections and hot desks.
What we see when comparing the modern workplace or the alternative workplace with those of the past is that there is a huge difference between them. If the traditional office was characterized by high partition, assigned offices, and functional division that emphasized individualism, efficiency, and formal structure, the modern workplace by comparison is entirely different, that offers a range of “services” that support flexibility and collaboration such as interactional spaces or facilities and digital technologies that support flexible work by providing connectivity and access to work contents.
Your research has identified 3 key contradictions in collaborative workplaces. Can you explain those contradictions, and how they can create problems?
Organizations embrace flexible workplaces because they are driven by the idea that these places support flexibility and collaboration. However, these benefits sometimes fail to materialize.
What my studies suggest is that this happens because of some contradictions that arise in this type of office space. For instance, in the collaborative workplace, we know that people are expected to flexibly adjust their working conditions to thrive. However, organizations also have some structural demands that come from routines and deadlines, and these can clash against this flexibility. For instance, if I need to coordinate with my team quickly because we have an upcoming deadline, how can we do that if we don’t even know where they are sitting?
Managers sometimes address these challenges of flex office by structuring employees’ agendas around more planned interactions at the office. This can sound reasonable at first, except they are actually reducing employees’ flexibility by scheduling their time at the office which is entirely at odds with the premise of the collaborative workplace or flexible office where I’m supposed to have time and space for spontaneous encounters.
Contradiction #1: As a result, employees end up perceiving the flexible workplace as rigid.
In the collaborative workplace patterns are supposed to become more fluid. You can move around, which allows you to create ties with many more people outside your department.
And yet, as humans, we are used to organizing our relationships through stable frames of reference particularly when we are at work. Two colleagues become close not because of a chance encounter at the coffee machine but through years of contact working together on the same team.
Managers may try to recreate this social stability by asking employees to sit together creating sort of invisible boundaries around groups.
Contradiction #2: Thus, the fluid collaborative space ends up just rearranging stationary workers to facilitate planned interactions.
Finally, we know from research that exposure and privacy must be balanced in order to promote interaction. However, managers in collaborative offices often promote this ostensive engagement within the office space, suggesting that if you are in a collaborative office you need to interact just for interaction’s sake.
Contradiction #3: This can drive employees to withdraw from the office, making themselves less accessible in order to regain some privacy and some control over their interactions. So in this way, the collaborative office becomes, in fact, way less collaborative than the traditional one.
Flex Office and Hybrid Work policies are becoming widespread. Are these dynamics sources of tension in the workplace?
When it comes to my research for example, I’ve identified this tension in the conflict between the ideals of flexibility, fluidity, and exposure of these collaborative offices and people’s needs for structure, stability and privacy.
The way in which people, particularly managers, work through these tensions is fundamental for avoiding inconsistencies and creating productive conditions for people to thrive in this type of office space.
How can a Flex Office policy, where employees don’t have a dedicated desk or stable routine, be made less stressful?
First and foremost, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure that spaces are properly designed to accommodate employees’ needs so that people do not feel that the company is just disinvesting from them to reduce costs, which, realistically, is often one of the reasons underlying this type of initiative.
But of course managers have a crucial role to play, in avoiding actions which inadvertently force inconsistencies and bring negative outcomes for people in organizations.
Managers can find alternatives that aid collaboration and adaptability, and shield people from stress. For instance, rather than favoring structure over flexibility by planning more group meetings, managers can instead develop predictable routes in the office space and combine them with technologies that enhance flexibility or findability.
Or they can support social relationships by organizing social gatherings and group rituals. In this way, they create what we call “third spaces” which are places outside the conventional office hours and spaces to provide some relational stability while fluidity is preserved at work.
These alternatives allow people to be more flexible and mobile, but also facilitates connection and stability to embrace both flexibility and structure for a balanced work environment.
Recent research by Microsoft & LinkedIn refers to what they call “Productivity Paranoia” — when managers are convinced remote workers aren’t working, but employees feel they are in fact more productive at home. What’s your perspective on this?
It’s an interesting term that indeed identifies some challenges of flexible work that researchers have been aware of for quite a long time.
My perspective is this: When we work from home, managers often lose sight of employees’ activities and this comes at odds with their supervisory role. Some managers deal with this collapse of certainties, or identity threat, if you wish, by reframing their role.
In interviews with managers in flexible offices, I found that many managers no longer speak of themselves as supervisors or bosses but as coaches, so that their primary responsibility is reframed around ensuring that employees do not feel stranded or without support even if they are not co-located together.
Other managers try to cope with this paranoia by preventing people from working from home, sometimes even stigmatizing those who choose to do so. And sometimes even those who are allowed to work from home are checked up on because managers want to make sure that people are actually working at home. But this can obviously have very counterproductive effects.
We know that many people work from home not just for fun, but because they need to. They may need to balance work and life demands. So they don’t want to be suspected by managers or colleagues of taking advantage of flexibility and lose the privilege and so often, flexible workers work extra hard. They tend to make themselves overly accessible to others in order to prove that they are productive and reachable even when they are at home, which is of course a source of stress, and not the best way to support individual productivity.
What are your predictions for the future of work and workplaces?
What we know is that Covid-19 has deeply affected how and where we work. And, some may argue that this is a new trend, but in truth, the shift toward flexible offices is something that began long before the pandemic, and is already quite widespread in many countries.
The recent pandemic has just accelerated this phenomenon. So now many more companies are beginning to embrace flexible designs in order to accommodate new ways of working and to get the most out of fewer face-to-face interactions.
And in this sense, the Future of Work of course looks hybrid.
It will blend both physical and virtual locations, activities and interactions. Which of course means enhanced opportunities for work-life balance and much more opportunity for new connections. But it’s also something that is going to increase risks: risks for stress, for social isolation, or even loneliness.
We need to be aware of these risks and think about the way in which we design and manage our workplaces so that they can sustain hybrid work and support people’s wellbeing. We need to transform flexible offices into the counter-poison for the very risks that flexible work can generate. And that’s the challenge that we have ahead of us.