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The future of office design, computer-based work and changes in technology

Safe Work Month 2019

Dr Margaret Cook

Presented by: Dr Margaret Cook

This presentation will explore how design trends and technology are changing white collar work and impacting on the physical and psychological health of workers, and will highlight what to watch out for, and what to use to your advantage.

Run time: 14:18

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 13 MB)

The future of office design, computer-based work and changes in technology

Presented by: Dr Margaret Cook

[Start of transcript]

Spencer Howsen: Dr. Margaret Cook, welcome to the podcast.

Dr Margaret Cook: Thank you very much for having me here.

Spencer Howsen: What is the future of office design?

Dr Margaret Cook: Well, I mean, that is a big question, and I think the office design of the future, it's that keyword - agile. We're going to have environments that are going to be able to respond to all sorts of different things: the fact that work is changing, the fact that workers are changing, the fact that we want to be more environmentally sustainable in our work environment. So, there's some massive changes coming in the office area.

Spencer Howsen: Can you give us a taste of some that you know are coming?

Dr Margaret Cook: Okay. So, some of the obvious things that we're already seeing is this concept of what's called an agile workplace. And so, that is that nobody owns a desk. So, in a large multi-storey organisation, you'll just go in. There'll be lots of little specifically designed environments, so for meetings, for personal time, for collaborative things, to touching down between meetings, and that all these all environments are there. And throughout the day, as your tasks require, you just float in and out of the sorts of environments that you need.

Dr Margaret Cook: And we're already seeing that working. But the key problem is that the architects love it, but it doesn't necessarily flow on if the nature of your work isn't like that. So, if your work isn't made up of a whole lot of different little tasks, and if you are, yourself, not a very flexible 'go with the flow' person, that's when we're seeing some clashes.

Spencer Howsen: Yeah. Where do you sit on open-plan offices, by the way?

Dr Margaret Cook: Well, I mean, in some ways it's a pull back from the open-plan, in the respect that there will be spaces, personal spaces. So, with the traditional open-plan it was like, "You're all out there, and that's it. Deal with it," type environment. But you did all have your own desk in that environment. So, now we're creating a greater variety of spaces, but we're taking your personal space away from you. So, that's a big challenge for some people.

Spencer Howsen: Before we get onto the impact of this, what's driving it?

Dr Margaret Cook: Well, so three main things are driving it. One is just the space that you would have for an organisation. We know that when you give everyone their own space, probably 30-40 per cent of it, that we know from the research, you're not going to be sitting at your desk at any one time. You might be on annual leave, you might have a meeting, you've gone to the bathroom, you're working at home maybe that day. So, we've got a whole lot of spaces that aren't being utilised. So, that's one thing.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, an employer, an organisation, is playing for space that they're not using. And this wasn't a great deal of a problem, but with energy efficiency and green staff, of course, we can dramatically reduce the amount of energy you're using if you're only heating, cooling, lighting the space that you actually need or at any one time.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, those have been key drivers. And in collaboration with that is the thought that if we make everyone collaborate more, see each other more, we're actually moving that chat around the water cooler to the whole environment. And so, in organisations that are very collaborative, they've found that this type of approach increases the aspects of collaboration.

Spencer Howsen: Okay, what does this actually mean for the health and wellbeing of workers? There'll be pros and there'll be cons to this if it's not being driven by safety and worker wellness, but driven by other factors.

Dr Margaret Cook: Yeah. So, certainly. And we can probably put those things into two areas: the physical and the psychosocial. So, from a physical perspective, there is good potential outcome because of the whole nature. We're talking about sedentary work. You'll have heard about the new smoking, and that we're all going to die early because we spend too much time sedentary. So, in an environment that makes you move, that's going to really do good things in terms of getting us moving more, which is a good thing positively for our health. There will be niggles in terms of, some people don't like certain environments, but the idea is that you can then move into environments.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, from a physical perspective we should get some good outcomes. It's the area of psychosocial aspects and people's mental health in the workplace that's, I suppose, the biggest concern. There's a lot of opportunities. Work will have to be more autonomous. You won't be able to have a supervisor looking over you because you don't have a desk, so they can't know if you're at work. You might be in a little back corner they don't know about. So, people will have greater autonomy in their jobs, which we know has increased with job satisfaction. So, there's good aspects like that that'll come out of it. It's more flexible. They usually encourage people working at home, that helps people manage a work-life balance.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, in terms of the flexibility, there's good potential for these jobs to be more fulfilling and less stressful. But on the other side of it, of course, if you're not an active, "I love talking to everybody. I like being out in the open space," type person, that can be very challenging for people who like to get away from it. And that's, I suppose, the same thing with the open-plan offices, is that people who don't like that sort of environment find that very challenging.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, there is potential for people to have stress associated with that. And also, of course, as jobs become more autonomous, not everybody likes that. Some people actually like jobs where they are being more managed, and they feel more comfortable in that space. And so, some people may find that that's more stressful as well.

Spencer Howsen: As flexibility increases in the workplace and people can work from home or from the cafe, et cetera, that's got to have an impact on risk of injury, et cetera, hasn't it? Because there's less that the employer can control.

Dr Margaret Cook: Exactly right. And that was one of the points we made today, was that as soon as you get out of that space then it becomes hard. It's challenging for people. And also, the nature of work itself as we move away from permanent full-time work, and that was one of the other things I talked about today, and we moved. Young people are much more interested in the gig style working, so they might want to have a number of jobs and work on it on a contract basis.

Dr Margaret Cook: In terms of: how do we manage those people in a workplace? It becomes difficult. Who's responsible? If a person has three jobs, and they're all physically demanding, who's going to pick up the bill for their workers' compensation and their rehab? And how are people going to work together? So, there's going to be some challenging times as we look at how we manage injuries and who, ultimately, is going to step up and take responsibility for workplace injuries?

Spencer Howsen: Where are the solutions to be found in all of these questions?

Dr Margaret Cook: I think that I'm not sure where the solutions are. I think there's going to have to be issues around policy change, ultimately, particularly in respect to, as we move away from permanent full-time work and people become more flexible in those working arrangements. Because our workers' compensation scheme is very based on the fact that the traditional model, "I go to work. I have a permanent job in that workplace, and so therefore when I have an injury they are going to pick up the compensation. When I'm ready to return to work, they're going to run my rehab program for me."

Dr Margaret Cook: And that's accepted because you're a permanent full-time employee, and they see longevity of it. As people move more into contracting type of arrangements that level of responsibility or interest in being able to steward people through injury and rehab is going to change, and we may have to go to a model that's outside, I suppose, the workplace to be able to manage.

Spencer Howsen: What's your advice to workplaces and organisations now who are transitioning to new and agile ways of working to minimize physical and the psychosocial risks associated with the changes?

Dr Margaret Cook: I mean, I think it's all about talking to the workers. So, I'm an ergonomist, I come from a background where we talk about participative work. So, it's all about getting everybody together, getting them to talk about what they see as the challenges, what they see as the opportunities. And we see this works very well in designing physical work, and we know it's good in respect to avoiding sedentary work. So, when people work together and say, "Oh, let's have walking meetings. Let's have a standing meeting. Let's do this."

Dr Margaret Cook: So, I think harnessing workers' knowledge is harnessing workers' interest. Workers are genuinely interested, obviously, in what they do and how it impacts on their lives, how it impacts on their life at work, how it impacts on their life at home. And it's just a matter of facilitating that and working together to come up with solutions that are realistic for them and the organisation.

Spencer Howsen: How do you establish trust in these circumstances where you might not see your staff member for days on end?

Dr Margaret Cook: I think that's probably going to be more challenging for older people who have a concept that that's what you do, that you see people. And I think about young people these days, if we think about it in terms of social media, their friends are people that they don't see them every day. They might not talk to them, but they communicate in short, snappy parts.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, they've been able to build trust and relationships in quite different ways than we traditionally think, of what we think. And I think that'll be the same in the workplace, is that as this new generation comes through, they will see quick, sharp ways over the internet of being able to create links and build the trust.

Spencer Howsen: And potentially actually overwork if they're that way inclined, because they can be connected to work 24/7, can't they?

Dr Margaret Cook: Yes. And that's the other thing, because technology was the third thing I talked about, and the impact that that's going to have. And, certainly, I asked the audience, and I think only 10-12 per cent of the audience hadn't checked their emails at lunchtime. So, yes, we can't get away from it. The technology is there, and the potential to work long hours.

Dr Margaret Cook: But I think it's a matter of, again, it's going to be about creating what expectations are, and I suppose, as it's always been, nobody minds putting in the hard yards. You spend a couple of days working really long hours knowing that, "Okay, I'm going to take Friday off and go sailing." And I think it's that sort of flexibility, and as people become comfortable with that sort of arrangement, that it's a give and take, that we'll be able to create work environments that are suitable for people.

Spencer Howsen: Won't it be interesting when this young generation are running organisations? It'd be interesting to see what the next step is, whether there's some pull back the other way.

Dr Margaret Cook: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. I don't know. I mean, organisations that have moved to four-day work weeks and given all their staff an extra day off have found their productivity hasn't decreased, that people are happy to focus. And for those four days that the focus level increases, people get their things done, and then have the time off.

Dr Margaret Cook: And we've been talking about that for a long, long time, that we were going to go down that phase, everyone's going to start working less hours. And we didn't see it, of course. We saw people starting to work more hours as a general. So, I'm hopeful that the new generation, who seem to be much more interested in balance... So, young people graduating, I'm a UQ lecturer, and we see young people graduating, and a number of students graduate, and they do not want full-time work because they ride horses, they play in a band, and they see that that's an important part of themselves, and they don't want to add themselves. And they are quite successful. Of course, they're much more confident. So, they'll go to employers as a new grad and say, "I want to work for you, but I'm only going to work four days a week." And they're getting that response of "Yes, that's fine."

Spencer Howsen: And that is turning out to be a positive for both employer and employee, is it?

Dr Margaret Cook: It seems to be, yeah. The evidence seems to show that that is working well.

Spencer Howsen: Just finally, a lot of this, I guess, naturally, is white collar, because we can imagine offices and how they have changed over time. Are you seeing or imagining changes in the way physical work will be over the next 20-30 years?

Dr Margaret Cook: Definitely. And we know that the trends will be going down for physical work for us as robotics takes over. Although, looking at the predictions, yes, it will go down. It'll still be a major component. One of the areas that I also am very interested in is field-based work. And so, the sorts of technicians that people are out on the job, whether it's police or your Telstra person, we're seeing massive changes of them, which are having impact.

Dr Margaret Cook: So, traditionally, the sort of person that would go to a depot at the beginning of the day, get their jobs, socialise, talk about what happened, come back at the end of the day, have a cup of tea, talk about it all, and that's just being stripped away. So, they wake up in the morning at 6:00 am, their iPad will pop up with the jobs for the day. And then at the end of the day they'll log those jobs.

Dr Margaret Cook: And so, there's real issues about isolation, and then practical things about cars being offices, as people put in the laptop computer and everything else into your car and say, "Well, that's it. Here's your car, that's your workplace." So, I think there's some areas like that, that I'm very concerned about in terms of, particularly, about people's lack of social interaction that they have, because those traditional meeting points at the beginning and end of the day are disappearing.

Spencer Howsen: And I keep coming back to the idea of how much people will work in this situation, either underperforming or over-performing. If you've got a couple of part-time jobs, you'll probably put in extra in both jobs, and I reckon more extra hours than if you had one job and put in extra hours, if that makes sense.

Dr Margaret Cook: Yeah. No, I certainly get it. I think there is potential. And there's a lot of emphasis from young people to do things they're passionate about. So, if you're in a job that you're passionate about, you also go the extra mile, and you want to do extra work. So, I think that the message of balance is going to be very important. They have more finances. So, it doesn't mean that if they want to go on a holiday. They want to go to Europe and ski, unlike previous generations. So, they do naturally have desire. They have that balance, and they have the finances to often be able to support that.

Spencer Howsen: And, I guess, it just comes back to, there is still a responsibility on the employer to just be educating, sending out the right messages about balance, right?

Dr Margaret Cook: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. No, I mean, the worker has an obligation to create a mentally healthy workplace, and so workload in those sorts of things. But it's about being careful, because there was something talked about at an organisation I won't mention where they say, "Oh, we don't want to impose on people. We're going to ban people using email outside 9:00 to 5:00." But then somebody says, "Well, I want to be able to be flexible. I want to pick my child up from work and then do those extra two hours at night-time. So, by creating rules you're actually taking away my job satisfaction in this job."

Spencer Howsen: Yeah. It'll be really interesting to see what the impact of this flexibility has in coming years. Margaret Cook, thank you for being on the podcast.

Dr Margaret Cook: No problems. Thanks very much for having me.

[End of transcript]