Six experts from four countries got on stage to discuss the workplace of the future and to give us a roadmap for organizational success

Workplace Design Conference 2020 - Insights from six experts on the workplace of the future

How can we work better? How can we create better workplaces? What does the workplace of the future look like?

These questions have been explored at countless forums and events lately, as health measures and government regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have suddenly accelerated the disruption of the workplace.

So what did the Workplace Design Conference 2020 add to the conversations? A lot of clear, straightforward and practical answers.

Six experts from four countries took the stage to discuss workplace design through the lenses of architecture, research, psychology, organizational design and change management. The presentations touched on an array of highly relevant topics, and together they formed a logical and insightful narrative – a roadmap to workplace and business success.

Author & Speaker, RandyGage.com, USA
Development Director, Leesman, UK
Founder & CEO, theLivingCore, Austria
WP Strategist & Change Manager, Workplace Unlimited, UK
Founder & Principal Architect, Kragelj Architects, Slovenia
Architect & Project Manager, Kragelj Architects, Slovenia
At the end of this jam-packed event, the live and virtual audiences walked away with a suite of tips they can immediately implement, as well as beautiful memories of this engaging and fun day. We’ve captured some of the key takeaways below.
Randy Gage, the star speaker of WDC20, takes the virtual stage from Miami.
Anetta Pizag

Anetta Pizag

Anetta Pizag is an expert consultant
for workplace change projects, editor-in-chief of Kragelj Design blog and member of the Advisory Board. She is the author of Create a Thriving Workspace and is working on her second book.

Anetta Pizag

Anetta Pizag

Anetta Pizag is an expert consultant
for workplace change projects, editor-in-chief of Kragelj Design blog and member of the Advisory Board. She is the author of Create a Thriving Workspace and is working on her second book.

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1. It’s time to ask some big questions about the future

Bostjan Erzen, co-founder, and director of the Workplace Design Conference opened the event with some key questions for the audience.

How will we work in the future?  How will we live our lives?  How will we learn and play and socialize?

He was confident that WDC20 speakers as well as the discussions in the audience will offer the answers to at least some of these questions.

He concluded his opening note with optimism about ample opportunities in times of crisis.

“There’s never going to be a better time than right now to seize these opportunities and start something new.” – Boštjan Eržen, co-founder and director of WDC

All speakers agreed that we’re experiencing a turning point.  Despite the challenges and losses we have all been experiencing during 2020, we have a great opportunity to tackle big questions and rethink how we live and work.

As confirmed by the results of the Slovenia Workplace Survey, people expect to spend more time working from home after the pandemic.

“How many days are you likely to spend in the office when you go back post-COVID?” – Nigel Oseland

Workplaces will continue to play an important role, but their purpose will be different. What the workplace of the future will be like is up to us to decide. We need to engage in real conversations, and use all the knowledge and insights we gained during this 2020 ‘experiment’ to make smart decisions.

How can we improve the way we work? What should we do differently? How should we move forward? How can we better serve our customers?

“A workplace change project is an ideal opportunity to reexamine how your business works.” – Alenka Kragelj Eržen

Despite the challenges, we have a great opportunity to tackle big questions and rethink how we live and work.

Even if a business has been hugely successful until now, this is no time for complacency. Businesses may need to reinvent themselves to stay successful, and leaders will need to find new ways to lead in the new economy. 

The workplace is continually changing and evolving. Although we’ve learnt a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic about how we could work better, we need to keep exploring and experimenting. With a curious and open-minded approach, we’ll also find it easier to understand the changes around us and to seize new opportunities as they emerge.

Nigel Oseland presents the results of the Slovenia Workplace Survey

Even if a business has been hugely successful until now, this is no time for complacency.

2. Whether they work in an office or at home, people’s experiences vary

We learned from Leesman’s extensive surveys that people working from home, on average, are doing well. They tend to feel happier and more productive compared to working in an office.

Having said that, focusing on average results could be a mistake. The truth is that people’s experiences vary greatly, wherever they work. For instance, when working from home, many employees have a fantastic experience, while approximately one in four actually struggle.

Some of the factors that can make a difference:

“‘Wellbeing is under scrutiny even more now, with regards to home working.” – Kyle De Bruin

In Slovenia, most employees said they found it easy to communicate via digital platforms, and managed to organize their time better. They also enjoyed working away from the usual distractions of an office environment.

At the same time, they felt somewhat disconnected from their teams. Defining boundaries between work and life was another common challenge, along with dealing with the usual distractions of home life. What distractions? Think ’family, the biscuit tin, and cups of tea …’

The Slovenia Workplace Survey has also revealed unexpected insights. Typically, people prefer to work from home when they need to focus deeply. But some employees can actually concentrate better in the office.

Introverted personalities tend to find it easier to work in isolation. However, when working from home, extroverted survey participants felt more productive, on average, than introverts – which was surprising to see.

“When you do surveys, we love getting a surprise result.” – Nigel Oseland

When working from home, many employees have a fantastic experience, while approximately one in four actually struggle

Interestingly, even different countries are responding differently to the necessity to work from home. Slovenian employees have a greater desire to see their colleagues in person, and are planning to spend more time in the office in future, compared to many other nationalities.

What’s the key takeaway? We really need to pay more attention to the individual’s needs.

We really need to pay more attention to the individual’s needs.

3. The role of the office space is shifting, but remains as important as ever

Most of our presenters touched on the changing role of the workplace, and it was interesting to hear their different perspectives.

Nigel pointed out that employees want and need to get together in person to connect with each other, collaborate and socialize. They also seek a sense of belonging. Digital communication cannot replace face-to-face interactions, and people who spend a lot of time working from home often feel isolated and lonely.

Remote work also prevents impromptu interactions, which play a key role in innovation and workplace learning.

“We ask people, “why do you want to go to the office?” – Nigel Oseland

Survey results don’t show the whole picture … Employees who feel highly productive at home are probably mostly focusing on short-term goals and individual deliverables. But the question remains: How are team performance and broader organizational goals supported through home-based work?

Thomas emphasized that the physical environment can drive behaviors and mindsets. But before diving into workplace design, we must get clear about the purpose of the project. What do people need to do in the space to support long-term success? What is missing from current practices? Where are the blind spots?

As Randy explained so passionately, the workplace should allow every person to become the best possible version of themselves. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and a great space can certainly inspire them to overcome challenges and create meaningful change.

“True leadership is going to be about inspiring people to become the highest possible version of themselves.” – Randy Gage

And finally, Alenka mentioned that the workspace can also be used as a strategic tool. A well-designed environment can help attract the best and brightest, and promote innovation. It can even galvanize people to become the best ambassadors of the brand.

Whichever perspective resonates with you most, one thing is clear: design is not the main objective. The workplace is a tool for individual and business success, and we should always start the design process with the end in mind.

Employees who feel highly productive at home are probably mostly focusing on short-term goals and individual deliverables.

Randy Gage takes the virtual stage from Miami

The workplace is a tool for individual and business success, and we should always start the design process with the end in mind.

4. The basics of high-performance environments never change (but design solutions do)

What’s the connection between human-centric design, work experience and performance? Well, we know the answer intuitively, but it’s good to see some evidence. The Slovenia Workplace Survey showed, for example, that when people are satisfied with their workspace they feel more productive.

Leesman’s data showed similar results. In office spaces specifically designed to enhance health and wellbeing – i.e. certified under the WELL Building Standard – employees have a greater work experience. They feel more proud of their workplace, and perform better both individually and in teams.

So what makes a workspace pleasant to be in? In her talk, Alenka shared some of the basics. Pay attention to ergonomics. Bring nature into the office. It’s nice to have ample natural light and green views. But when you can’t offer these, there’s still a lot you can do.

Use natural materials. Provide lighting that mimics outdoor conditions. Have lots of plants. Maybe even plant a tree – you can see how it’s done in one of Kragelj’s projects.

“Poor indoor air can decrease your productivity for as much as 6 to 9 percent.” – Alenka Kragelj Eržen

When people are satisfied with their workspace they feel more productive.

High quality air is non-negotiable. At the conference, live participants could experience first hand how much difference indoor air quality makes. Event partner Velux used sensors in the conference room to measure temperature, humidity and CO2. The data loggers showed that the air was fresh and comfortable, and participants indeed found it easy to be present, and to focus and learn.

Nigel emphasized that organizations need to provide enough spaces for quiet work and confidential conversations. (These have been lacking in many offices prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.) In addition, a high-performance workplace is diverse and attractive, offering meaningful choices. So even during a pandemic, the space shouldn’t restrict people or trigger fear – that’s no way to be creative.

Through a series of case studies – including Triglav, BSH and GenePlanet – we’ve also learned that smart design solutions can lead to a range of other exciting benefits. 

To name just a few:

Q&A with Nigel Oseland

A high-performance workplace is diverse and attractive, offering meaningful choices. The space shouldn’t restrict people or trigger fear.

5. It all starts with engaging people and showing them trust

You need to really understand your people before you start developing the design and the change management strategies. Many companies would prefer to rush through the research phase, but this is a mistake.

Alja explained that the research process reveals a lot about people’s views, needs and fears. You can gain deep insights by collecting qualitative data. Let people express their thoughts freely, and ask open-ended questions like, ‘What do you think?’

“We found out how important it is to get qualitative data.” – Alja Ceglar

Thomas introduced us to the concept of generative interviews. These interviews don’t focus on the building, or on how people would like to work. Instead, new ideas are generated about what the company needs in order to succeed.

This process takes time, but the insights can take the project to another level. Hearing the fresh perspectives of employees and other stakeholders can also boost innovation.

Of course, once you’ve asked your questions, you need to listen openly. You also need to create a solid change management plan, and keep people involved throughout the project. Alenka suggests that you tell the story of your project and promote it everywhere.

“Whatever you do, involve your people in the project from the very beginning.” – Alenka Kragelj Eržen

When people are satisfied with their workspace they feel more productive.

It takes time for people to learn, and to adopt new ways of working. As Thomas stated, you need to work on people’s mindset and attitude to achieve lasting change. If people are not interested in the changes, the project will inevitably fail.

And here’s the final key … During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve trusted our people to work from home. This trust now cannot be retracted without dire consequences. But if you empower your people to work flexibly, they will more likely get on board with the changes you want to make, and productivity is bound to increase.

Alja Ceglar explains how qualitative data can help us understand people’s views, needs and experiences

You need to work on people’s mindset and attitude to achieve lasting change. If people are not interested in the changes, the project will inevitably fail.

6. The workplace is now everywhere – at home, in the office, and in the virtual space

Technology allows us to work essentially anywhere: in the office, at home, and in ‘third places’ such as libraries and cafes. All these spaces are now parts of the new work ecosystem.

“Accept that workplace has a new collaborator.” – Kyle De Bruin

The question is not whether people should work at home or go back to the office. These spaces don’t need to compete. They can collaborate with each other, supporting individual needs as well as business performance.

By looking at current trends, we can tell a lot about the future. Remote working and flexible ways of working are expected to grow. Technology now allows us to do things virtually that we could only do in person in the past.

Alenka demonstrated this beautifully, when she brought the conference audience on a virtual shopping trip to the new A1 Live Shop.

Alenka demonstrates a live shopping experience at the innovative A1 Live Shop, the first virtual store in Slovenia

The question is not whether people should work at home or go back to the office. These spaces don’t need to compete. They can collaborate with each other.

A1 is one of Kragelj’s returning clients, providing telecommunication services. Last year, the A1 team had the idea to set up a virtual shop, and they implemented it immediately. The store is the first of its kind in Slovenia. It’s a physical shop with real staff, but you can only enter it remotely, via your device. You can chat with the sales staff, look around the store and check out any of their products.

Talking about flexibility … It’s not just about the place. The time of the day when employees work is becoming less important. Non-standard work hours are already very common. According to Randy, the 9 to 5 workday is dying. What really matters is the value people create, and work performance should be evaluated based on results.

Put simply, when people are able to work where and when they are most productive, everyone wins.

Slovenia is welcoming you

The conference concluded with light-hearted conversations. Randy spoke vividly about why he loves Slovenia, recounting memories from his past trips. He found that people are friendly, loving and kind, and they’re extremely proud of their country. Randy also found it inspiring to see that Slovenians celebrate their artists with the same devotion as other nations celebrate politicians and war heroes.

“Why I fell in love with Slovenia …” – Randy Gage
Participants who were able to travel to the conference had the opportunity to enjoy the country’s warm culture and beauty. The Workplace Design Conference team is optimistic that in 2021, many more of us will be able to get together in this stunning location to share our new learnings, and to talk about the exciting next era of the workplace.

What really matters is the value people create, and work performance should be evaluated based on results.