The nature of the work we do has radically progressed in the past few decades, but the places where we do work—the actual workplace—lags behind. Walk into an office in 2020, and you might see an open floor plan, or a sprinkling of adjustable standing desks, but you’re just as likely to see hard furniture, bland conference rooms, and a complete lack of natural light.
And that’s only the surface—these “cosmetic” issues often signal an even deeper lack of supportive technology, collaboration, and flexible working.
Young professionals are already looking for workplaces that match their high expectations of technology and design. As the next generation enters the workforce, they’ll bring their own, increasingly discerning, set of expectations.
So how will the future workplace rise to the occasion? What will the workplace look like in the next five years, or ten? How can you start setting the course early, so you get the best out of your team and stay competitive to candidates?
If you’re interested in the answer to these questions—or at least an educated prediction—keep reading. This report considers the opinions of workplace experts and innovators, as well as 500 corporate executives (who we polled with Censuswide, a global online survey specialist). The results will challenge your assumptions about how future workplaces will successfully operate, now and beyond.
1. Employers believe they’ve got it right—employees beg to differ
Our survey offers key insights into where company leaders see the future workplace heading. What will employees want? What tech will be most important? And how well can they handle shifting workplace trends over time?
Respondents from the executive study were overwhelmingly positive about the workspace they’ve provided for employees. 99% indicated that they were confident that their employees feel happy and engaged in the workplace, and 97% were sure about their company’s ability to keep up with modern workplace trends.
But are employees happy and engaged? There seems to be a gap between what C-level executives believe and what employees told us in a Wakefield study conducted earlier this year. One of the most significant mismatches: workplace technology.
According to the Wakefield survey, on an average day, office workers reported wasting close to half an hour a day dealing with workplace technology problems. While executives are confident their offices can keep up with the latest workplace trends, the people using the technology in these spaces on a daily basis view the workplace a bit more like this:
One thing is clear: There is a discrepancy between how employees feel about the functionality of their office and what executives believe to be true about the day-to-day in their workplace. A smart way to handle this is to communicate openly with staff to find out what aspects of the workplace are working for them, and which parts are working against them.
Humans are what shape company culture and help businesses hit their goals. These hard-working people need to be given the physical spaces and technology needed to do their best work for the company and for themselves.
2. People, space, and technology—equally important
As we move forward in a tech-enabled world, an unexpected side effect has emerged: an emphasis on human needs in the workplace. Companies have become aware that the better they treat their human resources, the better the company can do. At the same time, leaders have discovered that the workplace itself contributes heavily to successful business outcomes. And naturally, the technology needed to foster collaboration and spontaneity is paramount.
As inherently social creatures, humans crave the company of others, so the experience of closed-door offices and high-walled cubicles can threaten our morale and attitudes. Not to mention it’s now a pretty outdated design for any office space. Though controversial for its lack of privacy, many companies have adopted a new kind of space management, including an open office plan. In fact, 92% of executives surveyed believe an open floor plan is beneficial to productivity. This is a feeling shared by many Facilities Managers and Head of Workplace experts.
Tim Anderson, director of facilities at Emerson Collective, an organization dedicated to social change located in Palo Alto, California, feels the open floor plan maximizes efficiency and allows for more cross-collaboration among teams.
“Most people want a space where they can work cross-functionally and collaboratively,” Anderson says. “But they also need a space to get away and do head-down work where they’re not going to be bothered.”
He adds, “Finding that balance is where the real challenge is. You can have a great open office plan that maximizes real estate efficiency while also giving people what they need to do their jobs well.”
Areas for collaboration, private work, and small conferences need to be carefully crafted with an eye for thoughtful design in buildings created for desks and cubicles. This observation is echoed by Envoy’s Head of Workplace Technology, Matt Harris.
“We’re seeing a trend in the move to open offices,” says Harris, “but we’re finally realizing that the open concept is more nuanced. It’s more about dynamic work environments and workspaces. This shift involves addressing the need for a variety of different working spaces. For example, soft seating and comfortable spaces, closed off dark places, warm and well-lit places. We need to take that open environment and make space for those places to exist.”
We’re finally realizing that the open concept is more nuanced. It’s more about dynamic work environments and workspaces.
Head of Workplace Technology at Envoy
The transformation of traditional business real estate leases
It’s easy to forget that real estate plays an enormous role in the people + space + technology equation. Most companies sign long-term leases, which means the area has to be flexible enough to accommodate employee growth and changes in work style. You might be concerned that the space your company leased years ago no longer fits your employees’ working styles and isn’t attractive to candidates. You may also feel stuck with it.
Just over ¾ (76%) of executive respondents are concerned about long-term real estate leases.
“Operating plans are becoming shorter, maybe two to four years,” says workplace anthropologist Erin Hersey, who also serves as Director of Product Marketing at Knotel, a New York-based office space transformation platform. “Offices are bought to be set up for five to 10 years. But companies grow and change. Workstyles differ as employees come and go, and technology comes in and disrupts normal operations.”
Hersey predicts that future leases will also be shorter and more flexible so that companies can evolve and grow. These flexible leases will let companies focus more time on growing their business and less time on finding new real estate.
Technology should “just work,” but we’re split about which tech is most impactful
Technology in the future workplace should support employees without causing friction. If your tech isn’t helpful and non-intrusive, it won’t be effective.
“If people can’t do their jobs because the Wi-Fi is down, or they can’t work equally because remote team members experience video lag and dropping calls, it’s a problem,” says Emerson Collective’s Tim Anderson. “We end up spending more time troubleshooting tech and not meeting efficiently.” In other words, the tech just needs to work.
But, according to the survey of corporate executives, no one’s entirely sure which technology will have the biggest impact on workspaces only five years from now. This suggests that you’ll need to make a variety of improvements to the future workplace experience to accommodate diverse styles, job categories, and personalities.
These results point to an evolution worth noting: workplace technology needs to “just work,” but it also needs to work in context, personalized in the way each employee wants to work. And there, it seems, is a blind spot.
What workplace tech will be the most important in 5 years? Executives all over the map.
3. Building a workplace where people do their best work
Some anthropologists define a human habitat as a home—a place where all our needs are met. Though humans can, in theory, adapt to any habitat, we’re at our best when we have comfort, companionship, tools to do work, and varied spaces to suit our moods and activities. If you want to create an optimal workspace that allows people to feel connected and aligned, go back to the basics.
According to our respondents, most people spend more than seven hours a day at work. And almost all of them (98%) said that having a modern, inviting workspace is important for attracting and keeping talent.
Building that space begins with observing how employees interact and work on any normal day. “Observe where people are congregating and huddling,” says Hersey. “Then think about what you could put in that space that might enable them to have a better conversation.”
“An office doesn’t need to look like a conference room. It can look like a living room. Make people feel comfortable; put them at ease to enable collaboration and have great conversations. Don’t fight this human behavior,” she says. “Enable it.”
An office doesn’t need to look like a conference room. It can look like a living room. Make people feel comfortable; put them at ease to enable collaboration and have great conversations. Don’t fight this human behavior, enable it.
Director of Product Marketing at Knotel
By taking stock in the rooms and spaces that people like to gather and work together, you can find ways to enable this behavior even further. Hersey points out that if co-workers tend to strike up conversations in a particular corner or hallway, it might be useful to put some soft chairs and a whiteboard in that spot. Conversely, if companies want to encourage collaboration, the workplace anthropologist can build “trails” that people naturally follow, like placing snacks and beverages in a central area or water and coffee in a conference room.
Curating a personal office experience
Your workplace habitat can’t just be beautiful and comfortable—it also needs to be functional, which means it must be supported by the right technology. Christy Hecht, Director of Product Marketing at Envoy, thinks about the growth and adoption of workplace technologies every day.
Throughout her career, the common thread has always been to focus on technology that makes life at work more enjoyable. “Technologies that make the team more productive are important,” she says, “but you also have to think about what working with these technologies and following these processes feels like for the employee. We should be asking ourselves questions like: Are we making work or data too accessible? Is this negatively affecting employee morale?” That, Hecht believes, is where the mindset of the future workplace is focused.
97% of executive respondents say that their job is important to their personal feelings of self-worth
96% of executive respondents say their experience at work impacts their happiness
“There was a prediction back in the ’50s that technology would cut your work day down to four hours a day,” she explains. “But what happened is that tech enables you to work all the time.” Hecht believes that it’s up to you to be mindful of people’s workload and make sure workplace technology and processes aren’t infringing on work-life balance.
“Ten years ago, no one thought about the employee as the consumer, right?” says Hecht. “Employees were the ones who wanted a job. And they were lucky if you hired them. In many industries, the balance of power has shifted, and employers have to be constantly thinking about how to attract new employees and keep current employees happy. Today, your employee is one of your customers, and the way you think about their happiness and their health matters much more.”
So what are some of the ways you can acknowledge personal needs and preferences?
“We’ll have things like mother’s rooms for women coming back from maternity leave,” Hecht suggests. “Health and nutrition programs. Options for silent workrooms for people who need that. We’ll be able to accommodate people who have light or sound sensitivity.”
“The common theme,” she adds, “is the recognition that different people work in different ways. I think the future workplace will be set up to create a human connection; to make coming to work enjoyable and fulfilling.”
I think the office of the future will be set up to create a human connection; to make coming to work enjoyable and fulfilling.
Director of Product Marketing at Envoy
4. Whether at home or away, you’re still face to face
Just a few years ago, many people believed that remote work was the way of the future. After all, it allows companies to hire the best people without requiring them to relocate. Companies with remote employees also have less need for bigger office spaces and additional resources. But, according to our research, while the option to work remotely has its appeal, the main reason employees want to work on-site is to have a chance to socialize with coworkers.
The future workplace is more collaborative and relationship-based. Fully remote workers will miss out—even as remote technology improves. Instead, workplace leaders should create spaces where on-site and remote employees can work together with little interference.
Socializing with coworkers was the top reason (54%) employee respondents listed preferring to work on-site vs. working remotely, ahead of tech resources and fewer distractions.
Envoy’s Matt Harris works hard to accommodate remote employees. "The trick to remote-friendly spaces is you have to think about both sides of the meeting experience. You have to do the work in the office to make sure every conference room is video-enabled, but you also have to support the remote person. What do they need in order to be seen and heard?”
Emerson Collective’s Tim Anderson believes that the human element still needs to be present in remote work. “People think working remotely is the way to go, but nothing can replace human connections,” he says. “Most of our work is about reaching people on a personal level and having conversations.”
“People don’t just work for the paycheck anymore. They work to feel fulfilled and build relationships,” says Envoy’s Christy Hecht. “And so, it’s up to an employer to figure out, ‘How can I create an environment that my employees feel connected?’”
A two-year study by Professor Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University showed that while working from home resulted in an incredible productivity boost, it also had its downside. Of the 500 participants in his study, more than half disliked working from home full-time because they felt too isolated. Bloom concluded that a mix of working from home a few days a week and in-office presence is a better solution for workplace satisfaction.
“People just want to be near other people,” says Larry Gadea, Envoy CEO. “That hasn’t changed in 10,000 years. When you work remotely, you miss out on some of those small interactions that brighten up the day and build a more personal connection with your coworkers—overhearing about a concert, learning about another project going on at the company, or finding someone who’s struggling with something and helping them.”
5. The future workplace—the office that works for you
In the past, employees worked around the limitations of the office space. They compromised with it. They learned to survive working in windowless, gray cubicles. They bought headphones and fans; they brought in sweaters and little mementos of life outside the cube. They put up posters that looked unconvincingly like windows. They went outside to make personal calls or chose to hide out in the bathroom for a few minutes of meditation and grounding.
But the next generation of workers will be less tolerant of compromises and workarounds. If your workspace is going to be comfortable, homelike, and inclusive, says Envoy’s Larry Gadea, you have to do better. And he has a clear idea of how that will look.
“The evolved workplace will work for you, so you don’t have to work against it or around it,” says Gadea. “It will be responsive—it will know your problems and needs before you do.”
As an example, Gadea imagines interactive, personalized messaging screens on every wall of your workplace, which employees can interact with to get real-time information. “You don’t have to check the mailroom or run around the office to get a meeting room. It’ll tell you if you have packages waiting and which rooms are available. If you have a bigger or more complex office—or you’re just visiting for the day—it could give you directions to your next meeting.”
Gadea sees these smart screens as contextual, streaming information that’s specific to the employees in the areas in which they’re placed. “If the screens are near the engineering team, you might see their project boards or real-time progress toward goals. You’ll see when it’s a co-worker’s birthday. We’ll have location-based self-service for IT, HR, and other departments, so employees don’t have to wait to get what they need.”
But what about sensitive information? “We’re going to make it easier to be transparent while keeping your information secure,” he says. “In the same way that some workplaces have sensitive areas where only some employees can go, we should limit what’s displayed, dependent on who is viewing a screen.”
The evolved workplace will work for you, so you don’t have to work against it or around it. It will be responsive—it will know your problems and needs before you do.
CEO at Envoy
The ‘responsive’ future workplace
At Envoy, Matt Harris is looking to build a truly responsive, future workplace. He encourages people to look at the workplace experience holistically. “We are collaborating more than ever,” he says, “and we’ve shifted the tools, systems, and environment to help people do their best work.”
According to Harris, office spaces should be able to adjust quickly to changing needs. “When you look at a website,” Harris explains, “it adjusts automatically to be optimized to the device you’re looking at it on. In workplaces, we should do the same thing: as the conditions of work change, the workplace responds and shifts to that.”
Harris is referring to a concept that Gadea champions: the responsive workplace. Shifting from fixed to adjustable furniture could turn a desk into a podium or a worktable. The messaging screens Gadea described could also be programmed to turn off if a visitor arrives and the board is displaying proprietary information. Sensors—measuring everything from temperature, humidity, and particulates to ambient noise and light and C02 levels—could regulate room comfort.
“At Envoy, we installed occupancy sensors on entry and exit doors,” Harris says. “This gives us an accurate count of the number of people in our spaces without identifying specific individuals. We can learn a lot, and enable the workplace to automatically respond, without needing to collect information about every individual.”
Trends for the future workplace
Now that working flexible hours has become commonplace, your physical building needs to be responsive to people in the office at all hours. Harris expects to see a switch from scheduled building hours of operation to presence-based operations.
Envoy’s Christy Hecht agrees. “We will see buildings and workplaces that are set up for people to come in and out at the time that matters most to them. People don’t always work from 9:00 to 5:00. We’ll see offices that are set up for different working hours and different types of working styles, which will affect their structure, their setup, and their access.”
Future workplace technology must balance employee personalization and privacy
Personalization in the workplace does tend to require some kind of data processing—you can’t personalize an experience for someone you know nothing about. Envoy’s Gadea is cautious when it comes to privacy, but understands the benefits of sharing some data.
“One thing that’ll be interesting is where employee privacy ends up as workplace technology evolves. Where consumers often are willing to give up their music listening habits in exchange for new music recommendations, will they be OK giving up their, for example, eating habits to their employer in exchange for being able to even receive their paycheck? I feel the companies that build this future workplace technology will need to be more thoughtful than ever, making sure buyers’ big dollars don’t facilitate poor end-user, employee decisions,” he explains.
Just over 2 in 3 (67%) executive respondents say their company is very responsible when it comes to handling employee data
So when do you have a good use case for data collection? Matt Harris’ method is pretty simple: “It starts by collecting only the data you need to learn habits and innovate. When engineering a solution to a problem, you want to be careful that you’re not overbuilding something because you’re predicting future needs. The same concept applies to data and user privacy. Let’s bring in the bare minimum of information we need to try and solve the problem, and then go from there.”
To put this theory into practice, Harris recently conducted an analysis of door unlock data to understand occupancy trends of the office. While the access control system tracks who opened what door and when, individual-level data wasn’t necessary for the analysis. Instead of importing all of the data with user info—which would have been easier and faster—he only brought in department level data so that the personal information couldn’t even be viewed. “We were looking at trends, not tracking employees. We used the data that we needed and nothing more.”
6. How the future workplace gains—and retains—top talent
Although most executive respondents feel good about the workspace they’ve built for employees, they’re also aware that the future workplace still continue to evolve. Organizations understand that employees’ desire for flexibility, meaning, and supportive technology drives talent to the companies that provide it. So nearly all of the executives surveyed (97%) are ready to spend the money needed for the physical and technical improvements discussed in this report.
Envoy’s Hecht echoes this need. “In general, one of the big challenges facing the office is: how do you keep your employees happy, satisfied, and productive so that they don’t go somewhere else. There are a lot of jobs out there, and your employees are asking, ‘Where do I want to work?’”
Executives know what they need to competitively attract talent, and they’re willing to do it. This includes competitive pay, employee referral incentives, social media campaigns, office perks, and networking events. In certain industries the competition for top talent is fierce, which you balance with strategic plans to attract new hires and a workplace that is strategically built for bright minds and big thinkers.
Nearly all (97%) executive respondents stated they were willing to increase their spending on physical workplace improvements and new workplace tech over the next 5 years
7. A workplace you don't recognize—yet
While it’s true that executives aren’t completely aligned with the needs of their employees in the office, one thing is certain: the future workplace is evolving.
The future workplace will be centered in a physical space designed to encourage and enable people to do their best work, which includes giving them access to cutting edge technology to support these efforts.
This future workplace will rely on technology we haven’t even encountered yet in our lives—a robust network supported by machine learning, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). This office will be proactive and responsive, designed to work for you. Matt Harris explains, “We want to be more predictive in our efforts, pulling in our data and using AI to detect issues before they become issues.”
Larry Gadea has been thinking about this future workplace throughout his career, ideating and building products to support this inevitable technological evolution. “Looking farther into the future, I expect AR and VR will play a large role. VR gives you infinite desk space, while AR gives you that new employee’s name beside them as you walk down the hallway—there are so many examples of how both of these technologies will be applicable. They’ll eventually invade the workplace.”
Smart screens, sensors, and predictive technology aside, the focus of the future office will be centered on human connection and satisfaction. In an employees’ hiring market, the best talent can pick and choose the companies they want to work for based on values, amenities, and working conditions. Employers are eager to compete for talent, so they’re more than willing to upgrade the workplace with technology and spaces that foster comfort, collaboration, and flexibility.
When all of these factors meet—people, space, and technology—the best workplace leaders can all benefit from the future workplace, today.