Updated: Mar 17
How Five Work Modes Can Redefine the Return to the Workplace
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a six-part series that outlines a framework for five different work modes. Subsequent posts will explore a single work mode in greater depth.
This post initially appeared on CoreNet Global.
While the pandemic alters how and where we work, employees still need to create new ideas and advance the work of their organizations. The physical workplace they return to will look a lot different, likely providing them with more agency to move between different types of work and the settings in which to complete them.
For knowledge workers, teams and organizations to flourish in a post-pandemic world, work environments must nurture the ability to focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest. These five work modes can provide a balanced framework for increased creativity, health and productivity for organizations pursuing knowledge work. To help bring people back to the office and strategically deploy investments, it is critical to identify these work modes and also understand how organizations and design can shift to accommodate them.
Origins of Work Modes Different modes of work originated within the fields of knowledge management and creation. In the 1990s, organization experts Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi identified four knowledge-building activities that drive business innovations. These include socialization, externalization, combination and internalization. The most innovative companies, they argued, combine these work modes to launch a continuous cycle of knowledge.
Outside of business management, organizations have adapted and augmented these work modes with social science studies and research findings to apply them to the changing nature of work. They’ve also been able to utilize a set of tools — including the physical work environment — to enable their success.
For over a decade, we have crafted our workplaces to enable the modes of work critical to knowledge creation — focus, collaborate, learn and socialize. Based on recent research and the information it reveals about what humans need to be successful, we propose an additional work mode — rest. While the original four are critical to developing new ideas and sharing knowledge, the fifth enables individual reflection and further clarification of ideas and concepts that benefit the shared knowledge of teams and organizations.
Below is a look at the five key modes that organizations and companies can promote in the transition back to the physical office, not just for improved innovation, but for wellness too.
Focus Create zones for distraction-free work that power company success on an individual, team and organizational level across distributed environments, from the workplace to the home office.
Focus work — what we typically think of as heads down or solo work — is a core element of most knowledge work. This work is essential to efficiently absorb and process complex pieces of information so it can be effectively used. It is the “super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy,” writes Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work. Focus work encompasses tasks such as contemplation, strategizing, research and idea-generation. Think of jobs such as the coder, the accountant, and the writer.
Central to focus work are spaces that enable the ability to concentrate without interruption for chunks of time. Two factors can help unlock successful focus work: physical separation that offers a quiet zone and the ability to control the environment.
In conversations with clients, including tech companies like Google, employees are known to wander far to find the best place for heads-down work. At the company’s office in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a variety of home-like focused work areas are integrated throughout. There are booths near windows, darkened lounges, a library room, private seating niches and more, so staff can easily find a place for the right level of seclusion if needed.
Collaborate Offer places that harness team synergy and serendipity to drive creativity and innovation.
Collaboration — working with others — is required to advance ideas and is the backbone of the world’s most innovative companies. Critical to an organization’s success, it fosters creativity, increases bigger-picture thinking and aligns team goals. Most important, it expands initial ideas by welcoming a diversity of perspectives. Collaboration involves discussion, active listening, brainstorming and co-creation. Almost every knowledge worker collaborates in their work, although certain creativity-driven roles employ collaboration more than others, such as consulting, human resources and media.
As we may see more heads-down work completed at home after the coronavirus, workplaces that provide a range of easily accessible and inviting areas for collaboration is key. This could include flexible spaces for 1:1 touch bases and small team huddles to larger tech-equipped places for strategy sessions. Dedicated team areas situated near work stations can provide a hybrid digital-analogue space to collaborate. These areas could feature tactile digital walls for brainstorming and project check-ins, as well as space for teammates to pin up posters and leave behind analogue messages. Equipped with video cameras, remote team members could video conference in, and collaborate in real-time on the digital wall with distributed teams.
Yet as much as it is essential to offer areas that facilitate planned collaboration, enabling serendipitous moments are critical too. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, staff shared how before the pandemic they loved standing in line at the foundation’s café: they said it was wonderful to not only catch up with friends, but a perfect opportunity to exchange “half-baked” work ideas with colleagues.
Learn Create spaces that celebrate mentorship and learning across all levels of an organization to improve business performance and growth.
Lifelong learning and mentorship are essential at all stages of life, but especially at work for the acquisition, transfer and application of ideas. Learning expands perspectives to help individuals, teams and companies grow so they can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and deliver high-impact services and products. Learning includes activities such as training-by-doing, conversations with advocates and group lectures. It can also encompass unintentional connections with colleagues or even overheard conversations, which are nearly impossible to have at home on Zoom calls. To foster learning, organizations must provide effective environments in tandem with the right policies and practices.
It’s essential to create workplace conditions that make learning a priority and a positive experience so knowledge can be easily shared. Offices can provide opportunities to accommodate pop-up learning moments, library-like reading nooks and multi-purpose rooms that change with ease to support different learning environments. Learning spaces can also provide a place to remove everyone from the demands of their day-to-day work to immerse themselves in new information and new ideas.
Organizations can also foster greater knowledge by opening themselves up to the community. Classrooms in office buildings and corporate campuses can help activate underutilized retail space both during the day and evening via partnerships with outside organizations like community colleges. As learning is active and adults learn by doing, providing places that offer a balance of instruction and application enables the development of new skills.
At the F5 Networks headquarters, a 28-story continuous stair spirals up through the tower to heighten connections between employees, clients and visitors. It encourages unique opportunities for them to more easily interact and informally exchange knowledge, exponentially expanding the sphere of learning to colleagues across floors and departments (and to even get in some brain-stimulating and stress-reducing exercise!).
Socialize Foster opportunities to build culture and social connections through environments that grow trust, meaningful work and mental wellness.
People feel less stressed and happier with more high-quality relationships at work, which helps foster risk-taking and innovation. We think the areas where social capital — the social bonds and shared values that enable trust and teamwork — is formed, is evolving. Before the coronavirus, the office as a shared physical space became an increasingly important place to build social cohesion and meaningful connections.
The pandemic is challenging work relationships, with social distancing hindering our ability to gather in shared spaces. In a post-pandemic world, workplaces that allow for formal and informal socializing can set the groundwork for stronger collaboration, learning and compassion, which in turn can drive greater creativity and wellness. This could include café areas where staff can gather around the kitchen during meal prep to niches facing windows with comfortable couches for casual conversations. Yet socializing is also about connections outside an organization. Welcoming ground level amenity spaces can draw the community inside and employees out of the office to intermix. Public spaces, like art galleries, cafes and outdoor lounges, can also be dispersed throughout office buildings and campuses to better facilitate social opportunities.
When the renovated headquarters of a coffeehouse company opened, the former CEO noted that the design of the new interior space seamlessly reflected the culture and human connection-focused mission of their organization. Before the coronavirus, staff relayed how much they enjoyed discovering new places to sit and connect with colleagues, especially in the multi-tiered lobby, which allows for unique intersections between employees and the public.
Rest Provide purposeful spaces for respite, engagement and positive distractions that encourage relaxation so people can let their minds wander.
Working smarter, not longer, may be the key to better performance. Numerous studies show rest is essential to creativity and productivity, and as such, it must be considered an essential work mode too. A short break — ideally every 90 minutes — is helpful to reduce work errors, improve productivity and prevent burnout. In addition, a 26-minute nap can dramatically improve alertness by 54% and performance by 34%, a NASA study found. Rest can also take the form of other deep breaks, like daydreaming, walking and mindful meditation.
It is helpful to create policies and appropriate spaces — from simple to more advanced — to encourage rest when needed. Calm, peaceful areas in the workplace away from digital screens can enable rest so staff can better reflect and absorb ideas, skills and knowledge. This can range from cozy high-backed chairs in a quiet corner with restorative nature elements to full-fledged napping rooms with gentle circadian lighting, cooler temperatures and sound-reducing features.
Rest is an important component to the Google work experience. In their South Lake Union workplace, a relaxing jellyfish lounge with dimmed lighting provides a peaceful place to rest, while a dedicated nap station and a “treehouse” lit via circadian lighting help mitigate Seattle’s darkwinter days.
In Summary Organizations that incorporate these five modes — focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest — into their work environments may achieve greater innovation and wellness. As the pandemic accelerates these modes in different types of settings, it’s crucial we apply these insights to help shape a real estate and workplace strategy now and for the future so we can enable the best work experience possible.
A workplace can help support a company’s business goals by fostering greater knowledge-sharing, and as a result, set staff up for success on an individual and team level. The time is ripe to plan, experiment and try something new.