The Future of Work, Part Two: Eight Characteristics of Effective Work Ecosystems

This is the second story in a three-part series on how 2020 transformed the world of work and the ways in which design can help organizations create places — and systems — to support work as it evolves to strengthen future needs. The first story explains how work has fundamentally changed. This installment identifies the characteristics of effective work ecosystems. In the third story, we will illustrate the different ways that work ecosystems can offer environments that matter most for the people who use them.

Now that we realize that work places must evolve into work ecosystems, what are these ecosystems? What makes them effective? What characteristics distinguish the best? In this piece, we will take a closer look at eight things that the most effective work ecosystems do so that organizations can determine how to leverage this new model.

An effective work ecosystem…

  1. Forms partnerships to own less yet have more;
  2. Prioritizes human capital;
  3. Cultivates work/life equilibrium;
  4. Encourages continuous learning;
  5. Connects people across time and space;
  6. Learns from data to test and adjust;
  7. Promotes leaders who empower others;
  8. Fosters equity with technology.
The open green space at Zev Yaroslavsky Family Support Center, a government office building in Van Nuys, California, doubled the amount of open space in its community. Doing so achieved a primary goal for the building owner: a stronger connection to its community.

1. Forms Partnerships to Own Less yet Have More

Global disruptions such as COVID-19 are harsh reminders that the world is intricately connected. Employers, employees, cities and communities are in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Organizations need to recognize the impact that their work ecosystem has on communities and cities and ask themselves: how can our work ecosystem integrate with our community? What can we give back?

For example, one company might leverage a shared community outdoor space, with seating and wifi, as an amenity to its team. It might offer its maker space to nearby organizations or large internal conference rooms to hold community events in return. Work ecosystems learn from the sharing economy, which is to say: they recognize that it is possible to own less and still have more by forming partnerships.

This frees the physical office so that it no longer has to be everything to everyone. Instead, it can offer what its employees need most and leverage shared resources to extend beyond its footprint limits. Partnerships enable companies, communities and cities to share, offering more to all.

At its headquarters in Toledo, Ohio, ProMedica supports myriad community events including art fairs and farmers markets to offer its workers amenities while building community trust in its community health services.

2. Prioritizes Human Capital

Humans are gifted with creative insight, non-linear thinking and emotions. Regardless of how work changes and evolves, work ecosystems must appeal to the human experience by connecting people. Our findings indicate that ”community/connection” is one of the most valued experiences at the physical office, followed by ”creativity/exploration.” We also learned that employees view in-person interactions as more conducive to problem-solving and building trust. An effective ecosystem can be designed to incorporate spaces that enable these experiences, moving away from a prescriptive building program.

The design of Capital Brands Headquarters clearly communicates the company’s interest in the health and well-being of employees and customers alike.

3. Cultivates Work/Life Equilibrium

The lines between our professional and personal lives are increasingly blurred. In contrast to balance — which is idealized and nearly impossible to achieve — the future of work strives to support professional needs in one’s personal life and one’s personal needs in one’s professional life. It strives for equilibrium. An effective work ecosystem enables a fluid, flexible separation between the two that adjusts to each person and team’s needs — the responsive and resilient nature of a work ecosystem. Work environments with flex work policies empower employees to do their best work and to prioritize well-being. Flexible work ecosystems also engage talent, sustaining them. This benefits employees and employers alike by recruiting and retaining top talent, avoiding burnout and supporting employees across their tenure with an organization.

In contrast to balance — which is idealized and nearly impossible to achieve — the future of work strives to support professional needs in one’s personal life and one’s personal needs in one’s professional life.

4. Encourages Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is essential to keep employees working their best. More than just providing new tools or technology, the work ecosystem facilitates upskilling and reskilling talent as work evolves. To bring necessary skills to the workforce, organizational development and professional development programs will offer personalized learning, skill development and company-specific knowledge to meet evolving demands. Continuously evaluating employees’ interests and capabilities relative to business goals ensures success for all. Within the work ecosystem, continuous learning must be supported by policy, practice, space and technology. For example, seeing leaders engage in learning that is meaningful to them personally can set the tone for an entire team, whether that means investing the time and money to take an online course or mentoring junior team members by encouraging them to use the technology and financial support to engage in learning that matters to them.

5. Connects People Across Time and Space

The shifting paradigm has liberated work from the constraints of the physical office as well as from defined work hours. Although the global economy certainly operates on a 24-hour schedule, it is impossible for us as individuals to work around the clock as well. Asynchronous communication — or the ability to communicate information between two or more parties without simultaneous presence — allows us to take full advantage of a flexible work platform. However, synchronous (at a scheduled/shared time) and in-person interactions must become much more intentional to be effective.

With thoughtful in-person and virtual engagements, talented teams converge to tackle the toughest challenges and take on the best opportunities. What’s key here is an awareness and mindfulness of the different time zones in which your teams work. Technology such as the World Clock Meeting Planner or Apple’s World Clock can help build awareness. Being flexible enough to meet at different times so that one geographic area is not consistently asked to work late or early conveys a sense of equity and respect for all.

6. Promotes Leaders who Empower Others

As flexibility enables a more dynamic and distributed ecosystem, organizational culture and policies must shift to encourage a leadership rather than a management approach. Success is a result of employees being aligned with the organization’s mission and vision. Highly skilled, highly engaged, and more autonomous staff are confidently able to contribute to organizational outcomes. This relieves the organization (and managers) from prioritizing oversight, enabling purpose-driven leaders to guide, mentor and empower their teams. A musical analogy helps illustrate this shift, which can be described as transforming leaders from orchestra conductors to jazz bandleaders, setting direction while encouraging participants to adjust to ever-changing conditions and grow over time.

7. Learns from Data as it Tests and Adjusts

The ability to recognize success and failure — and learn from both — is critical for growth and ecosystem realignment. By engaging empirical rather than just anecdotal measures, ongoing feedback enables leaders to manage through disruption.

Insights gleaned from visualizing complex data help us be agile and support our ability to align design intent with organizational goals. Analytics help us to visualize gaps and establish thresholds. For example, in the Work-from-Home research that HKS conducted during the initial stages of COVID-19, we discovered that employees experienced higher levels of fatigue as well as lower ratings of work-life balance when they had more than 20 hours of video calls a week. Now that we know this, we can share the data. Doing so helps leaders determine whether meetings are best held either remotely or in-person. Similarly, data about how people use space in an office can inform which parts of a space return value for investment and which areas could be cut and potentially become addressed through the sharing economy.

SOURCE: From Temporary to Transformative: Work From Home Research Insights, HKS, 2020

By integrating continuous feedback loops into both the systems and spaces that make up the work ecosystem, the organization is able to test, retest and adjust what is working and what is not. Sharing this data so all team members can learn from it further serves to establish a culture of transparency and accountability.

8. Leverages Technology to Empower

As technology enables new capabilities at work through automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence and other methods, human time and effort can be reallocated to other activities. Tech can optimize the quality of building conditions customizing for occupants to aid in their safety, comfort, productivity and workflows. More than simply enabling people to do their jobs, technology can engage individuals and address discrepancies in digital equity.

Technology has become encoded with cultural value that overlays its basic ability to enable work to happen. Recognizing this and recognizing tech’s ability to both empower and make employees feel seen, is key. Technology is complex; one-size-fits-all standards make allowances neither for inequities in the workplace nor for inequities in remote work environments.

For example, some employees may not have a dedicated office space in their homes. They may have a greater need for tech, such as sound-canceling headsets. Others may need high-powered desktop computers rather than more portable laptops. Developing technology policies that recognize differences in both job function and remote work environments is key to promoting equity within an effective work place ecosystem. Our environments and our technology are interdependent.

Developing technology policies that recognize differences in both job function and remote work environments is key to promoting equity within an effective work place ecosystem.

In closing, it is important to note that the characteristics outlined above are not a menu of options. Effective work place ecosystems encompass ALL of the attributes described above. At its core, the work place ecosystem includes people, place, culture, policy and technology. Each depends upon the other to succeed.

In the final installment of this series, “The Future of Work, Part Three,” we will explore the role of the shared office within the work place ecosystem.

This research continues to be informed by data collected starting March 13, 2020, of HKS employees via an online survey, senior leadership/office director interviews, and future-focused employee visioning sessions. By engaging employees in dialogue, we’re able to study satisfaction and sentiment over time and be responsive in policy development and real estate planning.

This was project was completed as a part of HKS’ Research Incubator program. This annual initiative empowers practitioners throughout the firm to invest focused time and energy into exploring topics that encourage innovation and a culture of curiosity. To learn more about this program, please contact us at [email protected].