Barcelona conference builds a bridgehead to employee engagement

‘Velvet gloves, punching impact’ – Studio Banana’s new workplace design philosophy– takes its inspiration from Muhammad Ali’s ‘fly like a…

‘Velvet gloves, punching impact’ – Studio Banana’s new workplace design philosophy– takes its inspiration from Muhammad Ali’s ‘fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. It refers to workplaces which are designed to perfectly fit the culture of an organisation (like a velvet glove) but punch above their weight in terms of impact on the people who work within it.

Key Portilla Kawamura of design firm Studio Banana, one of 15 speakers at the WORKTECH  Barcelona 2018 conference held on 9 October at IESE Business School, touched on two recurrent themes of the event in this one philosophy: workplace cultures and the impact workplace has on employees.

The sub-conscious of workplace design

Eve Edelstein of architects Perkins + Will set the tone for the conference by explaining that workplace design has a fundamental impact on employee behaviour. While buildings are often measured down to the decimal point of accuracy, the impact the building has on employees is seldom measured with the same precision.

Workspace should allow for autonomous working, mastery of skill and a sense of purpose to truly engage employees. Edelstein suggested involving the workforce in the design process, whether sharing data collected on them and the building or simulating solutions using VR and assessing priorities collaboratively. Leyre Octavio de Taledo of Savills Aguire Newman reinforced that point with three pillars of space outlined in a report ‘What Workers Want’: functionality, health and wellness, and inclusive design.

‘How we create space re-creates our brain…’ – Eve Edelstein, Perkins + Will

Architecture and design play a significant role in shaping employee behaviour, but the workplace is more than just a container for culture, argued Melissa Marsh of New York consultants and researchers Plastarc. Culture is the sum of all people, what they do, what they value and how they act on these values. Marsh used learning environments in higher education – where students have the autonomy to decide when, where, and how they learn – as an aspiration for the workplace. University spaces are diverse and flexible and encourage movement throughout the campus, which improves cognitive function.

Unlearn and re-learn

People identify financial incentives as a motivational tool, but in reality, our response to workplace is a lot more human and emotional. This means the role of leadership plays an important part in how people feel about the workplace and the organisation as a whole. A panel including Ana Arnau of Willis Towers Watson, Andrew Ortega of ING bank, Mireia las Heras and Sebastian Reiche of IESE Business School discussed the influence of leadership in organisations. Their message: leaders are appointed as problem solvers and their primary role is to eliminate the potential obstacles their employees might face.

‘Leaders should neither motivate or demotivate, they should facilitate…’

Lucy Adams of Disrupted HR supported this angle, arguing that employees are adults and should be treated as such. Adams looked at the workforce through four lenses: employees first, then adults, consumers and, finally, humans. Applying this principle ensures that individuals are treated valuably and not just as cogs in a machine, she argued.

However, it is not just leaders who need to learn and adapt. Dr Giuseppe Auricchio of IESE Business School promoted omni-learning in the workplace. He believes organisations need to create spaces that encourage continuous and self-driven learning, embedding a culture of constant development into the fabric of the organisation.

Competitive edge

It is not in the nature of big corporations to collaborate with one another on internal management. Yet Stephanie Zweifel of Fundacion Mashumano insisted that is exactly what they should do in order to do better by their employees. Organisations should learn from each other’s mistakes and successes to understand how employees respond to different workplaces and managerial techniques.

Philip Ross of workplace consultancy UnWork talked about how big companies are getting their competitive edge from joining industry-specific coworking spaces as a means to get a first look into innovative start-ups and collaboration opportunities. At the forefront of the movement is the Ministry of Sound, which has opened a coworking space specifically for the music industry. Other companies have also embedded coworking into the fabric of their culture, for example the Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays Rise have both invited innovative fintech start-ups to take up residence with them.

Tech-human connectivity

The number of connected devices will be almost three times the world’s population (around 20 billion) by 2025. This level of connectivity amplifies the need for human connectivity, said Jamie Sol of EY to the WORKTECH Barcelona audience. He explained that ‘creating the workforce of the future requires a humanistic mindset’.

Yet the importance of technology cannot be devalued. Teo Manzano of Steelcase highlighted seven scenarios for how and where work will occur in the next ten years in relation to technological advancement. First, there will be active agents in the gig economy; second, we will be navigating oceans of data; intelligent innovation networks will develop at pace; there will be an emergence of healthy and sustainable spaces; rooms will become active additional team members; spaces will begin to know us; and virtual social spaces will emerge.

Like many other cities across the world, Barcelona is recognising that engaged employees positively reflects on the success of an organisation, but creating the right spaces for employees to feel emotionally engaged still has a way to go.