When designing your flexible or Activity Based operating environment, organisations should understand how the design impacts the behaviour and culture of their organisation. Staff behaviour is shaped by their experiences, so understanding the ‘People’ changes necessary before embarking on any transformation enables organisations to fully plan for the impacts. Digital transformation isn’t just a large change program, it’s a strategic initiative that delivers a paradigm shift, requiring organisations to redesign how their organisation will operate and behave.

A paradigm shift is defined as “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.”

Paradigms are important because they define how we perceive reality and how we behave within it. Everyone is subject to the limitations and distortions produced by their own experiences and interactions. For example, the introduction of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc has transformed the way that the world creates and consumes information. This moved the information paradigm from scarcity to abundance, from periodical to near real-time and from editor mediated to non-mediated. Before the introduction of these technologies, organisational design and staff expectations, regarding communications and information, would have been defined and limited through the dominant paradigm of the time.

Similarly, the rapid shift to flexible working we have seen over the past 2 years represents a paradigm shift in the way organisations operate. The response however is being limited and distorted by the behaviours related to the dominant paradigm, of desk-bound work, in the office. Many of the “return to the office” instructions we are seeing are a consequence of that paradigm reasserting itself.

To maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the new way of working, staff behaviours will need to be adjusted, at all levels of the organisation. However, before this adjustment has occurred design decisions regarding the new way of working will continue to be heavily influenced by the current dominant paradigm. To fully realise the benefits and avoid legacy design decisions, we need to recognise the limitations of the legacy mindset and redesign people’s behaviours and implement change interventions early in the organisational change process.

Generations in the workforce

One example of why this is necessary is when we consider the diverse workforce present in most originations. Multiple generations comprise today’s workforce, and each has varied work habits, expectations, and communication styles. This is having a growing impact on work styles and behaviours as the generations change. Often organisations struggle as they fail to consider these differences and design solutions based on a single generation. As organisations design, their flexible working operating model, implementing strategies that optimise a multigenerational workforce can increase staff buy-in and engagement.

Gen Y is the fastest-growing generation in the workforce. In response, organisations are making major work style and policy decisions based on what they think Gen Y want, with the sole purpose of recruiting and retaining the best possible talent. However, Gen X’ers currently hold over half of all leadership roles in organisations across the globe and together with the Baby Boomers, hold much of the decision-making power. Then there are the growing new-to-market Generation Z’ers, coming out of schools today fully equipped with technical know-how.

The challenge, therefore, is that we are supporting four to five different generations in the workforce and the current, trending approach to flexible working and office design is disregarding the majority of them. You can also be sure that, if the majority of the workforce is being ignored from the design, the interventions necessary to achieve the desired behaviour shifts are also being neglected. In the old office-bound paradigm, behavioural differences could be easily worked around, but in an increasingly technology-enabled world, that is becoming increasingly difficult.

Technology is frequently talked about as a prominent generational divider. So much so that it’s now a common assumption that Gen Yers can intuitively find a fix to any techy issue while Gen Xers have little hope of catching up. However, in some cases, Gen Xers are far more adept at fully integrating apps and other digital tools into their professional lives than Gen Yers. One reason for this may be because Gen Xers had to make an active effort to stay on top of relevant technology that helps them in their jobs, for fear of getting left behind. Conversely, Gen Yers are far more adept and comfortable communicating via tools that replicate the social media experience such as Slack or MS Teams, while Gen Xers are most comfortable using Email and SMS. These differences are being felt through technology in the workplace, as many Gen Yers grew up with apps and social media that provide them native digital fluency socially but may not spur them to seek out the skills needed professionally. This raises another challenge as generalisations, about generational differences in behaviour, can lead to limited, if not outright inaccurate, views of what professionals need and want out of their workplace to perform at their best.

Workplaces should never cater to one particular age group, gender, race, or any other label society decides to create. Instead, to create a successful workplace, the design must move beyond generalisations to support the activities that staff carry out to get a job done. Good workplace design must support both current and, more importantly, desired behaviours e.g. collaboration, invention, innovation or production, into the future. After all, a truly successful and diverse workplace is, categorically, inclusive.

When we take age-based generalisations out of the equation, we’re left with activities, tasks and behaviours. What do we need to accomplish, and how do we want to go about completing it? These are the questions we ask to help inform designing a productive workplace and the preferred location for activities.

But we cannot provide a personalised solution for every employee, so we also do need to better understand the people doing the work and their work style, to inform common design elements. By ignoring that we make assumptions based on perception or stereotypes, leading to some of the challenges we see today. When we ask questions about activities and tasks, we want to know things such as; Do you have regular assignments or do they vary frequently? Is our work predictable or is it sporadic, constantly changing and evolving? Is it executing a repeatable process or is it more creative? This leads us to understand how individuals, behave at work?

This line of inquiry allows us to venture beyond how we are behaving today in order to understand and seek out how we want to behave in the future.

Type of workstyle

In today’s highly mobile, technology-enabled hybrid workplace, understanding the complex ways that individuals work, and teams collaborate in person and across distances is the key to designing hybrid office and technology solutions. When designing the approach to flexible working, there is an opportunity to support the existing work paradigms and inspire new behaviours.

When taking an activity-based approach we see that there are very distinct modes of working, with workforces comprised of three different workplace types:

  • The Soloist, is someone who spent at least 60 per cent of their time inside the office, at their desk, working alone.
  • The Mixed, is someone who also spent at least 60 per cent of their time in the office but is away from their desk for much of the day, working collaboratively, and constantly interacting with people and teams.
  • The Mobile Mixed, is someone that is in the office less than 40 per cent of the time, spending the bulk of their work week travelling between multiple sites and office locations.

Understanding how different people prefer to work to perform their activities and tasks and the kinds of spaces, including their homes, that support their work styles enables organisation design decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects is that these types cross lines of age, tenure, hierarchy and title throughout the organisation. Instead, what differentiates the types is the roles, responsibilities, activities and tasks of individuals. For example, the Soloist tends to be performing activities comprised of focussed work such as knowledge work, analysis, or software development, whereas the Mixed was more likely to be performing activities related to management, tech support, and operations. Regardless of age, tenure, or level in the company, the employees within these types typically work and behave in a similar fashion.

Categorising roles in this manner will help support flexible working design decisions including identifying behaviours that need to be influenced as part of an organisation paradigm shift.

Influencing behavioural change

What can be done to drive these kinds of organisation-wide behaviour changes as we make the paradigm shift to flexible working?

A proven way to achieve the mindset and behaviour shifts is the “influence model,” a model based on the interplay of the four quadrants: understanding and conviction, reinforcement mechanisms, confidence and skill-building, and role modelling. Designing and implementing interventions and activities across all these aspects helps create an environment in which employees are more likely to change how they think and behave, inspiring people to be fully committed to the new paradigm.

As organisations redesign their operating model to incorporate flexible working for staff, the influence model can be a powerful and practical framework to ensure leaders are driving change holistically. The power of the framework results from driving change across all four quadrants, consistently.

While all four quadrants are essential, role modelling is the key to success. Leaders must role model the new paradigm, so staff recognise the behaviours requested of them as well and gain confidence in the organisation’s approach. This is one area I see organisations consistently falling down on, as leaders ‘talk the talk’, but very often fail to ‘walk the walk’.

This brings us back to the generational challenge mentioned earlier. With most of the organisational decision-making and leadership roles being filled by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, organisations should design interventions specifically to support the behavioural shifts required of their leaders, so they are properly equipped to role-model the new paradigm.

Equipping leaders with the skills to lead and manage staff in this new paradigm will enable them to better support staff in their own change journey.

Next Steps

If you would like to talk more about the challenges to flexible working and how you can influence behaviours, contact me via the link below.