How Can Modern Offices Deal With Blurring Work-Life Distinctions?

Once upon a time, the typical Australian office involved staff members in cubicles, management in fancy offices and a clear delineation between work time and free time. But the world has changed, and the workspace with it. Remote-friendly business models, a blending of the work-life division, and a rise in fluid "non-employees" are just a few trends to watch out for in the coming year. We look at some of the ways business is changing.

As a business owner, it can be difficult to keep your employees happy, to maintain productivity and to foster creativity all at the same time. But these are the ingredients of a successful agency. Many factors contribute to this winning trifecta, but I have found that work culture and the office environment are key.

Forward thinking companies are constantly experimenting with new office layouts and new ways of working. From the hammocks in the Google Sydney offices to the slippery slide at the Catch of the Day digs, a workspace that your staff are proud to inhabit can be a surefire way to increase morale and productivity.

But you don’t necessarily need to refit your entire office. Little changes can make the world of difference. It might be as simple as implementing standing desks so the more health conscious staff can stand while they work, or it might be more complex, like banning internal emails in a bid to improve staff relationships and productivity.

These tweaks to office environment stem from a clear understanding that workplaces are not what they used to be, and companies need to keep abreast of trends or risk alienating staff.

Flexible employment options

Dan Schawbel, Partner and Research Director at executive development firm Future Workplace, recently wrote an article for Forbes which claimed that employees now work an average of 47 hours per week (not 40 hours, as was once the case), and that 64% of businesses believe their staff should be contactable outside of work hours. This is indicative of a blending of the work time-personal time division, and in response, staff members are calling for more flexibility in the workspace.

This blurring of boundaries is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it means that maternity and paternity leave are increasingly on the agenda, and that flexible working arrangements are becoming the norm for staff members with external responsibilities like study and children. It also means that culture and lifestyle and more important within the workplace itself – take a quick look at the number of agencies who are hiring Heads of Culture to foster a positive work environment, as just one example.

But on the negative side, the blurring of these boundaries means staff members in many businesses are expected to be constantly available to answer calls and emails, leading to stress, burnout and low job satisfaction. Clever businesses should discover ways to leverage the aforementioned positives, while ensuring staff members still feel like they are allowed to have a life outside of work.

There are countless ways businesses can achieve this balance.

Thinking in the sun

A simple but incredibly effective way to improve office culture is to mix up where people sit, where they work and where they collaborate. For instance, hot-desking is a relatively easy way to make sure all of your staff know each other, and this also fosters an environment of creative collaboration, where different staff get access to different people with a range of skillsets. The concept of hot-desking is nothing new to freelancers, but more and more companies are employing these tactics for their permanent staff.

Giving staff the opportunity to work outside, particularly when you run a creative business, can be incredibly rewarding. When employees get the opportunity to work outside in the fresh air, under the summer sun, they are immediately more relaxed and more at ease. As a result, they tend to be more creative and more collaborative. An office meeting becomes a creative workshop. Changes to the office environment such as this ensure that people remain passionate about their jobs rather than feeling trapped by the monotony of cubicles and fluorescent lights.

Of course, business leaders need to be sure they aren’t simply implementing new policies to follow a fad. The key is listening to the ebbs and flows of your office. Different staff have different needs, and while hot-desking or an open plan office might spell buzz and collaboration for some staff, it could cause distraction and annoyance for others. The solution, therefore, is finding optimal balance.

Down with email

Another way to address the work-life balance is a company’s email policy – many companies are beginning to ban internal staff emails altogether, or are at least managing emails. This policy has been adopted by innovative, technology-led companies like Automatic, the business behind Wordpress, as well as online education firm Treehouse; and is a policy my own business has started to follow. This stems from a belief that emails are intrinsically damaging to a company’s culture, collaboration and relationship building. Before emails, advertising and media agencies were places of energy and excitement. People would be closing deals over the phone, discussing creative ideas at the photocopier, forming relationships with their peers and building client bonds. Email has had an impact on that energy – the office floors are quieter; people instinctively turn to email instead of calling a client and building actual personal relationships.

One of the most important elements of a no email policy relates to the work-life balance. Email is just another way of keeping staff members tied to the office after work or on the weekends. Banning internal emails is just another way to strike the right balance. It means that staff are happier to come to the office and are more productive, because they’re not looking over their shoulders waiting for an email from the boss at 7am on a Sunday morning.

In a world where work time and free time are encroaching on each other, it’s important that staff feel like they are allowed to have a life outside of work. But an office doesn’t need to be completely overhauled to affect change. Small tweaks can make the world of difference.

Jason Dooris was the 2015 Campaign Agency Head of the year and the runner up CEO of the year across all business verticals in CEO Magazine‘s Executive of the Year Awards. Jason has been the driving force behind some extremely cool and innovative initiatives – he banned internal emails at his agency in order to increase analogue interactivity, productivity and creativity.


    I agree with a lot of this, but coming from someone that has suffered hotdesking for many years at my current job, I cannot recommend it.

    Hah. I'll believe it when I see it.

    Corporate Australia has a LONG way to go before it catches up with what social science folks are considering trendy. I know in most places that I have experience with, flexible work arrangements are an excellent way to kill your career advancement and your internal reputation.

    Managers balk at the prospect of performance-managing someone based on actual measurable results; it just turns them off when they could instead take a quick tour around the office and judge their staff's productivity based on who 'looks busy'.

      Yep, still a cubical looking at a screen for this little black duck.

    Ugh! This article lost all credibility when it suggested hot-desking was a good idea! Even an open plan office is better than "hot-desking"! The only benefit to hot-desking is that employees will arrive earlier to get the best seats.

    If you want to encourage your staff to be more productive, offer then a terminate desk in the layout they prefer: office, enclosed cubicle, low partition, or open plan. Some people simply cannot concentrate without the privacy that comes with an enclosed space.

    Also provide a collaboration spaces where staff are free to go and sit with their colleagues and work collaboratively on projects. Make them fun and creative, with whiteboards and different sizes for different teams. But always give your staff somewhere that is their own space to return to, to concentrate and get work done.

    Work-life balance is not something you manage by making people work longer, and then providing nice things for them when they do.

    I think the key to getting the most out of people is in the culture rather than the environment. Doesn't matter how many whiz-bang things you do to your office, or how many standing desks you put in - if the culture is wrong, you're fighting an uphill battle.

    So how do you fix a broken culture? Find the toxic people and show them the door. Give the team clear direction and make sure they have purpose. Continually reinforce this and remind the team that they're making progress. Set actual, achievable, realistic expectations with your clients. Fire the clients who are arsehats, grow the clients who aren't. Set the expectation that 6pm is the latest you ever want to see anyone in the office. If your team are still overworked, hire more team. So on and so forth - basically, don't be a dick.

    Then, when everyone's doing well, reward the team with nice things, because they've well and truly earned it.

    so if my understanding is correct Automatic is a global company? how do they manage emails between countries? unless they have no APAC office or expect staff to stay awake till 1 or 2am for meetings

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