What’s next for workplace culture?

It was mental health week last week. We tried something groundbreaking at Nile.
Neil Collman

Neil Collman

Neil is a design leader, speaker and foresight practitioner, who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design.

Inspired by Mental Health week, we set some time aside as a team to talk about our own mental health — living up to high expectations, managing stress, and the importance of a healthy workplace culture.

The Nile team sat outside our sunny Edinburgh office.

Like lots of teams, this isn’t something we do naturally, easily or regularly. In fact, it’s the first time we’ve done something like this as a proper collective exercise.

It’s been cathartic, refreshing and — truth be told — occasionally a little uncomfortable. We’re a pretty open and honest team on the whole, but this week we started opening up conversations on topics we sometimes shy away from.

What did we learn?

A lot. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was around self respect. We learnt that how much we respect ourselves and our time has a huge impact on our wellbeing. This is especially true in our line of work: we all take pride in the work we do, and any one of us may be working with two or three clients at any one time. That creates pressure. And left unmanaged pressure creates stress, unhappy colleagues, and burnout.

Over the course of the week it became clear there’s some broader design work to be done in our industry. How do you design a healthier workplace culture?

To start, you need to understand the broader context in society, tech and beyond.

Picking up the signals

As diligent foresight practitioners, we’ve been tracking four micro trends that we think are important to know when it comes to mental health and the broader topic of self-care at work:

1. The attention economy needs attention

This is a big one, and with interesting consequences for everyone. The “move fast and break things” era ushered in by Facebook is over, largely thanks to a spate of data breaches, privacy issues and regulatory changes (like GDPR). The world has awoken to their role in the corporate machinery of big tech, and is starting to realise some of the darker consequences of the societal shift the attention economy has generated.

A growing number of movements — doteveryone.orgethical.os and others — are starting to gain traction in response to this, bringing practical tools for product teams to better identify and manage the positive and negative fallout of design decisions on people, both in the short and long term.

So naturally that got us thinking: how might we better understand intended and unintended consequences of big and small organisational decisions we make, and how can we add in ‘healthier’ metrics to workplace evaluation? Should our board be looking at employee mental and physical wellbeing figures alongside the sales numbers?

2. “In Real Life” movements are the new escapism

Robyn, Lucy, Luke and Jonty engaging in a bit of Coorie up on Beinn Ghlas. Photo by Callum Ritchie

For some people, the world has flipped. Online is the day-to-day, offline is the new frontier.

We’re beginning to see growing (perceived) tension between digital experiences and ‘real life’ (local, real-world) experiences, which are commonly seen as an antidote to an always on, ‘unhealthy’ digital world.

According to Hobbycraft, 54% of the nation use ‘craft’ to relax and feel good. Growth in ‘hygge’ and ‘coorie’ trends in the past few years have signalled a shift towards a more mindful, self-care focused existence, pushing back against the ‘work-hard play-hard’ vision of success entrenched in some professional circles.

At Nile the team have begun to embrace Coorie. This means bagging Munros together one weekend every month, and cultivating shared team experiences outside the office, where we can switch off. It’s brought us closer together as a team. And the odd 3,000ft highland vista has a remarkable way of giving a little perspective during intense periods of work.

In the meantime, an explosion of new workplace collaboration tools like Zoom, Miro and Mural promise an alternative to exclusively co-located working pattern. You can build team interaction through a screen (Trello’s 2017 How to embrace remote work guide remains one of the finest manifestos of remote working principles we’ve come across).

And yet, even with all these tools, we’re yet to find the right balance. Anywhere, any device working increasingly means anytime working. And ‘anytime’ can quickly become ‘all the time’ without clearly enforced personal boundaries.

Perhaps we’ll begin to see a backlash. Some of our team believe the future of work lies in small, close-working and co-located teams doing great things together, relying on online tools as a way to augment their teams and add flexibility. Tools for remote collaboration aren’t mandates for remote working; few teams want to switch to fully remote working; face to face remains the most powerful medium for collaboration.

I ran a fully-remote co-design workshop recently. It was a fascinating challenge, and arguably only a partial success — I’ll write up what I learned soon!

3. Authenticity is the only game in town

The Fyre Festival hangs like a dark cloud over the online influencer community to this day. It’s perhaps the highest-profile of a number of scandals which shook the influencer ecosystem to its core. Online (and offline) celebrities lent their name and credibility to the event, only to have it blow up spectacularly in their face.

The online community is now recovering from a crisis of trust. In an environment of media saturation where vested interests, ‘shadow-ads’, fake followers and heavily-veiled content sponsorship is the norm, audiences are beginning to seek out transparency and authenticity in the content they consume as hallmarks of trustworthiness.

Perhaps we’ll begin to see a fork; a dual-strata of trust, one for the online world, one for the face to face world. Indeed, online-native generations are already beginning to do this; with online identities treated as temporary, unreal and throw-away, an appropriate response to a landscape of fakery and distrust. Gimlet’s excellent Reply All podcast addresses this in a fascinating context in their The Snapchat Thief episode

Might we begin to see a similar shift in the interaction between employees, employers and colleagues at work? As systems, multi-national societies and organisations grow increasingly complex and distributed, how might we build trust and authenticity amidst the population?

One organisational solution appeared back in 2016 we saw the prominent rise of holacracy (with Zappos being the highest profile exponent of the organisation structure). Some companies continue to fully embrace self-organising and transparent organisation structures built on trust, communication and collaboration.

4. That immersive tech wave still hasn’t broken
Sarah Ronald playing BeatSaber in VR
Sarah Ronald rocking some BeatSaber with backing dancers. Fun to do. Fun to watch. Life changing? Not for your average consumer.

VR, AR (and to a lesser extent, Voice, which has already made significant inroads) have been primed as ‘the next frontier’ for several years, and could offer new ways to create authentic and empathetic experiences, especially for distributed teams.

While compelling niche applications of VR and AR are regularly popping up in training, manufacturing and industry, a bigger consumer wave hasn’t broken yet. At the same time, perceived value moves further and further away from hardware and software, towards services. We’re already seeing the commoditisation of smartphones as a low price / high performance all-purpose access point to the digital world, and the latest big announcements by tech companies increasingly focus on a ‘glue’ layer in the tech ecosystem — unifying and boosting amazing services for consumers, not building shiny new products.

At the same time, increasingly high-profile privacy concerns in the voice frontier are beginning to force consumers to make a choice between privacy and security, and convenience.

So if customers aren’t crying out for new hardware, it’s unclear whether a seismic shift is on the horizon or if the new competitive value lies in security, privacy and content, not hardware and software. After all, it’s probably more likely that blockchain — not VR — is going to have the greatest impact on society over time.

In the meantime, design teams are left placing bets. Will a consumer revolution spill over into the workplace in the same way as touch interaction did in the early 2010s, or will there be a longer wait for a more mainstream change in adoption?

More importantly, what kind of proactive stance should we take on any shift in adoption in an effort to protect our mental health at work? Perhaps the future lies in the seamless integration of services and smart contracts to enable stronger relationships and a more personalised and deliberately ‘healthy’ experiences with employers, rather than a cluttered world of VR headsets and Alexa chiming in to office conversations.

This is just a peek

These shifts hint at a different mindset and skillset in workplace culture and design, but ignore them at your peril. A peek into one longer term future is neatly summarised by this fascinating take on a ‘fifth industrial revolution’ — one where inclusivity and purpose need to be at the heart of sustainable innovation, along with human interests. To deliver this vision, we will also need a more empathetic and inclusive way to design the workplace, one which takes more deliberate steps to support healthy minds as well as productivity and cutting edge technology.

So, while mental health week might be over at Nile, it feels like just the beginning of something much much bigger and more important is afoot.

We’re excited to be part of it.