The complexity equation

Creating a workplace that supports the modern worker Theorists would have us believe that AI will lighten our workload. After all, many of us already use AI as a personal assistant; when we discuss a meeting over email and it automatically adds it to our calendar, when we tell Alexa to “add ‘review article’ to list” and she does it, even when Google Maps calculates the fastest traffic route.

But is it actually reducing our workload or is it simply changing the nature of what we do and how we do it? With AI taking care of the more menial tasks, knowledge workers will be free to focus on things that require social skills, decision-making and creativity. The job of innovating will remain a human activity, and this responsibility is likely to drive us to even greater complexity.

Every job is, essentially, a sum of its activities and the infrastructure of the workplace can either support, or hinder, each of these activities. This is why one of the things the Leesman survey measures is ‘activity complexity’. Respondents select all the activities that are important to them in the course of their work out of a possible 21 (see full list in chart opposite) and rate how their workplace is supporting them in each activity. Out of all respondents in our database, 23% have selected five or less activities as important, 39% of the respondents recognise 6-10 activities as important, 21% have even more variety in their roles with 11-15 important activities, and 17% belong to the high-complexity group with 16 or more activities selected as important.

Evidentially, for most knowledge workers today work means more than just individual focused work combined with planned meetings with either colleagues and/or clients and collaborators. Based on our data, less than a quarter of employees have what we would classify as a ‘fairly simple’ work profile. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they do simple things but rather that they don’t have a lot of variety in the type of activities that they do.

Part of the reason for the high level of variety that most employees experience is down to technology making it possible. Meetings are easier to organise and can be hosted virtually, in-person or a mixture of both with ease. Laptops and mobiles mean we can work from anywhere and AI seamlessly pulls our schedule together to ensure that we maximise every minute of every day.

But are our workplaces keeping up with the pace of technological change? The workplaces themselves don’t necessarily need to be high-tech, but they should offer a variety of settings that enable all of the different kinds of activities the modern worker does as a part of their day to day.

“Employees with lower activity complexity generally have a higher Lmi compared to their colleagues who have high complexity in their roles. Ultimately this means that employees who have less variety in their roles feel more supported in their work.”

Our analysis in The Workplace Revolution showed that there are certain activities, like ‘individual focused work, desk based’, that are crucial for organisations to support in order to provide an outstanding overall workplace experience. And for some people having a space where they can do focused, desk-based work is one of only five tasks that are important for their job, so if that space is being provided 1/5th of their activities are being looked after. But compare that to the employee who has over 20 activities as part of their role; if one of those tasks is focused, desk based work and this is supported, it still only accounts for 1/20th of their activity portfolio.

This is why employees with lower activity complexity generally have a higher Lmi2 compared to their colleagues who have high complexity in their roles. Ultimately this means that employees who have less variety in their roles feel more supported in their work.

In many ways this is hardly surprising, as it is easier to provide an environment that supports five activities than it is to provide one that supports 20. This challenge seems to be even greater in old workplaces. The workplaces where the Leesman Office survey was done prior to a change (i.e. surveyed in ‘pre’ phase) fail to support especially those with high activity complexity, suggesting that conventional office design – with only workstations and a few meeting rooms – is no longer fit for purpose for the more complex work that is done today. Newer workplaces with a variety of settings are more likely to cater to the variety of ways that technology allows us to work in.

This suggests that the employees within the organisation who have more complex roles will benefit the most from workplace change. Those within the lower activity complexity brackets still see an improvement, but it is not as significant.

Seniority within the organisation may give some indication as to how complex an employee’s role is. For example, if we look exclusively at senior leaders, only 12% are doing fewer than five activities, compared to the Leesman Global average of 23%. While there is no hard and fast rule here, it’s important to be aware of how many, and which, activities the senior leaders in your organisation are doing and how well the workspace is supporting them.

So which workplace features are important for different types of activities? We’ve looked at which features are statistically more important for employees who do certain activities, compared to those who don’t, which can help map out what infrastructure is needed depending on what is to be supported.

‘Individual focused work, desk based’ is the one activity that most employees do, regardless of activity complexity. Ninety-two per cent of all respondents in our database say that it’s important to them and it is safe to say that it is one of the basic activities that is a part of the majority of work profiles, also the ones with less variety. Statistically, the three most important features for this activity are ‘desk’, ‘meeting rooms (small)’ and ‘noise levels’.

“Employees within the organisation who have more complex roles will benefit the most from workplace change.”

But if we look at activities related to creativity, which is continuing to grow in importance as AI becomes more prominent, other things emerge onto the list. ‘Accessibility of colleagues’ is among the top three important features for the activities of ‘thinking / creative thinking’, ‘collaborating on creative work’ and ‘collaborating on focused work’. ‘Quiet rooms for working alone or in pairs’ is important for both ‘thinking / creative thinking’ and ‘collaborating on focused work’ while ‘variety of different types of workspace’ is important for both focused and creative collaboration.

Of course, it can be difficult to be creative on demand. To fuel creativity we need to let the unconscious work, which is why it is also important to create space for relaxing and taking breaks. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the statistically most important features for ‘relaxing / taking a break’ include ‘informal work areas/break-out zones’ and ‘leisure facilities onsite or nearby’.

As AI continues to create more space in our schedules for us to be able to achieve even more in a day, it will become essential for our workspaces to support the wide variety of activities we will need to do. Ironically, it seems like the more AI takes rote tasks off our hands, the more we will be pushed to interact with each other, perhaps creating a more human-centric work environment than ever before.

Most important activities

Leesman respondents are asked to select the activities that are important to them in the course of their work. They then rate how well their workplace supports these activities. The chart below shows the activities with ≥50% importance for each Activity Complexity group.

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