3 eras of work and workplace history, and a future opportunity
In every era of work, there is a fundamental shift in spatial demand patterns that the contemporary workplace concepts cannot support. The era of work emerging now may be the most fundamental revolution in a century, demanding entirely new ways of thinking about workspaces. In the past, an asynchronicity between work and workspace has been tolerable for short periods of time. This tolerance is not sustainable in the speed of change taking place today.
We'll address this critical condition in a future post but, in the meantime, let's take a quick look at the synchronous and asynchronous modes of work and workplace in the recent past.
Old management/old workspace
The last fundamental shift in work and workspace was the move from agriculture to manufacturing, and spatially from farm to city. Large numbers of people began to do work in "the office." Modern management was born as organizations scaled and practiced mostly as the supervision of incremental, linear processing tasks. In response, the office, an iteration of the production floor, was a large pool of people organized in a grid, moving paper.
New workspace/old management
By the midpoint of the last century, work had begun to change. People gained more autonomy in their roles and processes, and new office concepts began to emerge. The Action Office was the physical response to a workplace increasing dealing with large amounts of information and requiring people to interact in new ways. Instead of the big bullpen, people could be expected to make a choice of interaction or focus depending on the nature of their work at any time, and the new workstation concept gave them the appropriate settings.
Management, however, was not changing as fast as people and work. Uncomfortable without control, managers reshaped the more dynamic Action Office concept back into the older industrial model, a grid of workstations but now with partitions to keep people focused on process and production.
New work/old workspace
By the end of the last century, momentous changes were generated by new business models arising from technology and the changing behaviors in traditional but now technology-infused businesses. Work became highly collaborative and generally freed from the chains of heavy and tethered business machines. Innovation replaced production as a key objective. The workplace became more social and interactive. Now, rapid continuing evolution in technology, surprising advancements in society, and self-generated changes in the way work is done are already disrupting this most recent model of work.
However, mainline corporations, even as their work has been liberated from place by mobile technology and even while seeking innovation through more social and collaborative behaviors, look at the workplace as a cost center rather than an idea generator, culture builder, and revenue enhancer. CRE reports to the CFO. "Standards" are still developed and deployed to sustain organizational entitlements, and assigned workstations imply some level of production control. The workplace begins to look different from the dilbertville of earlier decades, yet the underlying philosophies, policies and practices of finance-defined workspace design and deployment remain.
Next work/next workplace
Conventional descriptors of the workspace no longer have relevance. "Cubicle," "office," and "conference room" depict a hierarchy and order that constrains rather than enables, describing applied typologies rather than nuanced activities. "Office building" is an archaic concept, describing a generic and anonymous landmark, a fixed place of work, a clock-defined occupancy, a structure that abandons experiential amenity to other places. "Distraction" is not so about the place once called the "open" office but about a workplace design that ignores the attributes of dynamic and continually changing work modes. "C-Suite" is a term that might now be a symptom of corporate entropy.
Organizational hierarchy has dissolved. Management is now dead. It is the attractions and demands of project work that now define how people come together to do work. Teams self-organize and scale up and down relative to purpose and shared needs. People choose the places and spaces that give them the best experiences, whether in work or leisure. Communications have left the company email platform, finding the apps that move information most effectively to those who matter in word, image and video. Soon, almost everything in life will have a digital intermediary enabling connection to people, place and project based on individual criteria or offering. Autonomy will be the standard operating mode.
These new demand patterns now seek a new lexicon, a new language of organization, activity and form for the places and spaces of work and the behaviors and interactions that characterize it. We'll offer a guide in a future post. In the meantime, however, know that if your workplace has "assigned" seats and if it is composed of things called "workstations," it may already be obsolete.