Everything about work has changed, but nothing of the workplace has.
Work looks different, now.
Major forces in technology, the economy, society and culture have combined in such a way that even the near future will be dramatically different from what we’ve experienced over the past several decades.
A casual recitation of the trends we’ve seen in new ways of working – mobility, agility, globalization, collaboration, crowd-sourcing, innovation imperatives, networked organizations, creative class, work anywhere, etc. – reveals the early components of massive and accelerating change.
And the lexicon of the current and emerging future – work swarms, hyperconnectivity, augmented reality, gaming, simulations, spontaneous work, the collective, etc. – is language that does not yet have counterparts in the world where the design of the workspace takes place.
We are very surprised by the slow pace of change in the planning and design of places for working. We believe that beyond our ability to see and comprehend what the future of work looks like, there are significant forces that constrain our ability to get to where we need to be.
The failure of the discipline of design to match the pace of the emergence of new ways of working will certainly mean frustration and, more importantly, restraint on the ability of organizations to capitalize on the promise of the future.
We think that new institutions and new approaches are necessary to resolve this issue.
The existing paradigms of the workplace are very strong and limit the ability to achieve rapid change.
At the core of this dilemma is the heavily embedded practice of looking to the future from the past. We have spoken before of our resistance to the terms and the articulations of workplace “trends” because we believe that the change taking place in society is so substantial that the future can no longer be extrapolated from the experience of the past or the components of the lagging present.
There has been and, until the Great Recession, continued to be significant investment in the physical infrastructure supporting the way that work used to be done. The office building in best practice, for example, is a form based on past organizational designs and management practices that uses components, modules and metrics to reinforce a conformity to hierarchy, entitlement, and a cellular array of assigned workspaces. Over time, these have generated a well-developed and applied template of core design and placement, floorplate size and dimension, and floor-to-floor heights that shape the organization of work, and even influences the size and displacement of organizations. Form does not follow function anymore; rather function fits form.
Those components, what we call the lexicon of workplace form, also represent a mature economy that has been well developed by furniture and equipment manufacturers, ceiling and wall component manufacturers, and the technologies of energy and communications distribution. This has also bred a generation of workplace design specialists, increasingly constrained by time and fees, who have developed an aura of market and practice area expertise that reinforces the incremental extrapolation and application of "best practice" templates rather than real workspace innovation.
And the embedded resistance to change in the corporation suppresses the mandate for change
Even while accepting the logic for new ways of working, management education and practice has been unable to adapt to and keep up with the extraordinary speed of change in the way that work is actually being performed.
In recent years, even the growing awareness of generational differences has generated merely stylistic differentiation in the accommodation of different ways of working without understanding the substantial emergence of entirely new forms of organization and execution.
The "trend" to make the workplace more "social" by introducing a Starbucks style into the lunch room is but one example of the misunderstanding of the emerging social nature of work, communication, networks and innovation.
The existing institutions are powerless
While the corporation correctly senses that the current form of the workplace is worthless, it has not yet formed an understanding of what form of workplace has value. Workplace design consultants have illustrated that whether through layoffs or through mobility programs or through otherwise unrecognized shifts in how and where work is done, you can walk through the corporate offices these days and not see anybody there.
As the economy continues to press on corporate performance, most companies cannot shed real estate fast enough. The relentless purge is based, at least in part, on the traditional alignment of the corporate real estate function with the finance organization. Human resources, marketing, R&D and the value-generating portions of the organization have not yet assembled the point-of-view, position and power to influence the real estate momentum.
And, of course, the supply side of real estate, for a long time afraid of change, has led the design and delivery of the corporate workplace based on "exit strategies" – the generalization, commonization and commoditization of corporate offices to assure rapid turnover of occupancies even as the demand for a high level of customization and agility begins to emerge.
New institutions are necessary
The sense that the conventional designers and providers of the spaces and places where work is done can not adapt to provide a new model has led some from outside of the domain of "best" practice to attempt to innovate and create.
The Kauffman Foundation, for example, deeply concerned about the pace, volume and success of the entrepreneurial endeavors that power job creation and economic growth, have developed the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation. They have commissioned a prototype space to act as a "test-bed" for the development and application of new modes of organizational design and development under the belief that space matters to people's performance.
Similarly, Jeff DeGraf at the University of Michigan, has generate the Innovatrium concept. In his work with major corporations, he has found that great strides can be made with executives in an off-site, non-corporate context, but the pace and success of change is lost when they return to the conventional corporate space. The Innovatrium is a prototype to find a physical mode to implant in the corporate office to assure greater success in innovation initiatives.
These are early, small scale models, and there is a lot still missing.
So...I am looking for a developer
Our specifications are still in development and, in any case, we want this to be a mutual and multidisciplinary endeavor. Our model will evolve from design and development, from research and insight, from analysis and innovation, from prototypes and testing, and from new “metrics” around the experience of working.
We’ll return to this subject periodically. In the meantime, here is a very brief review of only some of the things we are thinking about.
The new model will use a new language of workspace design, a new lexicon of form. Since the leading edge of new ways of working is evolving so fast, and since older ways of working are moving so slowly, event the current language of work and design is losing value fast. “Collaboration,” for example, already has the weight of workforce skepticism, and everybody knows that the little table out in the open is not the supporting device. The new language must not carry any burden from inadequate responses from the past.
The new model is one of service, not control. Corporate real estate and facility management have provided things. The metrics of their performance and the limits on their resources have meant that the efficiency of the management of things and the minimization of the cost and amount of things have been their focus. “Standards” and “mobility” are a couple of the ways this is done, and “performance” became a financial, not an achievement, metric. The new model will instead understand and appreciate the importance of the way that people will get things done, and will provide the most effective resources for accomplishing the purposes of the organization.
The new model will be a sustainable model. Stocks and flows may be the underlying concept for the provision of space, not assignment and entitlement. This is at the core of our thinking. Corporate ownership and the long-term implications of real estate investment have combined to generate an inflexible and over-supplied model of space for work. We think a third party approach with a different model of supply is worthy of development and promotion.
The new model will seek talent centers, not cost centers. People will find and deliver success through their expertise and mastery in combination with a context-specific network of other experts and masters. These people will have the choice of being where they want to be, and that choice is increasingly an urban choice, in globally-connected, resource-rich centers. Workspace will come to be comprehended as a community, not a finite workplace.
The new model will focus on the experience of working. We believe that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working. The measures and pleasures of performance will be determined by the people who fulfill the purpose of the organization, and not by the organization. Top talent will move to where they can be most effective, where the constraints on achievement have been removed, and where the available resources activate, augment and amplify their contributions and achievements.
Contact us if you’d like to explore with us how to develop the workspaces of the future.
[Image by -nathan on flickr.com]