Future of Work

I had the privilege of spending a couple of days in the company of Dr’s Anne Marie McEwan and Marie.C.Puybaraud, discussing the future of the workplace. You can see the thoughts on line – “smartworkplace – the power of collective intelligence” – or digested in this article on BBC News. The physical workplace has been evolving for centuries, as we have moved from cottage industries, through the industrial workplace, to modern times. A steady stream of technological breakthroughs have lead us to where we are today. Inventions like the lift have enabled radical changes in the way that offices are designed and built, and how space is used.

Marie and Anne Marie have been projecting workspace needs forwards, to look at what the potential future workplace of 2030 might look like. It isn’t as big a leap as it might sound, 2030 is twenty years away, it’s like looking forward to now, from back in 1989. They propose three different scenarios. Our first meeting was at the grand, but very welcoming, One Alfred PlaceEuan SempleDave Terrar, Anke Holst and others joined for a group discussion about the current forces affecting the workplace. Dr Marie Puybaraud talked through the research report (summary here: The Smart Workplace in 2030).

You might think that cube-ville – the open-plan sea of desks and dividers that makes up many office spaces these days – is a recent form of employee farming, but the ‘modern’ style of open space offices has been with us since the 1940’s. Perhaps it is time for a change? Employees and employers are placing different demands on the workplace these days, and that is driving some much needed innovation in how it is structured. It is a space that Johnson Controls monitors closely, and I’ve been enjoying juxtaposing the learning from the world of physical workplace design, with the design of the virtual workplace (i.e. social software and social technologies). As it happens, the two may well be on a collision course.

The Smart Workplace of 2030 will see:

  • A complex and competitive world focused on collaboration, innovation and creativity.
  • An industry focused on knowledge and co-creativity.
  • A culture for collaboration and collective intelligence.

Both physical and virtual elements are present, and telepresence is very much the norm, with technology present in ALL human activities. That technology enables a greater range of choices about the physical location that work occupies – work may well become something that you do, rather than a place that you go. Taking the three proposed future scenarios in turn, the report suggests very different scenarios that might emerge:

1. The Hive… The Network

Agility, anonymity and access become key themes. Workers become highly mobile, and work comes to us, with technology providing the virtual connectivity that teams need to collaborate and co-ordinate. A mixture of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools enable collaboration on projects, and access to shared knowledge.

2. The Eco-Office… The Community

A radical form of industrial democracy and corporate re-engineering. The Eco Office depicts a sustainable world where the creation and sharing of knowledge drives economic growth. Operations centred around communities. ‘Employee villages’ create workplace communities, and support a shift from hierarchical to self-managed teams, with flexible work/life balance.

3. Gattaca… The Fortress

The rise of the corporate office. A ‘swarm’ society, grouped together on the basis of shared interests and commercial affinities, which would see a high concentration of economic growth in prosperous areas, with a mass migration towards them. A society with a ghetto mentality, defending itself from recurrent synchronised failures.

The discussion steered towards a view that these three scenarios might co-exist, with a widening gap between large corporates and independent co-operatives of professionals and micro-businesses. Interestingly, for me at least, digital communication is central to each of the three scenarios, which is a good reminder that the tools can create both positive and negative environments.

Sometimes a less utopian view of social media is worth contemplating, if for no other reason than making sure that we don’t go there.

The group in discussion, photos by Benjamin Ellis.