February 1, 2016
It seems like we don’t have to wait more than a few days at a time before some or other organisation is making its own prognoses about how we will be working in the future, especially at this time of year. The thing these reports about the office of the future all share in common, other than a standardised variant of a title and a common lexicon of agility, empowerment, collaboration and connectivity, is a narrow focus based on several of their key narratives and assumptions. While these are rarely false per se, and often offer some insights of variable worth, they also usually exhibit a desire to look at only one part of the elephant. The more serious reports invariably make excellent points and identify key trends, it has to be said. However, across them there are routine flaws in their thinking that can lead them to make narrow and sometimes incorrect assumptions and so draw similarly flawed conclusions. Here are just a few.
They place undue focus on Generation Y (and increasingly Generation Z). While it’s understandable that we should be interested in the influence of the next generation of people on the way we work, not least because of their lifelong technological immersion, it’s worth noting that Millennials will still be a minority of the workforce in 2020 – the appropriate end date for many of these reports. A more sophisticated approach would be to consider the multi-generational workplace, a subject covered intelligently and in detail by the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art.
They like gimmicky designs. When these reports depict the office of the future there is a perhaps understandable tendency to focus on design quirks such as slides, isolation pods and that now somehow ubiquitous shorthand for cool workplaces – the table tennis table. It’s misguided to suggest anything other than these are appropriate features for only certain types of firms and employees. Even in those, it’s likely that some people will react against the idea of corporate prescribed fun. For many other people, the office of the future will be a sober and nuanced evolution of the office of the present. That is likely to include an open plan with blue carpets and grey worksurfaces and a definition of cool that extends no further than the Egg chairs in reception. And there’s nothing wrong with that in the right place.
They ignore the complexities of behaviour and motivation. Too much emphasis is placed on design as a way of changing behaviour. People are motivated by a range of factors, many of them outside the control of the organisation, never mind the design of the workplace. For example, the idea posited in many reports that the organisation can influence emotion and wellbeing by designing the workplace in a particular way is entirely dependent on the idea that an individual works in a bubble. Design becomes the major determining influence on behaviour when all other things are equal. And they never are.
They fail to distinguish between people and technology. There is an enduring assumption that just because a technology exists people will use it and will use it in the way intended. Many of these reports fall into the same trap. Similarly, there is an ongoing and hastening problem with the pervasive influence of technology which means that many people are essentially working for all of their waking hours.
They subvert language. The Newspeak of modern management is evident in the partial inversion of supposedly positive terms such as empowerment, agility and collaboration. Technology does not only empower people, it enslaves them, especially when firms start measuring them on their social media profile. Agile working means giving people flexibility, as well as extending the workplace beyond the walls of the office. Collaboration means not only sharing ideas but also ensuring that knowledge workers don’t withhold their intellectual capital which is the only thing most of them have to sell to employers in the first place.
They ignore the influence of the present. When George Orwell wrote 1984, its title was derived by inverting the numbers of the year in which it was written – 1948. Orwell understood it was a book as much about the world in which he lived as the one to come. Our images of the future are invariably refracted through the prism of the present. Predictions must accommodate this distortion to some degree.
They focus too much on extroverts. The tenets espoused in many of these reports place too much emphasis on extroverts in the workplace. This is evident not only in the provision of quirky design features such as slides – which even many introverted Millennials wouldn’t be comfortable with never mind 50 year old accountants – but also in more generally acceptable and widespread facets of office design such as the open plan. There are signs of a backlash to the undue focus on design based primarily on the needs of extroverts but many of these reports continue to promote values that ignore the needs of nearly half of the population. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this would include archetypal introverts such as Warren Buffett, Charles Darwin, J.K. Rowling, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Larry Page, all of whom preferred less stimulating environments, more quiet concentration and more listening than talking.