Book Review: The Emergent Workplace

Looking for patterns in the mash. © Columbia Pictures

Looking for patterns in the mash
© Columbia Pictures

It’s rather refreshing to see a book or report in which the word ‘Workplace’ in the title is prefaced by ‘Emergent’ rather than something misleading like ‘Tomorrow’s’ or ‘Future’. And so the authors Clark Sept and Paul Heath define their vision of the workplace presented in this slim but engaging book as a thing which is ‘in the process of becoming prominent’ to use the dictionary definition of the word emergent. By using this particular epithet, they are describing the consequences of the various forces that drive today’s workplace rather than lapsing into the fallacies most commonly associated with works of this kind; principally those of either assuming there is an evolution of all offices towards an ultimate model, or that already commonplace factors such as technology which frees us to work anywhere and at any time can in any way be associated with ‘the future’.

Inevitably they start with a definition, in this case one delivered by Don Doyle of Cisco in his preface. But it is thankfully a suitably vague and truthful definition. The authors themselves build on the ambiguity of this when they write that ‘mobility and mash-ups are driving work’. They are right, of course, based at least on all of the tensions we have witnessed this year as firms and individuals struggle to find the right balances between work, technology and place for themselves. This is the outward sign of people looking for a pattern in the mash. They are also right when they point out that the workplace is not changing across the board and nor should it because ‘the emergent workplace’ is not for everybody. The trick lies in knowing yourself and your business.

The Emergent WorkplaceThe structure of The Emergent Workplace is essentially that of a workbook aimed at helping people make better decisions about their offices, with the processes involved delineated across six chapters. In this case these practical chapters are based on the projects the authors worked on with Cisco and an American public sector organisation called GSA and their general experience working as workplace strategists.  They don’t necessarily provide a prescription, thankfully, but aim to structure thinking.

This is a work founded on uncertainty and it’s all the better for it. While it refuses to see the past as a guide to the future, it also does not accept any suggestion that what is happening in the workplace is in any way easy to pin down and categorise and that there is therefore some panacea we can apply to make everything stable again. The book identifies the seven principle environmental components of the office including employees, work process, support systems and culture and makes it clear that their individual needs and complex interactions and should underpin workplace strategy.

Because each of these components continues to change at a startling rate and we are constantly presented with new tools and ideas with which to meet the challenge of how to deal with them, the authors rightly argue that the challenge is to create ‘adaptive workplaces’. This is a welcome change to too much of the published material on the workplace, because it does not hide from the fact that there are no easy answers.


Paul Heath and Clark Sept are co-founders of Business Place Strategies, Inc. The Emergent Workplace is available to buy here as the easy option although we’d always recommend you look around, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the way Amazon operates as a business. The book’s own website can be found here