August 2, 2017
Whatever you might be told, this is not the Office of the Future
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 Millennials. 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 – still for the time being the 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. But they never are. People can be unhappy and unproductive in a palace or joyful and motivated in a shack. It’s complicated.
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 and ignore the lessons we have learned in the past 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 most important thing many of them have to sell to employers in the first place.
They ignore the influence of the present. When George Orwell wrote 1984, the story goes that its title was derived by inverting the numbers of the year in which it was written – 1948. Whatever the truth of this, 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.
February 13, 2013 @ 1:58 pm
Just to clarify, I did not write this blog post – albeit in parts I probably have over the last year on the workessence site. It is totally on the money.
I should also add that my post on Malcom’s Workoid https://workessence.com/malcolms-workoid/ is not an item of futurology but an ironic reference to the present. Just in case it didn’t come through.
I doubt any of us will stop the “future of work/workplace” brigade anytime soon though.
February 13, 2013 @ 2:06 pm
Maybe what is needed is The Future of the Workplace Report to end all Future of the Workplace Reports?
February 13, 2013 @ 2:54 pm
I have not read the referenced reports that you give links to (and i will). I do believe that most of the articles, reports and blogs written these days are fairly one sided and focused predominately on a the younger generation’s predisposition about work and workplace. And yes, i often use those generalizations many times in pointing to reasons for certain design decisions and recommendations. I agree with your statements about the complexities of motivations and behavior. These things are the outcomes from the balance or inbalance between an organization’s approach to strategy, structure, process, rewards and people.
Generational tendancies, new technologies and many other things will affect how we work in the future. However, a clear understanding of the organization’s cultural inclinations (motivations) and therefore their desired behaviors, is the only way to create a workplace design for the future that is truley affective and supports a particular organization.
February 13, 2013 @ 3:13 pm
As with all technology predictions, reality will be somewhat different to the predictions: the paperless office and nuclear Armageddon spring to mind.
The important thing about the agile worker and workplace – as you point out – is genuine flexibility, not some pale imitation which a bit of trendy design can cover up.
Agility is technology enabled, but I agree there is a danger of this pervading our lives in a negative way. It also requires a shift in attitude from employers that is only slowly coming to pass.
February 13, 2013 @ 4:39 pm
Yes spot on Mark. There is plenty to do getting organisation to catch up with present – many still working in the 20th Century.
This is not the office of the future « SourceYour | So You Know Better
February 14, 2013 @ 9:50 am
[…] Source […]
February 18, 2013 @ 11:13 am
Great paper, I liked and agree 99.99% just because they say 100% does not exist.
Since you ask, may I add a couple of considerations:
* unstated Hypothesis of most of these articles you indicated is the so call “LINEARITY PRINCIPLE” or if you prefer cause-effect principle, a false assumption that stems from Newtonian mechanistic approach. For this reason there will be always someone that will try to add that little variable that was missing and that indeed does bring a different result, at least in theory. And since Humans have as many facets as the stars in the sky, we cannot argue that each contribution does add something.
The main point is that this approach does not take in consideration the interactions between the different elements introduced and the fact that their effect does not simply add one to the other but combine just like waves of the sea! So that the final outcome sometimes is the result of a sum, others of a subtraction, other still a RESONANCE where the performance display a surprising pick just as in “ROUGH WAVES”. (more about that in FRAM by E. Hollnagel – https://www.functionalresonance.com/ )
* This NO-LINEAR RESPONSE brings us to a second consideration: COST-EFFECT. In times of very limited resources, those who have the responsibility to keep at least the business floating, if not profitable, face themselves with an incredibly difficult challenge: where to allocate the funds to obtain the maximum efficiency in terms of cost benefit. On the other hand a multitude of experts, researches, consultants, etc. crowd to propose innovative solutions that have all in common two certainties: additional costs and no tools to predict and/or measure the results. No surprise if many SME have developed in time a sort of allergic reaction and tend to perceive ALL of this innovations as something very foggy.
3- Finally, CHANGE. Given that we are so lucky to have spotted the perfect combination of elements that will produce with little cost a peak of performance, lets not forget that Humans, including very innovative and creative people, do not like change and do require a “minimum time of adjustment”. As many Safety expert know well, often by introducing a correct and needed change in an organization, at least for the first period the overall safety performance decrease, to the point that often it was thought that the measure introduced was wrong. Although Humans are very adaptable, thus succeeded to survive in the evolutionary process, still they too need time to adjust and if the proper time is not allowed, they fail to adapt. We do live in a world where the speed of change is steadily increasing, challenging our lives more and more. The question is: did we give enough time to the organization to adapt to the previous change, before introducing a new one, as good as it might be????
Lauri Sue Robertson
February 18, 2013 @ 4:50 pm
All of these offices ignore the 17% of the population who live with disabilities. There are lots of us who need accommodations that will not fit with the office that has slides, tennis tables, etc. Waterfalls are pretty but the noise will be a problem for those of us with hearing aids. That’s just one of the issues. I see in many design magazines, flights of stairs that appear to be ‘floating’, with no backs to the steps, and no sides. This is an impossible stairway for lots of us who can walk but have perceptual disabilities. These are just a couple of the many issues that appear in modern offices. The monochromatic colour schemes are a big problem, too.
February 18, 2013 @ 5:01 pm
As Barry says, we have read hopeful predictions such as the paperless office and even the ‘officeless organisation’ (or similar) – neither happened entirely, but both have had some effect. Many of us work off any flat surface for much of the time and don’t like to be burdened with paper. And ask almost any corporate organisation and they will tell you that they now have less space per person than they had in previous years – often because many of their people are rarely in “the office”.
The future of work will be different – I believe that it will be more about ‘communities’ (real and virtual), places where people want to be (not where their employment contract tells them they should be) – far more than it will be about “offices”.
The trendy gimmicks will come and go – but the details of how, when, where and with whom we work, will all continue to change.
Why? – largely “sustainability”, in the widest sense of the word. The way we worked in the past – commuting to offices and working all day – is not sustainable. Expectations of work output seem to continue ever upwards. The cost (and environmental price) of travelling also continues to rise. Stress and family breakups continue to rise.
Where GenY probably does come to the fore is, down-the-line a few years, they have seen all this before. They do not want to live like their parents did.
But, only if they have a job, money and career options! Lets not forget that a large part of the youth of today are not “West Coast Ivy-League” tech company employees, but just want a job+salary…. the only “slide” they are worried about is the one into further debt! So how much change Euro-youth will demand right now is debateable!
Paul @paulcarder @WorkAndPlace
Great workplace design = great business leadership? | The Midnight Lunch
February 19, 2013 @ 3:16 am
[…] On a regular basis, our clients are often represented by the facility managers, project managers or people with a financial background. They will say to us I want x number of desks at x dollars/square metre by x date. And often and this is how big/shaped the desks are to be. Their brief (or performance metric) is to provide an office with a certain number of desks at a certain cost by a certain date. And if the desks are the same as what the organisation has now, they believe no-one will complain too much. However this is not the way to create great work places. ”…a clear understanding of the organizations cultural inclinations (motivations) and therefore their desired behaviors, is the only way to create a workplace design for the future that is truly effective and supports a particular organization.” (quoted from a comment by Jack Webber on Office Insight: The Business of Workplace Design and Management) […]
February 19, 2013 @ 1:40 pm
Hi Lauri. How would you like to write a post for us expanding on the points you make?
February 19, 2013 @ 1:44 pm
I agree entirely Paul. I think it’s a shame sometimes that when we focus on specific issues – be it particular models of office design or Gen Y or whatever – we lose sight of the simple fact that we now have the choice of more ways of working both as individuals and organisations than ever before. We have to celebrate that.
February 19, 2013 @ 5:29 pm
Timely article. Truth is no one can predict the future and any linear projection to the future is pure gamble. Dan Gardner has written very well about future predictions in “Future Babble, Why Pundits are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best”. Change is coming to the way people work. Demographics, and the characteristics of the generations within each will reshape work and work spaces. My belief is that much of the tinkering going on now is an early expression of the desire for fundamentally different ways that organizations and individuals choose to work together. The need that organizations have for “intellectual capital’ is huge and to effectively draw in the needed talent, new ways of working will become mainstream. What will they be? We will know when we get there. The journey will be great fun, for the introverts, extroverts and ambiverts too!
February 21, 2013 @ 9:11 pm
Great presentation, observations and conversation.
‘The future of work’ – do predictions matter? « Mark Catchlove's Blog
February 28, 2013 @ 12:15 pm
[…] recommend this article from OfficeInsight – This is not the Office of the Future – looking at the common mistakes made by those attempting long term […]
March 7, 2013 @ 11:25 am
I cannot agree more with this piece, and it’s not a recent spate of reports. We’ve had much the same content for 20 years or more.
Paul, I agree with you on the Euro-youth bit, I wonder if the 55% of Gen Y unemployed in Spain are really interested in the benefits of teleworking or if they’ll have to hot desk whilst having meaningful collaboration at the water cooler. The subvert language argument hits the nail on the head, but people don’t seem to be seeing the downside that technology has brought. I put the argument forward that life, economics and design is cyclical, and as teleworking/wfh/aws/hot desking becomes the norm then the truly radical and enlightened employees and organisations will rebel against said norm. The workplace industry needs a wake up call, the sort of thinking outlined in this article and the recent Yahoo debate may become the catalysts.
Having said all that I firmly believe that good, researched and inclusive workplace design can enhance the employee’s experience and well being, it is not a panacea though, pay and conditions will always be the main drivers for another buzz phrase. Attracting and retaining talent.