Defining Today’s Work Space

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It’s harder for us to work less, the more connected we are.

By David F. Carr

For many, today’s workplace is not just one place.  And the workday extends into all hours of the day and night (if we let it).

That’s because technology and cultural changes are intensifying and reshaping how we work. And both require consistent leadership and buy-in from the C-suite and board of directors. The payoff, however, is clear—an organization that unleashes the full power of insights, ideas, and actions from its people.

“For a culture to be the strongest it can be, for an organization to transform to the culture that it wants to be, the transformation can’t feel like an HR initiative,” said Greg Besner, founder and CEO, CultureIQ. “It needs to be a leadership commitment. You want every employee to feel like they have a voice. You also want the whole company to be celebrating the process,” he continued.

But empowering your employees and changing how they work is not easy. According to a recent report, Workforce Transformation in the Digital Vortex by the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, an IMD and Cisco initiative, workforce transformation can be daunting.

But then again, culture and technology change rarely come easy.

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That’s why employers need to understand how the workforce is evolving. Herman Miller, the furniture maker, and Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), the property management firm, are two examples highlighted in the report. They are experimenting with sensors that capture insights on how workers use space, which will help them optimize designs for the workplace of the future.


“Work the Invader”: AI in the Air, Bots in the Office

Workforce transformation is increasingly important to many organizations. Adobe, for example, sponsored a Future of Work Think Tank event during which moderator Jeremiah Owyang encouraged the group to focus on changes in the lives of office workers and knowledge workers over the next five to ten years.

Some panelists predicted that instead of pulling out our phones to search for an answer to a question, the answer would hover in the air before us, retrieved by bots smart enough to anticipate our questions before we ask them.

If that sounds futuristic, consider how the technologies we use to stay connected for work today would have appeared 25 years ago. We’ve seen the evolution of smartphones and Wi-Fi connected laptops and tablets. These make it easier to take our work anywhere. Whether we want to or not.

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“It’s harder for us to work less, the more connected we are,” said Jason Kinney, CMO of LiquidSpace, an online directory of co-working facilities.

Despite the many online collaboration technologies that allow us to produce more value in fewer hours, panelists were unanimous in believing we will work more in the future. We just will not spend all those work hours in the office.

Urban planners talk about building healthy communities with the availability of a “third place”—a space that is neither home nor work. The concept once centered on libraries and coffee shops, Kinney said, “but now, no place is safe.”

“Work is the invader,” agreed Natalie Engels, design director at Gensler, whose job is specifically focused on the design and redesign of workplaces. “It makes you wonder if there will have to be a fourth place where we can actually get a break.”


Good Tech vs. Foosball

An Adobe-sponsored survey found employees judge a workplace partly by the quality of the technology it provides. They find that to be more important than some other fashionable amenities—even free food or foosball tables.

Today, it’s common for people to say they have better technology at home and in their personal lives than at work. Adobe’s event moderator Owyang cited the voice recognition embedded in Siri and the Amazon Echo home automation device as technology that has yet to arrive in the workplace.

This is one reason why the traditional office increasingly strikes people as unnecessary, several panel members said.

“If they already have their own kit at home, there’s no need for duplicate technology,” said Kate Kendall, CEO & founder of CloudPeeps, an online community for freelance workers.

If they use an employer or client’s technology, they want it to be technology “that lets them get things done in a better way,” she said. 

More people are choosing to work freelance so they can build “portfolio careers” where they pick and choose the best opportunities and enjoy the most flexibility, Kendall said. Many reject the “false trajectory” of corporate employment intended to secure for them “a mortgage and 2.5 kids,” she said, having discovered that “it was only perceived security all along.”

“Freedom and flexibility have replaced job security,” affirmed Matt Dorey, co-founder and CEO of Factory, which he describes as the equivalent of an Olympic training facility for technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs.


Teams Fit for the Gig Economy

The teams Dorey pulls together are made up of creative professionals who choose to work independently because that is the best way for them to be recognized in proportion to the quality of their work. “The dynamic range between an average developer and a great developer might be one to a hundred,” he said, but “in a traditional corporation compensation is relatively fixed.”

Instead of traditional offices, he has established three houses around the San Francisco area, one of which is legally classified as a hotel so these hotshots can stay there for a few nights or a few weeks while working on a project.

“One of our goals is to never have an office,” Dorey said. When others in the group pointed out that these were de facto offices, he replied, “but they feel like homes.”

Team members also do much of their work from their actual homes, or from the location of their choice, rather than getting together in person, Dorey said. “I think we tend to over-index on relationships and under-index on results,” he said. “Most of my people are like, ‘just hit me on Slack—just tell me what you want me to do.’”

“That’s because they’re individual contributors, they’re not leaders,” objected Elizabeth Kim, talent director for IDEO.

People whose work output can be quantified in units of software code may be able to work mostly independently. But the product design and strategy consultants her firm employs need lots of in-person time with one another and with clients, to build relationships and improve ideas.

Although her firm taps freelancers for specialized skills, her job is to recruit and develop actual employees who will build more permanent and cohesive teams.

Holding onto those people is increasingly challenging. In the new world of work, “there’s the gig and then there is the longer gig—which is a job,” Kim said. The most successful companies will be those that make being an employee at least as rewarding as working freelance, she said.


The Death of the Cubicle

Another problem with remote collaboration is it requires “culture and management muscle a lot of organizations don’t have,” Kim said. Traditional companies often fail when they try to imitate trends from Silicon Valley because the way they work is so different, she said.

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Yet Kinney sees very traditional companies like Marriott, where he formerly worked, “at least starting to embrace” new modes of working.

Marriott is re-designing some office spaces to be more like co-working spaces, where people are not necessarily confined to a cubicle but can find several alternate places to settle in and work, he said.

Engels said she sees increasing demand for more “fluid” workspaces that can be reconfigured as demands on the business change.

Physical presence is still important, she said, because people crave in-person recognition and nonverbal communication. However, those personal connections are often wasted in meetings when everyone is looking at their laptops or phones.

Dorey and Kendall ultimately agreed that in-person meetings are important, but don’t have to be constant.

“When we are together, are we actually together, are we making the most use of that time?” Dorey asked. “We may come together once a month, but we get a lot done.”

Kendall said Freelance Friday meetups, as well as co-working spaces and Wi-Fi-friendly cafes, are all signs that even the most independent workers still value personal interaction. In the context of a project, “we’ll do a creative session, get all the ideas down, and then go away and get the work done.”

One of the most significant benefits of collaboration technologies may be that they make it easier to see who is making the biggest contributions, whether as employees or freelancers, Lepofsky said.

Employees once worried about managers taking credit for work done by subordinates.  “But that’s next to impossible in today’s organizations,” said Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky. “It’s exciting that these tools are allowing us to get credit for what we do. And I think that’s a big change.”