We rarely notice it, but technology moves way faster than culture. The future of work has long been predicted to be more casual and based away from the office, yet little has changed. We still largely commute daily in order to work from the same spaces and do the same things. How do we change our approach and change the way we work in the future?
As cities swell, public transport groans under the weight of demand, train prices increase, urban house prices surge and commutes lengthen, we look again to how technology can transform the modern workplace.
It’s been a unmet future promise since the 1990’s, much like the paperless office. We’ve had Skype for years, 4G allows working from the most remote of places, the promise of working from home is always on the horizon, but never been a reality. For each company that promotes it, we’ve Yahoo and Google (of all places) look to bring workers back to their motherships.
It should obviously not be like this, most of the working environment that we construct around is a legacy of the past.
We work “working hours” which are linked to the Agrarian needs of over 10,000 years ago, where working was growing crops and daylight was needed to harvest and plant them. Lightbulbs invented over 100 years ago made this irrelevant in modern working environments, yet we still work in daylight hours obsessively, even changing our clocks twice per year to aid our “need” to work in natural light.
We have a 7 day week thanks to Babylonians who 4,000 years ago thought there were 7 heavenly bodies. Yet the 5 day working week comes from just 1908, when a New England mill to accommodate the needs of Jewish and Christian’s needs for a holy day each, coined the notion of “weekend” . It’s odd to think if the Babylonians had been able to see further, how different life would be.
We work in the same places, at the same time, presumably because the industrial revolutions had factories with set roles in production lines and needed all present continuously.
Yet none of these things make any sense any more; in a world of smartphones, lightbulbs, virtual workspaces, IM, we’re held hostage by assumptions from 4,000 years ago.
But this isn’t new, we over value the impact of technology and underestimate the impact of culture, how slow it is to change. We forget in an age of fingerprint scanning, drones, 3D printing, that we still shake hands to show we’re not carrying swords, we still chink glasses to show we’re not poisoning each other, our body language reflects behavior of cavemen, we “carbon copy” people on email, heck, some people still use Yahoo, the most primitive all all human behavior.
So how do we unbundle ourselves from this oddity, the benefits of working different hours or from working from home more are massive and well documented. They would:
1) Reduce the cost of commuting, both in terms of travel costs, energy costs and environmental destruction.
2) Reduce the wasted time and damage from stress of commuting.
3) Reduce the unhappiness of such a crappy start to the day.
But most of all working set hours from the same place, after a lengthy battle to work, with photocopies humming , hampers creativity. For me the very most unlikely place to get an idea is in an office. Put me in a museum, a weird train, let me look out of the window on a plane or overhear a conversation in McDonalds and I’ll be million times more likely to spark something.
We off course still need face to face contact, ideas are nurtured in groups, thinking needs to get small and big and be pulsed through to bigger better things with other people, but often that’s the easy part.
So with this in mind I’ve three notions that can help us unleash us from the office.
1) A change in culture – the rise of management by objectives.
For some reason we bundled ” accomplishing something” and what correlates to it which is “being at work”.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, we tend to measure how hard we have worked by how many hours we’ve been at work. Sales assistants are generally paid by the hours worked, not what they sell, personal assistants don’t get paid per email or booking, but by how long they are able stand being at work. Advertising agencies / Management Consultants /Lawyers are paid by the amount of time spent on something. It’s all totally bizarre but stays in place because we’ve never been comfortable with a better way.
Because we correlate “being at work” with doing stuff, we’ve assumed that working from home was inefficient and that people abused the system. When you expect people to behave this way they do. I’ve had friends who used “WFH” as a term for a day off, it was a chance to have a big night the evening before and merely wake at 8am to announce they were online already.
The way around this is to be able to measure productivity and set goals for accomplishments. If we were paid to simple get results, we could all know that our interests were aligned and we could make decisions about the place we need to be, in order to best get that done, which oddly enough may required being in the office, but not around arbitrary hours from the Neolithic revolution.
Now I am no management theorists, but wouldn’t it be a fun exercise to think about how you would manage people in this world. What would the objectives be that people needed to accomplish? how would you monitor it? where would be need to be day to day? what are people actually doing for your business? when would people need to be in the office? how would these hours overlap? could you offer bonuses ? what do promotions look like this this world?
Many interesting questions we should all be asking.
2) Permanent Freelancing.
The idea of a job or company for life hasn’t just faded, it’s been smashed. We may assume the future generations will be job hoppers but they will likely go beyond this to work many different careers in their lifetime and often at the same time. Anyone whose spent time hanging out in painfully trendy parts of town and who dares talk to ( or WhatsApp with) someone with a deliberately asymmetrical haircut has found that people are no longer employees but jewelry makers / music producers / fashion blogger / feng shui consultant / website designer at the same time. We’re never too sure what actually pays the bill and where success lies, but that seems rather mean spirited to question.
So how do we work with this generation, how does diverse talent come together, how do we arrange a workplace around this.
It’s not been hard for me. In my company (Tomorrow), I need the very best people on the planet, to work incredibly hard for tiny amounts of time, on super interesting projects. It’s not only way more fun this way, but a future generation of experts are drawn to short, interesting, pioneering projects that they learn from. The cost of employment is slight and I get the best talent this way. We often forget in agencies that the very best people can work anywhere. If your website design agency is in a business park in Reading, you probably won’t be getting the UI star or Designer that will set the world alight, not unless you pay them incredibly, offer them the chance to work from a Montenegrin town one week and a Indonesian beach the next and offer them something they can learn from and be proud of.
So be honest with yourself, do you want the best people in the world to fit into your system, or do you want to attract the best people and give them something they value ( which is likely to be freedom not money)
3) New Environments.
Has anyone ever actually accomplished anything from a conference call? ever? Dan is always dialing in late forcing yet another re-iteration of what the call is about, Jenny is going through airport security and can’t talk and we can’t hear the call host because their hands free is crap and they are driving too fast. In 2014, the main point of a conference call is to show that you tried.
Video calls still seem awkward, how close should you be to the camera? are they still or has the video crashed? Isn’t video a bit much? Why are they looking there?
Instant Messenger is better, but why are we spending effort to ask home someones day is? Do we have to talk about the weather? Can they tell my sarcasm? This isn’t the way to ask a favor.
We’ve just not learned how to use this technology and we’ve pretended it’s not crap. So we need to use technology better but we also need a better environment to use it in. I see a new type of home office
I see this home office as a smallish space 10ft x 10ft for example, with projected images of livestreams on each wall. We may have direct video links open always to 10-20 people and other workable information on other screens.
Each person will be in super low res and blurry in real time, but have a light showing their status. In order to open a proper “gateway” to that person in full HD and with sound, you’d need to touch the screen and they’d need to accept the call, upon which a bridge is formed and a normally face to face conversation is held.
Could this be the best of both? What is this room called? How do villages and towns of the future adopt to this new working pattern?
The New Landscape.
On recent trips on trains across the UK it blows my mind how beautiful our countryside is and how dreadful our domestic architecture is. In the USA large scale architecture is typically crap, but homes ( for the middle and above) are generally well designed, optimistic, futuristic and airy, yet in the UK it’s the opposite with wonderful public buildings, adventurous railway stations, remarkable offices and the very worst new homes our planet has ever seen.
We’ve desperate calls to develop the Greenbelt, yet the question is always yes or no, never what and how? Why do our homes look like images from a 5 year olds drawing pad? Why do we hate windows? Do we need to try to replicate architectural language from the past, without any of the reasons that existed? How would a Roman temple treat a underground car port?
I’d love to see our assumptions challenged, the Greenbelt full of “digital commuter villages”, with central community work and health centers, subterranean leisure centers, vast numbers of communicable cars to subscribe to, electric self driving buses to local rail connections, decentralized power per home and above all else homes with this new “home office”
Maybe by removing every assumption we’ve ever made, we can reimagine both working from home and our entire built environment.