Surviving the Workplace of Tomorrow

Hint: It’s all about communication.

By
Mathew Schwartz | October 2007


Holographic user interfaces, 128-bit-encrypted passwords which can
be hacked in 30 seconds, "mission control"-style workspaces, and
death-dealing robots with excellent coding skills. Based on popular
media portrayals of the future – in films such as Minority Report and Swordfish and television shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica – how many of us could really expect to last a day in the office of tomorrow?

Maybe
more than you’d think. Dystopia may be fun to watch, but few of us will
ever experience such workplaces. "I think most of the representations
of the workplace in the media are funny, because none of them
represents what most people deal with," opines one advanced technology
researcher in a Fortune 100 company, speaking on condition of
anonymity. She cites the cubicle-filled office of the FBI drama Numb3rs
as an exercise in dramatic license: Workers always look busy. No one
ever stops to chat. Also stretching believability: CTU headquarters on 24, where government agents freely discuss classified information in an open-plan office.

On
screen, saving the world requires ample back-and-forth. Today’s office
environments, however, too often squash easy communication. Part of the
blame rests with poor design decisions. For example, the technology
researcher says, until a few months ago her workgroup occupied extra
space in an acquired company’s building. Offices with doors abounded,
as did high-quality coffee and soda. Then corporate headquarters
decided to cut costs and relocated all employees in the state to a
different complex – filled mostly with cubicles. Of her workgroup, she
says, "I’m the luckiest one, because I have a corner cube with a
window, whereas my boss’s office looks like the gorilla exhibit at the
Bronx Zoo, all dark inside with just a little window looking in from
the hall."

If this is the workplace of the future, people
want out. Indeed, many employees are turning to telecommuting, in large
part to escape their noisy work environments. In essence, "people have
started reacting to this workplace of tomorrow by turning to the
workplace of 200 years ago – the home," the analyst observes.

The Workplace Design Paradox

What
accounts for the sad state of today’s workspace design? Corporate
planners may simply be over-planning. For example, Stuart Scott, chief
executive of consulting firm Guinnen MacRath, recently visited a
financial services firm which uses cubicles surrounded by an enforced
"hush zone" for solo work and "huddle rooms" for conversations,
meetings, and conference calls. However, consultants – who had nowhere
else to sit – typically colonized the huddle rooms. The result was an
environment in which employees didn’t interact much.

Cubicles,
notes Scott, can function as places of productivity and interaction,
provided employees trust each other. Why? Because by their nature
cubicles magnify voices. Everyone can hear everything their cube-mates
say to each other or on the phone. So, employees have to trust each
other to keep private information private. Unfortunately, trust is in
short supply these days. "This is a result of continuous downsizing,
and the sense that we’re all dispensable," says Scott, an expert in
workplace psychology. When people don’t trust each other, cubicles
simply discourage interaction and heighten employees’ disconnection and
discontentment.

Unsurprisingly, for cubicle-based
employees who aren’t tied to support jobs or a laboratory, "anywhere
but the office" is often the place of maximum productivity, be it at
home, Starbucks, on a hotel room bed or in an airport lounge, simply
because such places are "so much friendlier," Scott says.

The Anti-Cubicle Manifesto

How
can companies help engineer a workplace that actually, well, works?
First, they should discard the prevailing notion of office as human
container, with its "sterile, hotel-like environments," Scott suggests.
"The cube farm – the whole floor of cubes – is always going to be the
default … for companies that just aren’t thinking about how to get
productivity out of people."

Next, "destroy the conference
rooms – at least the little ones designed for five or six people," he
says. Instead, provide large, well-lit rooms with multiple spatial
options. "I love it when people have little rectangular tables that we
can pod in different ways."

Interestingly, while many
physical office spaces challenge productivity, newer disruptive
technologies - Skype, corporate Facebooks, blogs, collaborative
software, instant messaging and the like - are helping employees
sidestep their offices and boost productivity. The technologist notes
that aside from a few people, everyone she works with is elsewhere - in
India, France, Pennsylvania, or Dallas. Accordingly, she’s frequently
on "NetMeeting, e-mail, or the phone." For her, work isn’t about
face-to-face interactions, but about how to foster collaboration and
teamwork via virtual modes of communication.

Professional Networks Work

Given
the increasing dearth of face-to-face interactions, then, what are the
implications for physical office space? "Maybe the workplace of the
future doesn’t matter at all," notes Scott. "Maybe the practices for
how we connect with each other matter instead."

Indeed, the
future of work will require companies to better support distributed
teamwork and communication, both culturally and technologically, says
Vanessa DiMauro, a principal at Leader Networks, a Winthrop, Mass.,
firm that advises companies on community-building. Beyond helping
employees become more productive, such investments will also benefit
the bottom line, since these technologies help overcome "time and
geography" restrictions on collaboration, in effect giving businesses
"increased access to staff skills and resources."

Increasingly,
essential collaboration will also occur across company lines. For
example, take INMobile.org, an online community for global mobile and
wireless executives, which DiMauro advised. Through the private, online
community and related conference calls, executives "increase their
access to other leaders like themselves, have opportunities for ad hoc
discussions about major industry events within seconds of them
happening, and are able to engage in thoughtful discussions about
predictive topics in a private and safe environment," DiMauro says.

DiMauro
believes this is a preview for where collaborative technologies may
take us: toward private, protected, and virtual workplaces through
which peers connect to help better accomplish their jobs, often outside
the corporate aegis. "This is the stuff the future workplace is made
of," she believes.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Pennsylvania.

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