The future of work must be experience-led
11:54:00 7 November 2023
51.5072° N, 0.1276° W
I have been watching with interest the various decisions and debates about the world of work and workplace. I, for one, have been a devoted advocate of Andrew Harrison et al’s The Distributed Workplace for decades. In June 2020, I was shot down for suggesting that the commercial office market would be significantly disrupted forever by the ‘pandemic-hosted’ remote work change programme. More than three years later, there is evidence to support this, despite the increasing march of return to office (RTO) mandates, which continue to persist like a stubborn decommissioned conscription office.
So much goodness has been written about the benefits of a distributed workplace, by more eloquent and expert voices than mine – from the original work of DEGW, to Atlassian’s Annie Dean and Radious’s Amina Moreau actioning diverse and thriving cultures in their workplaces, to strategists Despina Katsikakis and Kate Lister beautifully backing everything up with hard core evidence. All in one form of another agree: the binary question of “home” vs “office misses the point. Surely this pandemic-fuelled disturbance in the way work is done provides a moment to pause, to recast the future for the better?
The nature of work is ever evolving, influenced by new technologies, the economic and industrial environment, the needs of the workforce, the nature of skills and the jobs themselves and the ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ of work. Coupled with the increased urgency to ensure that our built environment is regenerative, the future of work is not a clear destination lit with a straight path. Instead, we can view it, as Indy Johar and Christian Bason argue, as ‘vast array of options, a landscape of adjacent possible’, a proposition that is incongruent with the traditional linear and goal-driven mindset that thinks it can bully tomorrow into existence.
Johar and Bason posit a critical call to action for organisations ‘to embrace structural reform as to how we organise, manage, and govern collective decision-making’. Shifting our posture from one rooted in control to one borne of collective agency and collaborative learning may open the door to new and more constructive ways of working. Organisations must consider redesigning themselves and their social contracts. We need to build upon the quality and strength of the relationships between organisations and their audiences, whether employees, partners, clients, or the communities that they serve. As Despina Katsikakis notes, ‘This is now a social workplace. It’s about connections. It’s about creating community.’
Understanding how to intentionally and meaningfully mobilise, motivate, and reward these relationships is critical to redesigning work and enhancing value in our institutions. Needless to say, anything that requires a mandate is neither motivating nor rewarding. There is, as Priya Parker rightly says, an art to gathering: ‘Gathering shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world’. And yet, as she cautions, ‘most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways in which we gather.’ We need to do better. We need to promote much more attractive and involving ways of gathering.
Seen this way, there is, I would argue, both the need and want and the opportunity to create Johar and Bason’s landscape of adjacent possibilities, gathering with purpose and intention for time well spent. How best to understand, explore, and deliver on this is the art Parker speaks of. It’s not about creating a space – however beautiful, however awesome – to attract our employees back to the office. Workplaces as worker bee honeytraps have very little to do with the kind of purpose and intentionality championed by Parker.
Rather it is the kind of approach recently announced by Dropbox CEO Drew Houston – to implement 90% remote work plus 10% dedicated off-site events – that speaks much more fully to her ideas for what it means to gather artfully. By ‘remote’, Houston doesn’t simply mean ‘working’ remotely. He means for Dropbox’s employees to have relationships, to attend to the family, to keep well, etcetera etcetera, as well as to work. By ‘off-site events’, he’s playing to everything it means for humans to gather, to share time, to bond over a common cause through activities that help define culture. This is ‘the distributed workplace’ in action.
Simply put, if we want to attract our workforce back to the workplace, then we need to redefine what we mean by ‘work’ and ‘place of work’. Work must expand beyond the boundaries of the traditional office, shackled by old technology and even older ideals. The future of work is also the future of learning and life, and all must be experience-led – experiences borne of a rigorous understanding of the needs and wants of the people they seek to serve through agency, participation, and ownership. Less the overlay of memorable moments, it’s a (experience-led) design that serves as the foundational engines of civic and organisational value. Do this and we design for workplaces predicated on so much more than the bottom line. They’re always relevant and they’re socially useful. They’re (distributed) places of purpose.
Su Lim is MD at FreeState and has been working on the future of work and the workplace for much of her career. If you’re interest has been piqued by the above, do get in touch.