What’s Happening in the Workplace?
“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the Chinese curse. And make no mistake, ours is one of the most “interesting times” we’ve ever experienced. I’ve been around long enough to remember working pre-computer, Internet, email, Apple products, and even pre-fax machines. The amount of change in my lifetime has been staggering and the pace of that change is only increasing. More than that, my anxieties about keeping up, let alone getting ahead of the curve somehow, are also increasing.
A typical office space in 1962
The evolving office in 2012, equipped with Allsteel’s collaborative furniture collection, Gather
Those of us who create the workplace, including interior designers, strategists, manufacturers, real estate and other consultants have an added challenge: How do we keep up with new ways of working and the implications of these changes for the workplace? We believe that where we work can and should enable business success by aligning with the culture and objectives of the organization; supporting the effective performance of its members; using its resources and assets efficiently; and enabling rapid adaption to constant change. How that happens is also shifting at a really rapid pace.
It seems to me that our challenge is to avoid what I call self-referential thinking – the tendency to repeat to each other things we’ve heard to the point where we assume they’re true. In other words, we need to distinguish between real ‘best practices’ and groupthink.
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom,” observed biologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson. “The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
To help our clients make “important choices wisely,” we at Allsteel asked three thought-leaders, a somewhat outsider ‘group’ to give us their take on what’s happening, what we should do about it, and how we as a manufacturer and the workplace itself keep up as things change.
We’re convinced that our old processes and tools aren’t keeping up, and may never have been robust enough. The experts included:
- Daniel P. Anderson, a partner at Anderson Porter Design and a lean-design practitioner affiliated with the Lean Construction Institute
- Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D., JH Heerwagen Assoc., environmental psychologist and now with the Office of Federal High Performance Green Buildings in the U.S. General Services Administration
- William Porter, Ph.D., FAIA, a partner at Anderson Porter Design and former dean of the School of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; co-author of Excellence by Design: Transforming Workplace and Work Practice
They’ve given us a lot to chew on. They summarize emerging social norms and the latest research on environmental psychology, offering powerful insights into how and where work happens. When we can do our work anywhere, where do we choose to work?
They emphasize that organizations need to provide settings beyond those traditionally provided by “the office” and to develop a robust capability to continuously adapt settings and provisions as work evolves over time. What is the workplace when the workforce is hyper-mobile?
They suggest that mobility, collaboration and sustainable practices are clearly here to stay, but must be considered holistically, as part of a larger workplace strategy, in order to effectively support individuals and teams.
And they suggest ways to strike the right balance between over-thinking and SOME thinking needed to get the “fit” right, help companies find their way, and to (easily) adapt to constant change.
I hope you’ll join us here for the next six weeks for a special series exploring the ways work and the workplace are changing, and what we can do to ‘keep up’. We’re hoping that you’ll join the conversation, too.
Jan Johnson, FIIDA, is VP of Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel, manufacturer of office furniture. She has focused on the correlation between business strategies and the workplace. She has a degree in interior design and a Master’s in business administration and has worked as an interior designer and strategic planner for her own firm and Perkins + Will, and as a workplace consultant for HOK/Consulting. She leads Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory team and the development and delivery of content and tools that support clients and design organizations as they plan, design and manage work environments.
This post is part of the Ways We Work series.