I’m unpacking my thinking after one of the most stimulating days in some time – Unwired’s NYC version of their WorkTech conference that is offered around the planet.
The future of work and the workplace brings together people from real estate, architecture, interior design, human resources, and assorted other silos, with futurists who are anchored in what lies ahead. It’s a brilliant inter-disciplinary mix, and I was privileged to be invited to play a part. I was up second, following Sherry Turkle from MIT @sturkle who opened the day with her elegantly stated critique of social media and its impact (OK, I will let media be single here) on our private and business lives. I see her and Andrew Keen @ajkeen asking some of the sharpest questions about the implications of the digital revolution for our knowledge and relationships. The faster, more complex, and more far-reaching the process of change, the more important it is to frame its challenges. Those with the hard questions tend to have the best ones. We may not buy all their answers, but that’s hardly the point. Answers are needed.
I’ve never labeled myself a futurist, but for a long time my focus has been on what lies ahead – and our problem in preparing for it. So I was second up, and my theme was that problem. It’s best illustrated with what I call The Kink. That is, we look back and see exponential change, a steep curve. We look ahead and we smooth things out – it’s hard to grasp the idea that the future will see changes greater and faster than the past, so we kink the curve. The Kink is today, always today. Another way of putting it: We look back and see the Big Bang. We look ahead and see Steady State. And it’s here, in The Kink, that there lies the core problem of global risk.
More of that another time (there’s a book brewing); for now, some reflections on the future of work in light of yesterday’s insights.
Some things seem very plain.
1. As I stated in my presentation, the implications of AI/humanoid robotics have been far too little examined. This offers a special case of the problem of innovation destroying jobs faster than it creates new ones. My view is that robotics will remove many categories of job from the economy. Some high-level jobs (surgery) and many lower-level – not just manufacturing but nursing aides, cleaning, driving, retail – all kinds of assistive roles – will be completed by machines.
2. In general, the trend toward career changing/contractor self-employed status/project work will continue. It will drive the need for benefit provision (health, retirement) that is not employment-related (an American alternative to single-payer European-style provision may emerge from a revivified labor union movement shaped for professionals/knowledge workers). It will provide companies with far more flexibility, and knowledge workers, especially, with opportunity.
3. Bricks-and-mortar workplaces will decline in significance year by year. We heard at WorkPlace two interesting contrasts from leading-edge companies adapting to the new tech/social environment – moving into a “thin” approach to the office. At GSK, telecommuting is encouraged, personal workspaces are being replaced with a variety of shared and private work areas, and the trad notion of “going to the office” is in decay. At Google, we were told, while the cubicles are endlessly re-arrangeable (legos came to mind), people do not telecommute and they have personal workspaces.
The Fordist approach to office environments, like the closely-related persistence of Peter Principle approaches to advancement, have outlived their logic. It’s plain to me that form will follow function, and that the coffee-shop experience will be more the typical future work environment for “white collar” workers than anything we would now recognize as a business environment. With rapid advances in all aspects of communications technologies and 3-D avatars, for example, turning video-conferencing into something far more effectively replicating the meeting-room environment, there will be a slow and finally dramatic decline in the company office. Brands will wish to maintain locations and buildings, but they will have less and less to do with the actual operations of the corporation. Outsourcing to other nations, now so common, will be followed by outsourcing to machines/machine intelligence and the use of shared spaces by workers.
It’s a surprise to me that the spread of traditional shared office suites, incubator start-up facilities, and collaborative spaces somewhere between the two, have not made the obvious leap to the coffee-house environment where millions of workers (including this one) spend much of their productive time. I foresee Barnes and Noble, for example, not simply with small Starbucks cafes attached, but co-locating with Fedex/Kinkos and hourly hire agencies, with private meeting rooms also, to offer a full-service commercial experience to individuals and small groups in the heart of our communities.
Telecommuting, aside from its unappealing name, has too much been seen as the option of “working from home.” Many of us do not function well in contexts in which we are either entirely alone, or where we have family distractions. And yet whether we have a convenient and congenial coffee house around is a matter of chance. And they don’t print and may be too noisy for calls.
Point is: While it has taken longer than was anticipated (like the “paperless office,” which is in fact being slowly realized, not least thanks to the cloud), digital has destroyed much of the significance of location. While the security issues, not least, will occupy attention as these transitions tale place, we are moving toward a situation in which knowledge workers and the entire white collar class cease to commute long distances, and work in informal environments within their own communities.
And, as with much else, this will happen faster than most of us anticipate. Those who do anticipate will, of course, win. And if as a community we can also engage in serious anticipation, some of the ill-effects that would otherwise flow (such as the benefits issue) can be mitigated.