For most of the last 200 years, if you were a knowledge worker, you probably worked in an office, as part of a team of permanent staff working full-time. We’ve come to accept that as the default work environment for knowledge workers. But it wasn’t always this way, and it isn’t necessarily the best option for the future. Technology provides many more options now, and people want to take advantage of those options.
This is especially true for younger workers, who already know how to communicate, collaborate, and engage online with each other and the world. For them, many of the traditions of the office environment – such as commuting, fixed hours, dressing up, office politics, cubicles, and outdated technology – are unnecessary barriers to getting work done.
But it’s not only younger people who crave something different. A recent Robert Half survey found almost half (47%) of Australian workers would be willing to accept a pay cut for more flexible working hours. And the same survey found almost as many (40%) would be willing to accept a pay cut to be able to work from home sometimes.
So the demand for flexible work is out there. And, in the current war for talent, you need to provide flexible work options to attract and keep the best people.
Think revolution, not evolution.
Most changes to accommodate flexible work have been evolutionary. You still assume the office is the gold standard, and either try to improve it or measure everything else against it.
- How do we make online meetings as effective as in-person meetings?
- How can we make commute times shorter, or find clever ways for people to work while commuting (e.g. Wi-Fi on public transport, driverless cars)?
- How can we include telecommuters in our office culture?
- How can we provide the IT infrastructure to give remote access to our database?
- How can we modify our employment contracts to allow some flexible work?
- How can we outsource non-critical jobs to freelancers?
Many workplaces have made significant gains in using technology to improve the workplace. For example, even in 2015, Deloitte’s office in Amsterdam had many “smart” features, such as lighting that adjusts automatically as people enter rooms, coffee machines that know individual preferences, rooms that alert cleaning staff when the facilities need cleaning, and hotdesking.
But these changes are still evolutionary.
What if offices didn’t exist?
A revolutionary perspective starts from the opposite approach – by asking the question:
What if offices didn’t exist (or were illegal)?
What would that sort of workplace look like? How would we get work done?
That would cause some problems – such as:
- Less social interaction
- The lower quality of face-to-face interactions with video
- Challenges with coordinating meetings in different time zones
- Technology glitches with online meeting software
But it also opens up some new opportunities – perhaps things you have never considered before.
- Where does work happen? It can happen at home, on the move, in co-working spaces, or in work hubs.
- How does work get done? It’s cloud-based and digital by default, with online collaboration, individual choice of devices, and much less paper.
- When does work happen? Workers can choose the time and place to work, as long as they deliver results and achieve agreed goals.
- Who does the work? Every project will be given to the best people for that job, who assemble from anywhere around the world, do the work, and then split up.
- Why do we work? People work because they want to make a difference. Earning an income is still a motivator, of course, but people have more choice in their work.
This isn’t purely hypothetical!
Of course, offices do exist and aren’t illegal. So it’s a hypothetical question to assume offices don’t exist.
But don’t think of it as purely hypothetical. Just as an exercise, ask yourself this question and then consider how your team and organisation could be different. You won’t be able to change everything, but you might be surprised at how much it sparks some innovative and practical ideas for your workplace of the future.