Good AI vs. Bad AI: The Myths, Hopes And Realities of the Machines

AI is about to reshape the enterprise workplace in a big and fundamental way, and any organization that hasn’t already started thinking about, planning for and adopting the new wave of smart AI tools is at risk of being left behind by their competitors.
Even at this early stage, it’s clear the benefits of AI in the office are going to be enormous, as these new tools work alongside employees — becoming a personal digital “coworker” — and augment our productivity and creative-thinking skills while freeing us from the monotony of the routine tasks that currently consume our workdays.
But it’s also clear that not all workplace AI is created equal — some of these new AI tools will be seamlessly adopted into your employees’ daily tech stack and workflows, like Slack, while others won’t be a good fit, getting the cold shoulder and ending up unused and unloved despite the best efforts of management and IT.
In other words, there is good workplace AI and bad workplace AI. The challenge enterprise leadership is now facing is figuring out how to tell the two apart.
Signs of bad workplace AI
Bad workplace AI creates more problems than it solves, holding back adoption rates and wasting everyone’s time. Look out for these warning signs.
Bad workplace AI requires significant customization to interact with and understand your office’s digital data. If the AI tool doesn’t work out of the box with the APIs of Office 365, Outlook and Google Mail, OneDrive and Dropbox, and the other standard platforms and apps of our workdays, your implementation cost and employee adoption rates will suffer.
Another example of bad workplace AI is AI that is not easily accessible by employees, who will be interacting with chatbots and AI assistants through a chat interface. If the AI tool doesn’t use an existing platform like MS Teams, Slack, or Skype, odds are employees won’t bother with the learning curve to use it, no matter how many training seminars you put them through. It’s in an enterprise’s best interest to create the most frictionless interaction possible when bringing in a new type of tech like AI to the workplace.
And finally, the biggest warning sign is AI not built from the ground up to solve the real-world problems your employees are facing. For example, one of the biggest challenges our offices are facing is the huge amount of time lost spent on menial, no-value tasks like booking meetings, searching for files and creating standard documents. These problems are solvable, and more importantly will deliver the easy and measurable wins you should expect from a new AI tool.
Welcoming good workplace AI
Don’t let these potential AI downsides scare you off workplace AI, because the potential of good AI can’t be underestimated. AI’s underlying technology has developed rapidly, and as a result AI has gotten a lot smarter in a really short amount of time, and can generate real value for the modern enterprise.
You can read a lot about AI tech like natural language processing and machine learning, but the key takeaway is this: AI-powered tools can now navigate and understand our workplaces’ digital information at the deepest level, automating tasks and unlocking new insights for employees while helping deliver major strategic gains for your organization.
It’s this advancement that is reshaping our workplaces and nature of work, from the cubicle to the corner office, as we gain the time, ability and mental energy to focus more on work that matters, while the menial tasks are offloaded to workplace AI assistants and similar tools, who we simply tell what we need done and get instant results.
For employees, this will unlock the literal hours spent each day on meaningless processes like coordinating and scheduling meetings and looking for documents across the cloud, apps and platforms are freed up. This time and energy can then be spent on high-value tasks. Even decision-making will be improved, as AI tools plug into and understand work data like sales figures, web analytics, and other metrics, making them accessible for all and generating new insights.
At the organizational level, these AI tools will help you hit strategic goals by quickly and easily expanding productivity, and even unlocking new sources of growth. While productivity is the easy win, it’s the additional value generated by employees being more engaged with the work they enjoy doing, putting more time and energy into challenging, creative work, that can result in major gains, like surfacing more ideas and innovation. It’s these gains that will help separate high-performing 21st century enterprises from their last-century peers.
by Roy Pereira, CEO of Zoom.Ai

How Artificial Intelligence Will Personalize How We Work

Artificial intelligence in the workplace is here to stay. However, as enterprise technologies continue to develop and evolve, we must understand how AI will affect our roles and responsibilities at work.
The unknowns about the impact of AI has led to the fear that this emerging technology could be a substitute for – or entirely eradicate – existing jobs. Depending on which stats you refer to, AI will replace over 40% of jobs by 2030, or that 165 million Americans could be out of work before 2025.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Given the rate of new systems, processes, and data that we’re exposed to each day, AI can deliver tangible benefits in learning our skills, habits and behaviors, upending how we use technology. When companies are spending over $3.5 trillion on IT and use an average of 831 cloud services, it’s no surprise that we forget 70% of what we learn in a day, unless we immediately apply that knowledge into
our workflows.
There are four tectonic shifts happening within businesses that are propelling the need for greater personalization and efficiency in how we use technology:
● Employee expectations and behaviors have shifted. Unlike their predecessors, Millennials and Gen Z employees are accustomed to digital technologies. While they’re resourceful and can easily access information, they aren’t necessarily able to retain it. Generally speaking, they expect consumer-level technologies, are highly distracted and change positions often – and thus expect technology to be quick, efficient and intuitive.
● Organizations are undergoing a sweeping digital transformation. One of the biggest buzzwords of 2017 is “digital transformation” and has been sweeping across all businesses as they look to modernize their activities, processes and models to become completely digitized.
● Decisions are fragmented between departments. As companies move to more digitalized systems, the decision to implement new technologies has been driven by line of business heads. From HR systems, customer relationship management (CRM) tools to ERP solutions, procurement decisions are based on departmental needs, rather than the traditional approach of it being mandated by the CIO or at the organizational level.
● Cloud technologies are creating a training challenge. Cloud-based technologies indicate that systems are undergoing regular improvements and updates, creating a situation where employees must constantly adjust to new changes that they need to learn and adopt quickly.
Based on these changes, AI is a critical component for tomorrow’s organizations. Coupled with deep analytics, AI can greatly affect individual user behavior, identifying barriers to technology adoption and contextually guiding users on how to use any new solution. In doing so, employees can ultimately become instant pros in using a system – even if they haven’t used the technology before.
This contextual, personalized, and just-in- time approach allows us to abandon traditional training and development methods, which can become quickly outdated as we continue to encounter new systems and interfaces. It doesn’t make sense to set up a classroom style training to familiarize your team with a new HR software, for example, when incremental product updates occur so frequently. When employees are stuck
using a system, they’re more apt to ask a colleague for help, search online for the answer, or worst of all, give up on using the system. All are ineffective uses of our time.
Instead of feeling daunted by the onslaught of new systems we encounter, technology should learn about the user to improve their workflows. Creating systems that learn and automate tedious processes will be a major battleground for technology vendors in the next few years. It won’t be long before we can rely on AI to do all the “learning” for us – leading to a workplace where we train the software to adapt to our needs, rather than forcing us to adapt to the software.
Rephael Sweary is the cofounder and president of WalkMe, which pioneered the digital adoption platform. Previously, Rephael was the cofounder, CEO and then President of Jetro Platforms which was acquired in 2007. Since then, he has funded and helped build a number of companies both in his role as Entrepreneur-inResidence at Ocean Assets and in a personal capacity.

Atlassian’s IPO is just part of its lofty goal for the workplace

One of Silicon Valley’s “unicorns” (that is, a tech company valued at over $1 billion), Atlassian is the company behind JIRA, HipChat, Confluence and BitBucket, all of which are aimed at making collaborative efforts within companies easier and more efficient. The company is one of Silicon Valley’s oft-fabled “unicorns” — that is, a company for which the valuation has surpassed the $1 billion dollar mark — and last week the company saw its shares jumping over the initial price of $21 to just over $27, where it has held for the most part. 

Atlassian was founded in 2002 and specializes in workplace software. Most of their products are aimed at streamlining workplace communication and simplifying collaboration in teams. 

HipChat, one of its most popular products, is an email-buster comparable to Slack that brings ongoing correspondence out of lengthy email threads and into a simple chat interface shared by teams and departments within a company. JIRA Software is a project-tracking software development tool. JIRA Service Desk is a task management platform that allows teams to coordinate the living, breathing, changing tasks that often become the foibles of service teams everywhere.

From BBC to Adobe and NVIDIA to Land Rover, Atlassian products are used by over fifty thousand teams worldwide. Which is great, but ultimately just the tip of the iceberg where the company’s concerned. With the successful IPO under their belts, Atlassian’s chasing down some seriously lofty goals.

“Our mission, ultimately, is to have every employee inside of every company using Atlassian products every day,” says Atlassian President Jay Simons. “And when you consider that there’s more than 800 million knowledge workers around the world, that’s a pretty big ambition and it’ll take a while to get there. The IPO doesn’t really change that. That’s basically been a goal of the company since inception.” 

A pretty big ambition, indeed. But it’s a pretty big market, too, and it’s no secret that email’s not particularly well-suited to the way that we work today. Inboxes that tend to get cluttered paired with our own abysmal skills when it comes to staying on top of the constant digital deluge, email’s become something of a dirty word in some circles. 

Though email’s something of a necessary evil that likely won’t be going anywhere (no matter how much I wish the opposite were true), Atlassian products exist largely to bring conversations and collaborative efforts that don’t belong in our inboxes into more appropriate arenas. Even with fifty thousand companies already onboard, there are still thousands of teams stuck in the cluttered trenches of email-only communication.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of white space across teams with a lot of inefficient use of email,” says Simons. “I don’t think email’s going away anytime soon because it is an effective way to direct certain kinds of communication to people, but I do think that when you use our products, your inbox becomes a lot smarter, more directed and more appropriate for what email’s good at.” 

In Simons’ eyes, the successful IPO signals a recognition that what Atlassian’s doing is not only working, but that there’s room to grow—more tasks to manage, more email chains to prevent, more projects completed on-time with fewer hiccups and dropped balls. The way we work is changing, and the response yesterday would seem to suggest that Atlasssian’s going to be around to usher in some of these changes in the way we get things done.

“I think that the market and the investor enthusiasm recognizes that we’ve built a pretty special company,” says Simons, “and also recognizes that there’s a big opportunity in front of 800 million knowledge workers worldwide and teams all over the place that are trying to figure out how to work better together.” 

The Return of Middle Managers

“That experiment broke. I just had to admit it.” — Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse Island, on his attempt to run the company without managers

There is currently a widely-held view among organizational design experts and pundits that managers, particularly middle managers, are a harmful artifact of hierarchically-structured, command-and-control organizations. Conventional wisdom holds that middle managers, and their responsibilities and stereotypical behaviors, are outdated and severely constrict the speed at which a business can operate. Flat, democratic organizations made up of loose, recombinant relationships have gained favor in the org design world today because they enable agility and efficiency.
There’s just one problem with that view – it’s not entirely accurate. It represent an ideal that may be right for some organizations, but very wrong for many others.
Carson and Treehouse Island’s failed experiment was one of the examples given in a recent Wall Street Journal article (behind paywall) titled “Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers”. The common thread between the companies mentioned in the article was that the elimination of bosses had the opposite effect of what had been envisioned. Productivity decreased because workers weren’t sure of their responsibilities and couldn’t forge consensus-based decisions needed to move forward. Innovation also waned, because new ideas went nowhere without a management-level individual to champion and fund them. Employee morale even took a hit, because no one took over the former middle management’s role of providing encouragement and motivation when they were needed.
Research of over 100 organizations conducted by an INSEAD professor led to this conclusion, cited in the WSJ piece:

“Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction. It’s human nature.”

Enabling Technologies that Don’t

Another problem experienced by many of the organizations mentioned in the WSJ article was that technologies meant to enable employees to work productively in a manager-less workplace failed to do so. Enterprise chat systems were specifically fingered as a culprit, for a variety of reasons.
At Treehouse Island, which had never used email, decision-making was severely compromised by employees opining on chat threads when they had no expertise on the given subject. This led to “endless discussions”. The chat technology drove conversations, but ideas rarely made it past discussion to a more formal plan. Work tasks informally noted and assigned without accountability in the chat application mostly got lost in the shuffle and weren’t completed. Treehouse Island eventually turned to other communications channels and even acknowledged that email has valid uses.

Worker Education and Training, Not Managers, Are the Problem

While I agree with the assessment that human nature is a barrier to effective manager-less workplaces, I also think that our base impulses can be minimized or completely overcome by alternative, learned attitudes and behaviors. Society and institutions in the United States have programmed multiple generations to submit to authority, seeking and accepting its orders and guidance. Our educational system has largely been designed to to produce ‘loyal and reliable’ workers who can thrive in a narrowly-defined role under the direction of a superior. Putting individuals who have been educated this way into situations where they must think for themselves and work with others to get things done is like throwing a fish out of water.
As for enterprise chat technology, it has seen documented success when deployed and used to help small teams coordinate their work. However, most of those teams working in chat channels either have a single, designated manager with the authority to make things happen, or they are able call upon a small number of individuals who can and will assume unofficial, situational leadership roles when needed. Absent people to act with authority, chat-enabled groups become mired in inaction, as document in the WSJ article. As I put it in my recent Gigaom Research post on enterprise real-time messaging,

The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc. Well-designed technology can make it easier and more pleasant for people to communicate, but it does very little to influence, much less actually change, their behaviors.”

We will see more experiments with Holocracy and other forms of organization that eliminate layers of management and depend on individuals to be responsible for planning, coordinating and conducting their own work activities. Some will succeed; most will fail. We can (and should!) create and implement new technologies that, at least in theory, support the democratization of work. However, until systemic changes are made in the way people are educated and trained to function in society and at work, companies without managers will remain a vision, not a common reality.

Google reveals plans for futuristic cityscape campus, and new robot tech to make it configurable

Just about a year ago, I wrote about Square’s new offices in San Francisco, which were designed to be more like a city than a traditional office (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed). The office design was led by Square’s head of office experience, Chris Gorman, who said in an article about the office,

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

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Square’s offices

This week, Google presented a plan to redevelop its Mountain View California campus, taking the ‘headquarters as a city’ model several steps — or maybe parsecs — farther.

The plan — developed by London design atelier Heatherwick Studio and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels — would add 2.5 million square feet of enclosed space on top of the existing 4 million square feet of today’s campus.

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Indoor pathway

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Glass canopy enclosing offices

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A foyer of one of the planned structures

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Swooping canopies have high tech capability to deal with sunlight

The plans do not include housing, so it does not aspire to being a fully self-sufficient city. However, the plans include a great deal of retail space — for restaurants, health clubs, and shops — so the integration of work and play is a key element.

Much of the plot would be reconfigured to be carless, with existing parking taken out, and a large single parking area would be mostly underground. Note that even though the design leads to an additional 10,000 workers, the same amount of parking is planned.

Much of the lot is being designed as parkland, and two creeks will be restored.

It’s unclear if Google’s proposal will be approved by the Mountain View authorities, who are concerned about the impact on city services and traffic.

I think the trend toward ‘office as city’ has found its mirror image here, with ‘city as office’. One of the more innovative aspects of the design involves the use of innovative materials and structural design, to allow the offices to be rapidly reconfigured, as the Silicon Valley Business Journal reported:

Four futuristic structures where basic building elements — floors, ceilings and walls — attach or detach from permanent steel frames, forming whole new workspaces of different sizes. With help from small cranes and robots (“crabots”), interiors will transform in hours, rather than months.

[…]

Here is how it will work, grossly simplified: Inside the glass canopies, Google imagines stationary steel support columns upon which lightweight, modular building pieces can be inserted, removed, raised or lowered at will. Think of the floors sort of like oven racks; the walls between them can be added, or not. Crabots (which Google calls “a range of small flexible and manageable cranes and robotic machines”) would lift and move these building segments around almost like furniture.

“We envision there will be some more permanent structures like stairwells and restroom cores and things like that,” said Radcliffe, who is Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services. “Then we think there will be other components you can actually take out and put in.”

The canopies themselves would generate electricity, while movable shades embedded in a second canopy layer control glare and keep the interior cool.

This would allow for rapid reconfiguration of work and non-work spaces under the canopies. As I wrote last year, in the post about Square’s offices:

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

And it looks like Google is bringing that future into the present, and inventing technologies to make it possible for others to do so, soon after.

 

Are today’s office workscapes helping or hurting?

I am involved in a medium-term research push on the workplace and the rise of the open office plan, and so I was eager to look at the results of the Ideapaint Functional Workplace Survey that investigates the relationship between the workscape — workplace design and its shaping of the work being done — and productivity and engagement.
Some of the high-level findings (from the website):

  1. traditional cubicle/private office blended workscape remains most common:
    •    34% report traditional office
    •    9% in open office
    •    59% say their office is ‘noisy’ and 47% identify ‘interruptions’ as a problem
    •    49% report conference rooms as the only space for meeting and coworking, and they are hard to reserve
    •   56% say they only have access to 1-3 such coworking spaces at work.
  2. workers want more coworking
    •    54% said it was ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to facilitate more ‘collaborative’ work environment
    •    54% prefer a mix of private offices and open space
    •    23% work in setting of only cubicles or only private offices
    •    31% want more space for coworking
    •    1/3 want more social spaces for casual conversations
  3. work/life balance remains a challenge
    •    57% say they are required to be available outside of standard working hours
    •    63% are resigned to the new normal
    •    62% want on-site perks so that longer hours are more tolerable
    •    35% consider  themselves workaholics
    •    79% hope that the next generations will have better work/life balances
  4. Millennials want a more modern workscape, but a cleaner split
    •    millennials are now 25% of the US workforce
    •    30% of millennials find demands for work outside of standard working hours ‘unacceptable’
    •    56% believe that the 24/7 always-on work/life model is here to stay
    •    58% believe it is important to limit work communications after hours

I intend to read the full report, and ask some questions of Dr. Marla Gottschalk, an industrial and organizational psychologist who worked with Ideapaint on the report. But at the highest level, the survey shows that we are in the early days of a shift away from conventional cubical/private office style workscapes, and moving slowing toward something else, something more open, more engaging (distracting and noisy, too) and perhaps more social and geared toward working together instead of apart. The report seems to set the stage for a discussion on where our time and energies should be directed when we are in the office, and the fact that work has been bleeding into our time outside the office, as well.

The New Visionaries: James Dellow

I encountered James Dellow because of a twitter comment he made on a recent discussion I had with Lee Bryant, a friend who founded Headshift years ago, and then merged with Dachis Group. Lee left Dachis last year, and it turns out that James was involved in the company’s Australian wing. James has also left Dachis, and joined Ripple Effect Group.

About James Dellow

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This is James’ bio from the Ripple Effect website:

James is an experienced consultant with a deep understanding of both the organisational and technical aspects of social software.
James applies design thinking and a broad knowledge of social media and Web 2.0 technologies to his work. He is also an experienced workshop facilitator, specialising in participatory design and visual thinking.
James has been sought out for comment by the Australian Financial Review and the Fairfax newspapers, on the radio, and appears regularly on Sky News Australia. He has written numerous articles that have appeared in books, journals and publications such as CMS Wire, Image & Data Manager magazine and the International Association for Human Resource Information Management.
He was awarded a Master of Business & Technology (UNSW) in 2005. He is also a past president of the Illawarra ICT cluster association board and a committee member (and former chair) of the NSW KM Forum.
James has worked with a range of blue chip and government companies including AMP, Ausgrid, the Australian Taxation Office, BHP Biliton, Blue Scope Steel, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Government 2.0 Taskforce, ING Australia, Queensland Rail, Rio Tinto, Sydney Water, Telstra and Zurich Financial Services.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: I read your recent piece — City as workplace — with great interest. You wrote,

We tend to think of the organisation as the fundamental unit of organising people

and characterize that viewpoint as an aspect of the industrial mindset we’ve inherited from the past. You then suggest that mobility — smart devices and distributed artifacts (like file sync-and-share tools) — may be changing our relationship with ‘organization’. Is that shift of perspective inevitable? And what replaces the old notion of ‘organization’ as so tightly linked to the ‘office’?


Technology is empowering elements of the professional workforce to be increasingly self-directed, mobile and flexible. Some people are taking advantage of this by deliberating opting out of the traditional work relationship. – James Dellow


James Dellow: There is no doubt that a shift of perspective is inevitable, because digital technologies are disintermediating the relationship between workplace and employment. Up until recently, the physical workplace has been a key tool in the modern management paradigm for organising people and granting access to the resources they need to do their jobs. Now in some professions, this era of wireless Internet access, cloud computing and BYOD means that the only resource the workplace might control is access to people, although social networks are somewhat challenging that notion.
What is perhaps not inevitable is how this shift of perspective will play out. On one hand, technology is empowering elements of the professional workforce to be increasingly self-directed, mobile and flexible. Some people are taking advantage of this by deliberating opting out of the traditional work relationship. However, these same technologies are also creating the opportunity for employers (or customers) to track and direct activity at a micro-level.
Personally I’m not convinced that everyone wants to either go it alone or be a micro-task slave. There is still a role for organising people, even if a traditional physical workplace is no longer necessary as the anchor for the employee-employer relationship. But rather than replacing the office – because we still need and want places to work from – I think we are simply emphasising non-tangible elements that already exist – legal obligations, financial structures and most critically, people relationships.
SB: The people relationships are where the action is. If people never collide in an office, is it possible to have serendipitous interactions online? I have great and productive relationships with people I’ve met that way. Certainly if can happen in a business, even very large ones.
JD: It definitely can and I have been arguing that developing the capacity of staff to maintain effective online interactions is a critical factor in an agile workspace design. I think what we need to realise is that as soon as a company is big enough to span floors in a building, you may as well have staff sitting in a completely different building in another part of the city. So the reality is that these people are working in a hybrid fashion anyway, if not fully virtual – the opportunity for combining technology with the city as workplace is to focus on getting people together at the right time, rather than worrying about getting them into a single place all of the time.
SB: I recently wrote about Square’s office redesign, which is explicitly inpsired by city design (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed). Is that along the lines of what you are suggesting, or are you thinking about the complementary idea: that people can take their work out into the city, rather than adopting the city as a model for how office buildings should be designed?
JD: I am actually talking about both concepts. The idea is that we are letting the city into our workplace and taking the workplace into the city at the same time.


The opportunity for combining technology with the city as workplace is to focus on getting people together at the right time, rather than worrying about getting them into a single place all of the time. – James Dellow


This means we need to design the physical elements of the workplace we have direct control over to be an integrated part of that ecosystem, rather than simply trying to replicate the city model inside the building as a separate system. I think the benefits for a mobile workforce come from giving them access to the city as the workplace, rather than creating a city inside the workplace. An airport lounge could actually be treated as a reasonable working example of a semi-public space where this already happens.
This is also apparent in a limited way in some of the leading examples of activity based working I have seen, such as NAB’s Docklands building in Melbourne and Commonwealth Bank in Sydney. The public spaces inside and around those buildings are as important as the spaces behind the security barriers.
There is also another important dimension to this. One of the benefits of agile or activity-based working is that it creates space efficiencies by optimising the different types of work spaces around the types of work to be supported. But those efficiencies are really based on predicting future work patterns and are constrained to the space inside the building. By treating the city as the workplace, it might be possible to create greater flexibility and efficiencies. Ultimately this should also promote greater sustainability in our cities.
Incidentally, if we are going to design offices like or as part of cities, then we really should be thinking in terms of adaptable building design, so that these structures really can change and respond over time to new work patterns. Ultimately, the goal should be to support wholly user generated workspaces.
SB: User-generated workplaces? Meaning that individuals reconfigure the spaces, personally, or that workspaces are reconfigured automatically based on some algorithmic analysis of what people are doing or trying to do?
JD: The automatic reconfiguration is an interesting idea. There is a great deal of work and innovation happening around smart buildings right now, but so much of it is focused on bottom line efficiencies around utilities and space utilisation. However, my thinking on this is very much influenced by my experiences with social software. So while I think we could certainly do more to make smart building help people collaborate and work together, I also believe that what will be ultimately more empowering is to allow people to reconfigure space. Small places, loosely connected perhaps?


One of the benefits of agile or activity-based working is that it creates space efficiencies by optimising the different types of work spaces around the types of work to be supported. But those efficiencies are really based on predicting future work patterns and are constrained to the space inside the building. By treating the city as the workplace, it might be possible to create greater flexibility and efficiencies.


SB: I love that. James, thanks for your time and observations.
JD: No worries. Thanks for the great questions about the city as workplace idea. If anyone is interested to explore this concept a little further, they can find slides and notes with links to further reading from a recent presentation here.

Another take on offices: something other than open or closed

I have read dozens of articles in recent months about office design. Some advocating the open workplace as a source of inspiration, cameraderie, and social workology. Others arguing a return to the closed offices and cubeland of the past, where focus and quiet make getting things done possible. Recent research from the London Business School suggests the average worker is interrupted every three minutes in the office, so we have reached some breaking point where more people will demand working outside the office.

Or perhaps offices could be rethought to seem more like ‘outside the office’ in the first place?

Square has recently occupied new quarters in San Francisco, and the company’s head of office experience (that’s a first), Chris Gorman, was motivated to make the office work like a city, and less like a headquarters.

David Zax, Why Square Designed Its New Offices To Work Like a City

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

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Last year, I wrote,

The new way of work is as big a break with the industrial model as the industrial model was with the time of artisanal and agricultural work that preceded the rise of steam power and electricity. Unlike that transition, however, we will not be looking for inspiration from armies, or the slave battalions that built the pyramids. No, instead we will look to nature, or the growth of cities for inspiration.

The fast-and-loose business that is emerging as the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

This is the start of a discussion about workplace which isn’t stuck in the open/closed dichotomy. And it’s  likely to be another area of the business where centralized planning will yield to decentralized and localized activities, and so the office of the future will not be designed top-down by office experience experts like Chris Gorman but grown, bottom-up, by the decisions of hundreds or thousands or individual workers.

 

Learning from the German workplace revolution

I confess, I was surprised to read that there is a workplace revolution for men starting in — of all places — Germany, where traditional roles for men and women have historically been very strong. But a recent Spiegel article shows that is changing very quickly:

Susanne Amann and Simone Salden, Corporate Wake-Up Call: German Dads Demand Family Time

German engineering and electronics giant Robert Bosch GmbH demonstrates one way this [rethinking work] might play out. Under the rubric “flexible work models,” the company offers its employees not only “flexitime” and part-time models, but also expressly encourages them to work from other locations. Executives are even allowed to organize their working hours as they choose, as long as they are producing results. Internal networks such as [email protected] help with the exchange of information, and a pilot project has an initial group of 100 executives working from home or employed part time.

Bosch isn’t the only major corporation trying in this way to make it easier for employees to combine career and family. German insurer ERGO, for example, offers its managers seminars on “family conscious leadership,” sensitizing them to their subordinates’ needs. The company has also launched a “part-time leadership” project and allows fathers to partially or entirely convert vacation pay or Christmas bonuses into additional vacation days, making it possible for employees to take up to 42 additional vacation days per year without it resulting in a cut to their monthly salary.

Compared to the norm in the US, Germany’s efforts — at least at the most freethinking and foresighted companies — seem way ahead. However, 85% of German men think that companies workplace flexibility policies are too oriented toward mothers of young children.

More and more German companies — like Lufthansa — have advocated part-time work as a means to spend more time with family, and even at smaller firms, there are unintended benefits when key employees take parental leave. When a key role is opened in this way, others in the firm can step into the role for a short period of time, and develop new skills.

Clearly, there is a great deal that we in the US can learn from the Germans in this area.