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The Design Ecology of Work

The Design Ecology of Work

In a previous book- The Fifth Age of Work– I began with a simple but perhaps odd question: What would HR in a company look like if a designer were put in charge? I tried to answer that question as best as I could, but I think that discussion was probably about 15 minutes early.

Binary Impasse

Historically the world of work has been divided into two primary silos where specialists zero in on their part of the equation:

  • HR professionals deal with people: recruiting, hiring, developing, payroll, benefits, policies and compliance, and culture and leadership, etc
  • Facilities and Real Estate professionals deal with physical things: buildings, construction, space allocation, desks, chairs, IT, etc.

In a linear world where things are simple and separate, this has made sense for quite some time. It is the efficiency of Fordism applied to when, where, and how people work. However, the current crisis surrounding the coronavirus is bringing into sharp relief just how insufficient such a ‘division of labor’ really is.

Beyond the Chatter

Since the severity of the virus has been acknowledged, there has been an enormous amount of chatter about how ‘remote working’ has finally reached a tipping point and will become a new kind of norm. All variety of businesses (including ours) have weighed in on how their services are just right for the moment. Some of them may be, but until we come out of the other side of it we will not really know for sure.

There is no question that we are currently in the midst of one of the largest remote working experiments in the history of knowledge work. It will be interesting to see what happens after the crisis subsides and what companies choose to do. Plenty of people already ‘remote work’ either formally or informally, so there really isn’t all that much that is new about the current moment qualitatively, though there has clearly been an increase in the number of people who are currently working at home (which is quantitatively different).

Yet, once the immediacy of the current crises has passed, I suspect that both camps (HR and CRE) will go back to their respective corners and hunker down in an effort to return to ‘normal.’ Perhaps the percentage of knowledge workers working from home might go up a few points, but the broader ecology of of work will probably not be re-examined. I hope that does not happen.

Why Design? Why Now?

If we take the time to pan out in an effort to make sense of all of the various elements of the ecology of work, then we can see more clearly how integrated all of the pieces (actually) are, and why the interdisciplinary (indeed multi-disciplinary) perspective of a designer makes sense. A quick inventory of the various elements:

  • The material footprint of offices (costs plus)
  • The utilization rates of offices (often around 50%)
  • The co2 emissions of office buildings
  • The co2 emissions of commuting
  • The time (and lost productivity) spent commuting
  • The ubiquity of digital communication and collaboration tools
  • The time regained (for work/life balance) by working from home
  • The purported gains in productivity among remote workers
  • The promise of ever more effective ‘virtual’ coworking technologies

When you look at a list like this it seems rather clear. The traditional approach to office working would seem to make no sense at all. It is wasteful and unnecessary, the argument goes. However, when you consider the things that are missing from this picture, that argument becomes less compelling:

  • Shared sense of belonging and place
  • Genuine and productive collaboration
  • Get-your-hands-dirty innovation
  • Pattern languages of trust
  • Implicit and unspoken knowledge sharing
  • Learning through observation and mimicry
  • Mentoring
  • Emotional support
  • Palpable and collective sense of a shared purpose

These are no small things, and I doubt that any slight uptick in individual productivity will offset these inherently social needs that humans have. And despite the recurring promises that Slack or some other clever intranet tool will solve the social problems of work, the human need for contact and connection will not go away.

Rethinking the Corporate Village

Surely the case can be made for why much of the work that people do can be done from home, a coffee shop, or coworking space. In the wake of the current crisis the number of people doing this will likely increase. It makes sense for a variety of reasons (mentioned above).

Yet, the designer in me also insists that all of this only makes the corporate campus more important than ever. The notion that people will just go off into the wind and work at home diminishes the importance of design in the ecology of work.

Some of the changes that I (hope to) see coming:

  • Companies will allow work routines to be more customized for individuals and teams (depending on the specific circumstances)
  • As a result, some portion of employees will indeed opt for full-time remote working
  • While others will opt to work on campus
  • While many will want to do both
  • Which will allow companies to shrink their real estate footprints
  • While they re-imagine what the company campus can be like in the future

There is an opportunity here to fundamentally re-think what a corporate campus is. Rather than being a slightly modified industrial model where people come in and sit at the same station to do their work (that, we are learning, could be done at their kitchen table), the office becomes the embodiment of company culture and community.

Thus, the physical spaces on campus are more ‘come-and-go-as-you-need-to’ than they are work stations where people are expected to be most of the time. They are oriented more towards the things that can’t be fully accomplished remotely and digitally- project rooms with whiteboards and post-it notes, huddle spaces, focus group rooms, cafe spaces, coworking spaces, etc. More human, less industrial.

Allowing solo work to be done wherever (and whenever) people want to do it, on the one hand, while ensuring that the necessary collaborative work that drives innovation in companies be done co-present in-person, on the other, will position the future corporate village as an integral and enduring focal point of corporate success.

It’s About Time

Going forward, corporate villages will look more like coworking spaces than they do offices. I imagine that there will be something like a coffee shop on most floors, as data show that people like working in coffee shops. I imagine that they will also be open to a company’s suppliers, contractors, clients, investors, and other partners, and thus will be open and will embody the whole of a company culture.

HR and CRE professionals will have to change along the way. Footprints will shrink. The (massively) expensive rituals of the contract furniture industry, which still remain premised on pimping out companies with tons and tons of workstations, will need to be re-thought. HR folks will have to re-think policies around mobility and accountability and performance evaluations. All aspects of the ecology of work will be affected and disrupted.

This is what design thinking is all about. Design thinking is not the search for ‘the one best solution’ among a list of off-the-shelf options, it is about creating ‘a new list of possible options’ that might become a solution. With that as a staring point, let the prototyping begin.

Original Source: LinkedIn Article by Andrew Jones, PhD