At some point soon, just as we spent a couple of decades facing up the mythical essence of the Paperless Office, we’ll have to admit that the Death of the Office is a complete crock.
While some claim “unprecedented changes” (unprecedented now seems permanently stuck to the word change, there is no longer any other kind) to the office, completed schemes roll into the journals and conference case studies with all the individuality and soul of a pack of Tesco Value sausages. And while co-working is on the one hand declared to be disrupting the institutional stuffed shirt that is the commercial rented sector, the sprouting centres come to increasingly resemble the corporate world at which their earlier incarnations cocked a snook.
What’s happening is odd, but makes sense. Technically, technology frees us from time and distance. It was easy a decade ago to be convinced that we would finally be unshackled from the office, able to work when, where and how we chose. I got excited about it too, albeit without waving my arms around, claiming the “city as our office” before others pinched the phrase. For a very small minority – usually the sort of mensheviki that claim it’s applicable to every working-age mortal because of course everyone is like them – it is. For most, other constraints and pressures apply.
Yet the more technology we deploy and the more reliant upon it and more in its service our careers become, the more we need closer human interaction, and the enablers of this. The more we push the boundaries, the less that work is an individual pursuit.
It is most notable within the environments populated by the people who bring us all the stuff that (usually) makes our lives easier and theoretically liberates us from the space-time continuum. We’re not calling it “agile”, because that’s almost as bad as “smart”.
Two factors are at play.
Firstly, it’s highly interactive. Short periods of the most anti-social head-down intense focussed activity are punctuated by (equally) short bursts of highly social behaviour – demonstrating work, on-the-spot design and planning, updates on stuff relevant to the team. While groups form and re-form, they work at their “own” desk while in a group- they know who is next to them, and who is opposite them – because they need one another. Whisper it, but it’s about being together, physically, in the same space, at the same time. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is up to. No-one works in the café. Strangely, the café is where you get coffee.
Secondly, for these groups *actually* working together, there is almost a proportional relationship between the complexity of the technology at play, and the amount of “analogue” space required. All the walls we spent the last decade taking down to create open, “collaborative” spaces (which some may argue was just a ploy to perpetuate Taylorist, observational management) are being rebuilt so magnetic whiteboards can be installed. Post its, markers, highlighters, flipcharts, the sort of stuff that makes facilitators uncontrollably foam at the mouth – it’s all back in vogue. Collaboration (really) happens but at the small, highly localised team level, not across Larkin-like officescapes.
People in the same space, being social (sometimes), small teams, analogue space. All very counter-tech-revolution.
Smaller organisations are mimicking this in co-working centres, And other not-so-obviously-tech functions within large corporations are seeing the value of high-intensity, little-and-often, rapid ideas development based on this model.
The most significant change being driven by the blanket ubiquity of technology in our working lives may not be the rise of the robots, but the resurgence of the human. We are, under the radar, finally and fundamentally realising the value of working together.