What Happened To The Office Of The Future? Ben Hammersley Speaking At The RSA
The founding editor of WIRED Magazine, Kevin Kelly, once said; ‘the problem of the future will not be that we cannot connect – it will be that we cannot disconnect’. Super fast computer technology and the network economy has not just become a tool for work – it has become the work itself. It is a case of learn to be a geek or get used to working for one. No matter what it says in the email footer, we all work in IT – and moonlight in media production. The dominance of technology in the workplace has changed how and where we do things. From the cubicle to the funky break out area and from the WiFi café to the Skype call work has increasingly changed to fit the needs of the machines. In a recent talk at The RSA an excellent Ben Hammersley explored how this evolved and whether the modern office is as creative and collaborative as it once promised to be…
Ben Hammersley is well qualified to comment on this subject. He is the UK Prime Minister’s Ambassador to East London Tech City and Editor at Large of WIRED UK magazine. Added to that, he is also a member of the European Commission High Level Expert Group on Media Freedom – and a fellow of the Brookings Institute. He has been a journalist for The Times and The Guardian – as well as WIRED. He is even credited with inventing the word – ‘podcast’. And he is a more colourful character than the average media commentator having posted blogs from the war zones of Afghanistan and being a well-known ultra-marathon runner too.
Recently, in the wonderful Great Room at The RSA in London he explored the conflict between traditional and new workplace models and structures. It is a hot topic now because we are about to enter a time of dramatic change as we move from the information and digital age – to the social era of business. Over the next few years we will see a huge rise in collaborative technology – often grouped under the title ‘Unified Communication’ – (UC). These systems aim to connect us all within a suite of tools combining video and call conferencing, email, presence (tracking where people are in the office), file sharing and instant messaging – all accessible across PC, tablet or mobile device. With the rise of superfast WiFi – we will all be connected, regardless of where we are or what tool we have. Or perhaps, whether we want to connect or not …
The Collaborative Advantage
According to Steljes (a specialist provider of interactive white boards and other smart meeting room tools) it is estimated that 40% of firms will be implementing UC type technology over the next two years. The incentive being to reduce costs (81%) and improve efficiencies (67%) – and this is supported by 2012 research from McKinsey suggesting that most companies can gain a 25-30% increase in productivity through the use of UC technology. And it’s not all about the bottom line either. UK conference call specialist Powwownow report that remote & flexible working practices are increasingly becoming a key factor considered by new recruits when accepting job offers. Being allowed to login to video calls from home and work remotely can actually make it easier to juggle family commitments and life. Everybody can see the collaborative advantage. The promised benefits and interest means companies such as IBM, Citrix, Oracle, Cisco, Yammer and Salesforce are all investing heavily in rolling out UC solutions. If you have not come across these kind of tools yet, then wait a while because it will soon be coming to desktop, tablet and smart phone near you. Will these systems really improve collaboration? Can they help us to escape the avalanche of existing emails and messages? Or could they, just as open plan offices have become, be a further source of stress and interruptions?
Whilst the offices I have worked in have become visually more relaxed and dress down Friday has become the norm I have seen stress levels and career nervousness rise amongst all my peers, no matter how smart the people or trendy the foyer. It’s a view shared by Hammersley. As he puts it – the modern office environment creates a constant state of ‘uncertainty and disruption’. And technology and the vast open spaces of large offices – seem to be at the heart of the issue…
Where Did The Open Plan Office Come From?
So to paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here? And is this your beautiful office life? Hammersley elegantly tells the story. Strange but true – your grey cubicle in an open plan office in Slough can trace its family tree to the coolness of California. From entertainment giants to hi-tech military companies on the edge of Nevada, from great Universities to simply being the place where Mickey Mouse lived, the sunshine state has been a dominant source of our technology, lifestyle and trends. It was in 1970’s California where knowledge management and information industry was born. The great firms of Silicon Valley fused the idealistic liberal-minded hippies from the 1960’s with the brightest engineers and programmers and together they re-designed our world. Their shared philosophy was one where ideas and experimentation was king within a culture that challenged conventional hierarchies and it was here – that the open plan office took shape. Team work, knowledge sharing and flexible project teams were more important than executive tea rooms, wood panelled board rooms and individual offices. Cubicles were in and long corridors were out. Walls became glass. Cables and networks dictated office layouts. And as long as you could code and create, it did not matter if you wore tee-shirts, snacked at your desk and worked long into the night.
As Hammersley puts it ‘these tools are from somebody else’s culture’. The open plan style is imported not just from California – but from a certain type of worker who grew up there; the knowledge and IT worker. The environment driven by the increasing desire not to promote innovation and team work. Removing bureaucracy and connecting systems and people in a fluid way was seen as the way to work smarter, develop quicker and it was the kind of environment in which media and engineering based start-ups thrived.
But what happens when we transfer that approach to an office of 80, 120 or 250 people? Does it scale up well? The evidence and comment from many, suggests not. Hammersley mirrors the comments of writers such as Susan Cain (see my post on her views here…) – that our rush to build teams in large work spaces has led to an inability to reflect and think – and have our own moments of silence.
Quite simply, the highly connected open plan office can simply ‘freak you out’. Rather than an idealistic environment of free thinking it has helped to foster the return of Taylorism a management approach with its rigid focus on optimising every aspect of task, performance and process, to squeeze every ounce of productivity from every layer of the organisation. Hammersley points out how senior executives gravitate to the edges of large spaces – whilst young and often nervous ‘team members’ work in the centre. The flat management structure whilst outwardly appearing democratic can actually lead to a feeling of not knowing how and where things fit together. The constant noise is cancelled through the wearing of huge head-phones. Whilst we all need to focus and concentrate to deliver more – a constant stream of technological bleeps, messages, status updates and emails exists to continually interrupt us. And therefore it begs the question, if this is the reality now – will the introduction of new technologies such as UC really improve things? Or will it simply add to that feeling of uncertainty, the noise and lack of genuine collaboration and focus?
Hammersley believes that we need to re-negotiate the ‘tempo of communication’. We need to take back the time to help us focus and create. We need to control the machines and how we interact with information – and in this point, he is absolutely right. However where I disagree with him is in his criticism of the attraction for collaboration itself. Of course, there are times when one needs to work alone and reflect in quiet. But all the signs point to the fact that it pays to work well with others.
Isolation Leads To Disappointment
Leading experts in innovation, from Scott Berkun to Tom Kelley continually reinforce the view that innovation and creativity is not a game for soloists. In 2012 Forrester Research surveyed marketers to discover the biggest blocks to innovation; 30% said it was a lack of internal collaboration and 33% said it was due to poor external collaboration. And in their excellent 2012 book ‘Team Geek’ – Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman, two senior engineers from Google point out that no matter how smart you may be – “Working in Isolation Leads to Disappointment’. The commentator Nilofer Merchant has pointed out that the ‘social era’ of business is about a lot more than simply social media and technology. (see my piece about her work – here) It is about working effectively with people, building a network and being open to the ideas of outsiders. For Merchant, the traditional marketing strategy (as well as the traditional office layout) – is dead. The talented folk of the future will become what Morten Hansen describes as ‘T-Shaped’ – possessing both good technical skills and a network of smart connections across the organisation.
I don’t think it is the need and desire for collaboration that is the problem – it is the bad approach to doing it and poor personal skills of those involved. Technology introduced in a culture that lacks effective personal collaboration will merely amplify and speed up those bad connections. Technology is not always the answer – despite what those who sell systems tell us. The philosopher Theodore Zeldin put it neatly when he said; ‘technology does not automatically improve the quality of communication, conversation or behaviour’. No amount of steam punk desks, trendy couches and UC tools can negate ineffective personal 121 communications.
So how can we build collaborative teams but avoid the negative side effects that Hammersley describes? If we want to cut down on the personal and environmental costs of commuting into cities and we want to spend more time on life – then UC technologies offer a meaningful solution, rather than a problem. The answer is to improve the quality of our personal 121 collaboration skills – which is fundamentally about effective listening, enquiry, conversation and knowledge sharing.
It is one of the reasons why we have created MarketingCafes – a seminar and workshop approach that helps encourage effective conversation and curiosity in marketing teams. MarketingCafe are used to explore complex business issues, assist with ideation and creative explorations – or as a means to create smarter understanding with colleagues, suppliers, partners and clients. The spark of collaborative innovation occurs by developing the right small conversations and discussions – and it is often the informal, open and engaged ones that deliver the most value and solutions. ( for more information on MarketingCafes – please contact me )
Are The Machines Playing Us?
In the 1990’s Ralf Hutter, ‘Chief Engineer’ of legendary electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk was once challenged by a journalist that live on stage ‘Kraftwerk just play machines’. Hutter famously replied; ‘But, do we play the machines – or are the machines playing us?’ It’s a funny line that poses something insightful about our relationship with the latest technology. Used well,it is our servant – and we control it. Used badly, it can merely accelerate the feeling of pressure and isolation, the feeling of ‘future shock’ and prevents us from genuinely communicating with people. It is up to us to become the controllers. When you step into the smart UC workplace of tomorrow – are you going to be playing the technology? Or is the technology going to be playing you?
Thanks to The RSA and Ben Hammersley for an excellent talk and event. To read more from me – about collaboration, partnerships and innovation please visit www.andrewarmour.com or visit www.benchstone.co.uk. For further information and comments on technology from Ben Hammersley, please visit www.benhammersley.com