What if the office worked like your smartphone?

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There’s no denying we love our phones.

It’s not just that they’re easy and intuitive. Apart from the occasional lover’s tiff (flat battery, out of range, OS upgrade), it’s an idyllic relationship. It works in synchrony with some of our deepest motivations, even our drives for esteem, love and self-actualisation.

This relationship also provides important insights into how 21st century organisations should be designed and run.

The office is largely a 20th century construct. By the midpoint of that century, it was a given that you worked at an office, which was comprised of individual rooms for each executive (where the size and fittings symbolised seniority), along with cubicles and typing pools. These environments were almost self-satirising and would not have appeared out of place in a Kafka novel.

In the last five years, the office has evolved somewhat. This has included activity-based working (where rather than having a fixed desk, you choose a desk each day, typically storing your work materials in a locker), villages (clustering groups of desks), collaboration spaces (places which enable you to work together, usually in a less formal way) and flexible work practices (such as the ability to work from home).

But what would it look like if your workplace was like your smartphone?

Office Scrolling

Part of the elegance and ease of the smartphone is the ability to scroll up and down (placing no restrictions on length) and to swipe left and right (either to access different apps, or in the case of online dating apps, to make quick, simple decisions). In the future, the workplace will be scroll-able and swipe-able.

The more that 9-to-5 includes non 9-to-5 experiences, the more engaged and productive you become. Here’s an example. While Atlassian’s new Sydney offices include free access to a fully-catered kitchen complete with an ice cream freezer, they don’t provide coffee.

As the head of workplace experience, Brent Harman, says: “If we had coffee, people would likely just walk to the kitchen and back to their desk. It’s not a money thing or productivity thing, it’s more about creating a reason for small groups of staff to get out of the office for the 15 minute breaks in the morning or afternoon.”

Integration and Swiping

Something that your phone does superbly, is integration. You have your email, text, camera, GPS and so much more, all in one device. So far, the best example I’ve seen is Collins Square in Melbourne. They managed to fill this precinct in record time. Why? Because it truly offers the non-9-to-5 between the hours of nine and five (and whenever else you want). People leave their offices all the time to engage with retail, dining and entertainment. It’s deliberately not tied to an office space, but is still just a swipe away.

Yet when I recently spoke with its developer, property billionaire Lang Walker, he said he had already seen ways to improve this experience and was putting even more integration, swiping and sharing (my words, but his sentiments) into his new Parramatta Square development. As he put it, “the more non-9-to-5 the working environment, the better the employee experience and the higher the performance”.

The ability to swipe between your needs as a human being (eating, shopping, relationships, meaningful work) is a huge asset.

Why have we jettisoned our torches, GPS devices, calculators, and cameras to have everything on one device? Because we can. That’s why Apple self-cannibalised the iPod — because integration was inevitable.

What if you’re not in a precinct like Collins Square or Parramatta Square? While an environment such as these is a great asset, it’s not all about the physical dimensions. Your company’s philosophy is just as important.

Swiping, for example, should include 100% workplace flexibility. In the future, you will be able to work from the office, at home, on the beach, in your driverless vehicle, in any country. You will be able to swipe between these options instantaneously and without any approval process.

A Personalised Experience

What else happens with your phone? You get to choose your own apps. Apart from the operating system and some essentials, you get to choose what you use.

And while you personalise your apps, you don’t mind if you share them with others. We are now very happy to share the music on our phone because, if you’ve got access to every song in the world, who cares about owning them?

In fact, the sharing (not owning) is a benefit. Why have an average conference centre for your company that you use 5% of the year, when you could share with ten other companies and have something world class? In the future, your workplace will share more than it owns.

While we are losing interest in ownership of things, we very much care about ownership of our life. That’s why we still curate our music collections. We might borrow a car through Go-Get but we still choose our own itinerary.

The most unjustified workplace awards are the ones which include innovations which make it feel like the company owns its employees. The important thing is the ability to feel alive in your working day. When people are filled with passion, vitality and stimulation, that’s when they do their best work.
This means choosing your own itinerary, curating your hours, days, weeks and months.

Complete portability

In the future, the workplace will no longer be defined by spatial properties. We’ve had flexible working for some time, but where we will eventually get to is a concept of workplace as mobile as our phone. That doesn’t mean we won’t go to an office, but it means that the office will be with us anywhere we want it.

One of the very best things about the smartphone is that it makes super-computing portable and pocket-sized. The smartphone goes everywhere with us. So too must our workplace become portable and pocket-sized.

That’s not to say you won’t have a place at all. We are social animals and we draw motivation from being around others. But nobody uses their smart phone because they have to. In the future, nobody will have to go to a place of work — they’ll go there when they want to, because they want to.

And what’s it like when you get there? We moved from desktops to laptops to phones and tablets for a reason: human beings crave freedom. And when you have portability, why have a desk? Forget about sharing desks, that’s just cosmetic.

What’s Next

In some ways, we’ve come a long way from the cubicles and executive suites of the twentieth century. But in other ways, we’ve only seen minor upgrades. My company’s Potentiology research showed that for organisations to succeed in the 21st century, their work force must be supported to realise their full potential — and getting the organisational architecture right is essential to making this happen.

As Shane Hales, managing director of Axiom Workplaces, put it: “Technology is increasingly transforming how people use physical office environments. Getting the right blend of technological, physical and cultural aspects is vital in creating work spaces that bring out the best in people.”

The rise of smart phones has been the most powerful vindication of human-centred design. We feel so intimately connected with them because they were designed to be in sync with us.

In the future, when humanity is the fundamental driver of workplace design, we’ll love where we work as much as we love our smartphone.

(Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta, focusing on designing organisations and leaders for the cyber-physical age. He is also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, providing accelerated development opportunities for Australia’s most promising Indigenous scholars, and a member of the Amnesty International 2020 Council.)

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