Walking into the Workplace of the Future

There is a problem with thinking about the future of work. It’s a problem that is neither unique to the subject nor new. The problem is one of conceptualising a World or, rather, a disorganised set of possibilities some of which are clearer than others. We talk about work becoming “something you do, not somewhere you go.” When it comes to collaboration we talk about breaking out of silos and working across boundaries. Perhaps we also talk about the death of deference and an individual’s value being based on the strength of their contribution rather than their age, job title, or credentials. However fashionable, these ideas are difficult to imagine working in practice.


Even ‘Big Data’ – the most fashionable of lots of fashionable concepts – refers to nothing more than a challenge we have yet to fully understand. In the 1970s Toffler wrote about organisations of the future moving into a state of perpetual change where the ‘bureaucracy’ morphs into the ‘ad-hoc-racy’: units of organisation that constantly evolve in response to new challenges. Although we may all recognise that idea, can we honestly say that we have turned it to our advantage? We understand that some of these big ideas remove the gridlines from our maps but we constantly try to draw new ones.


As with any difficult idea, it is made much easier – and is brought to much more relevance – when you can see it in practice. On Monday, I visited The Shed at Manchester Metropolitan University with Paul Bason (Director of Digital Innovation) and a group of colleagues from across the academic faculties. The Shed is a new space dedicated to Digital Innovation providing low cost office and desk space for business start-ups working alongside more established companies. There are open conferencing facilities, shared break out space, a media production suite and teaching and research areas. The idea is that by working alongside each other new relationships will be formed, the experienced can mentor the less experienced, and new partnerships and collaboration opportunities can be identified. Some of the areas of The Shed are as yet unclear in purpose, others will change multiple times. The fundamental principle of The Shed is clear though: collaboration between individuals with Digital as a common shared interest.


Let me give you an example. Nurses know what patients need, app developers know how to build a tool for their mobile devices, and a statistician may know how to use the data gathered from the app to inform research to improve care. That doesn’t usually happen because the nurses, app developers, statisticians and researchers all work in different places. In The Shed they can share a space and work together on ideas or specific projects. The essentially ‘open’ nature of the space means that a graphic designer passing by can take an interest in, for example, the way the app looks or how it is publicised. A marketeer or business expert could offer a view on commercialisation. A PR expert could help the team tell the World about what they’re doing. The incentives for people to help are that they can draw on their new network to help with their own work and the more successful The Shed is, the greater credibility they can draw from being involved in it.


Closer to home for most of the readers of this Blog, how many HR professionals are working collaboratively with systems and data experts in their development of HR Analytics? What are we learning from linguists about how we label and write narratives for those analytics and how often do we work with artists to inform how we present the numbers? What about animators? Why are we using Excel and Powerpoint arrows to suggest movement when we have the technology to animate it?


We know too that performance in HR is often about linking reward or assessment to the achievement of business objectives but how often do we think of the design of computer games or other scoring frameworks when we develop systems. If Gamification is of interest to us who are the experts? Who can help us to understand what that means for our business?


You will be able to think of your own business problems or ideas for improvement that move beyond your own capability or that of your team. If your organisation (think about that word for a second…) is representative of most others you will immediately hit problems. Whose budget does it come from? Are they too busy to help? Will it screw up our service level agreements? What if those collaborators are outside the organisation? Can we do honorary contracts? Who owns the IP? Is it all too difficult…


Imagine having a space where you can move away from those problems. Somewhere where you can say “I’ve got an idea” and have easy access to those who can help. Somewhere you can have knitting next to robotics and research into animal behaviour as part of research into the psychology of pet owners. As breathtaking as it may be to consider architecture students being able to print 3D models of their designs, how much more amazing to consider social scientists 3D printing paradigms and for an artist to use that model in sculpture.


Some of it – perhaps most of it – won’t work. But, to quote Dyson “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes this year, I’m planning to make a lot more next year.” It’s only by finding the edges of what’s possible that we will know how to explore those boundaries and the untapped potential.


It’s also worth saying that The Shed is truly a thing of beauty. Rather than being built from scratch The Shed is a development of 20th Century engineering workshops and retains many of the original features. Rather than a rejection of the past this emphasises both the importance of our innovation heritage and the essential similarity between great problem solving of the past and today. Without wanting this to become a puff piece for Manchester Met, that theme is evident across the whole University and is, I think, of real value. From Turing to Rolls Royce, innovation and Manchester go together very, very neatly.


Is The Shed a model for the workplace of the future? Well, if it isn’t, it has to be the closest thing I’ve seen yet. Although still very new, The Shed is a wildly exciting opportunity to test a workplace model based on collaboration, a communal sense of achievement, and constant evolution. Those of you who know me personally will know that I have two young sons. My final thought on leaving The Shed on Monday was that I would love my boys to be able to grow up and work somewhere like that. Perhaps that’s the best test of all when thinking about the future of work that we would all like to see.


For more information about The Shed at Manchester Metropolitan University please see: http://www.mmu.ac.uk/news/news-items/2606/


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