This piece is the first of what will be monthly Drucker Exchange contributions on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.
For roughly half a century after the rise of white-collar work in the 1950s, people were required to go to their office to get the job done.
Their productivity was dependent upon fixed technologies such as desktop computers, landline phones, printers and fax machines. These workers resided in assigned, predictable locations at which it was assumed they would spend much of their workday.
In turn, most companies treated the office as a basic employee provision, not unlike email accounts or business cards. And during this era, the office became more and more standardized, focused on cost efficiencies and increasing spatial densities, with rows of cubes supplemented by the occasional conference room.
But in recent years, things have changed. Mobile devices, BYOD policies, unified communications and a host of other technologies now enable people to work wherever they like. Despite a few widely publicized exceptions, organizational attitudes and cultures have largely shifted to embrace this freedom. With these new liberties, the line between “resident workers” and “mobile workers” has become increasingly blurred, with people leaving their ever-shrinking cubes to work from more interesting and inspiring locations. And as employees discover the array of intriguing options for where they work—within and outside of the office—a formula that once resulted in optimal workplace efficiency may suddenly be leading toward workplace obsolescence.
But the office need not, and should not, go away. Although people may no longer require a fax machine or a desktop phone to be productive, they do require each other. It’s the social linkages among teams that help to fuel trust, productivity and employee satisfaction, and the workplace still offers the most convenient location for employees to connect.
These connections are especially important when it comes to knowledge work. “For knowledge work, by definition, does not result in a product,” like a pair of shoes, Peter Drucker observed. “It results in a contribution of knowledge to somebody else. The output of the knowledge worker always becomes somebody else’s input.”
The key to beginning to adapt the workplace to a new era of employee choice is to make it more desirable. That means providing a range of spaces to support social interaction, grow relationships and strengthen organizational culture.
More than 60 years ago, the design director of Herman Miller, George Nelson, posited that the workplace should be like “a daytime living room where work can be done under less tension with fewer distractions.” The notion of a relaxed, social and inspiring workplace may not have been a reality in an era of fixed desktop technologies, but is becoming much more needed in an era of unprecedented user choice.
What does it mean to adapt the workplace to an era of mobile technology? It begins with creating spaces where employees want to work.
—Ryan Anderson, Director of Future Technology