Isn’t it time for corporate real estate to follow people into the future?

I keep going back to a quote from Marshall McLuhan that resonates in so much of what we encounter these days in our work. “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

It vibrated back into my consciousness tonight through a direct quote in an article from the excellent Robbonfarm that I’d bookmarked but just now got around to reading…and trying to comprehend. Anyway, in the Robbonfarm article, Venkat Rao reflects on the fact that “we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives.”

Our practice is dedicated to helping organizations conceive of the design of the workspace in new ways in order to leverage the benefits of the momentum of technology and its resultant behavioral change that we experience relatively smoothly without noticing almost everywhere else. In almost all of our projects, however, we are caught in a barely progressing conversation, now decades old, about transitions in the form of “the office.”

Rao reflects on the metaphors for form we’ve used to generate a transition to the future without anxiety or chaos. “Smart phone” is, he notes, a more effective term than “talking to people on my calculator” to motivate adaptive behaviors and the adopt extraordinary technological change in a tool “that works better than Captain Kirk’s communicator.”

We have not, apparently, yet found an apt and motivational metaphor for an appropriate and essential evolution of the place where we work. Everything about the way we work has changed, yet nothing in the spatial lexicon of the workspace has.

We continue to use a language of place there that is nostalgic. In using that language, we retard our full potential and mis-shape our future. Using that language, we continue to shape a set of rules about work, about where it is done, about how it should be done, about who provides and defines the workplace, and about how we think work should be supported.

Using that language, we are shaping a workplace that is increasingly irrelevant and value destroying.

Throughout much of the past century, we continued to think of the workplace in industrial terms. We used a heavy industry approach to manage an infrastructure moving from iron to electronics. We did corporately managed work in corporate workplaces provided by corporate real estate. All of this sustained a predictable pattern for management.

Out of the shadows, however, came breakthroughs on multiple different paths in multiple different settings– disruptors shaping whole new industries and economies. Electronic became digital, and new behaviors and experiences and opportunities burst forward.

The patterns are now very different. There are no longer limits on where work is done and by whom. Management and its tools of space standards and place-based supervision are increasingly seen as value consumers rather than value creators.

Anxieties about a future that has already arrived but is not fully sensed generate a nostalgic management – a cautious and incremental shaping of a change in the name caring about the readiness and reactions of people who work in the provided spaces. But look at the leaps that those people have made.

The reality is that people are adopters. People look for opportunities. People connect. Already BYOD (bring your own device) is an embedded concept in the workplace, expressing the rapid adoption of technologies, communications and behaviors that IT has otherwise resisted.

Organizations are more interested in protecting current value than in creating new value. Business is incremental, but people are spiky. And this is where those who provide the workplace are failing.

We need a new metaphor for the workspace to help us follow people into the future.

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