Escaping the ‘Digital Workplace’

Cities are a space of fluid exchange and interaction, vital for millions of us in our work. Yet just as technology enables our liberation from the confines of the office and broadens our horizons, does it also threaten to imprison us in an omnipresent digital workplace? Technology must enable human connection, not substitute or erode it. New concepts in digital interface design may provide a solution.

Presented in a ‘PechaKucha’ style at Green Capital’s HotHouse event at the PowerHouse Museum in Sydney on 26th March, 2014:

Presentation notes

FUTURE OF WORK

Digital technology is creating a revolution in the relationship between work and workplace. This is significant because while we might not notice it, the design of our workplaces and how we organise people affect each other.

This future of work is very much a digital one, but what does this mean to physical workplaces?

MARTIN PLACE 100 YEARS AGO

Looking back in time, our physical workplaces haven’t significantly changed for sometime. People still work within the shells of buildings that were built a 100 years or more ago. They haven’t needed to change as the dominant management style itself hasn’t evolved.

NAB’s DOCKLANDS BUILDING

More recently we have seen the emergence of a new type of office building. We are moving from traditional office layouts to activity based working, which give people a palate of different areas to work in. This shift to activity based working very much mirrors a bigger trend towards technology enabled work styles and new business models.

Further reading: Lessons from NAB about your future, digital workplace.

QUANTIFIED EMPLOYEE

These same digital technologies are also enabling us to quantify employees and employee activity in ways not previously possible. How do we reconcile the drive towards to greater workplace efficiency with the need for innovation, serendipity and the creation of social capital?

Example: coworkr.

SMART CITIES

We see this also playing out at the city level. Just as employers quantify employee activity, big data allows government, utilities, service providers to quantify the flow of people and things in our cities. But what will this focus on transactions do for actual interactions between people in our cities?

For a related view on this issue see this great post by Martin Stewart-Weeks, Technology and cities.

TELEPRESENCE ROBOTS

Technologies already exist that can allow us to work entirely virtually. So perhaps the greatest efficiency will be achieved by eliminating the workplace entirely? And if I can work from anywhere, what purpose is there for cities and workplaces?

Example: Beam Pro (YouTube).

DIGITAL WORKPLACE?

Is this vision for the digital workplace the future workplace we actually want Technology may be enabling this change, but we still have the ability to imagine a better future workplace. This is a future workplace that should enable us to be more human.

NAB CO-WORKING

For example, co-working has emerged as a powerful new model for the workplace. Some large organisation are inviting the community into their co-working spaces, but this is still constrained by self-imposed organisational boundaries. Why not take the workplace out into the city itself and create entirely new opportunities?

Further reading: Co-workring at NAB Docklands by Woods Bagot.

ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH – IS TECHNOLOGY ANTI-SOCIAL?

Despite popular opinion, being digital doesn’t mean we are anti-social. Recent research is increasingly demonstrating that online participation can contribute to well being and digital tools are used to maintain and organise real world connections.

Further reading: Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All in the NYT.

WORKSCAPE

If we want to reclaim this digital workplace as a technology for humanity we need to reimagine the workplace completely. One way to do this is if we step back from our focus on individual buildings, our see that the entire city is our workplace. To make the city our workplace, there are 3 things we need to address:

  1. Way finding – how do we navigate this mega workplace effectively? Way finding should help us to find the right people, places and things so we can work.
  2. Nudge people towards the right behaviours – as our urban populations grow, how can we manage better use of resources?
  3. Natural collaboration – people should not need to become cyborgs in the digital workplace. Collaboration technology should disappear into the background and support ‘natural collaboration’.

WAY FINDING

NUDGE

  • Networked appliances to drive collaborative consumption. Watch the video about Brad the Toaster (Vimeo).
  • Using big data for civic gamification. Watch the video about Chromarama (Vimeo).

NATURAL COLLABORATION

TECHNOLOGY FOR HUMANITY?

The future workplace could easily be one that makes us and our urban environments highly efficient, but very much less human. The positive potential for the digital workplace is that it turns the city in a platform for work. To do this we need to design technology into the fabric of our cities for way finding, nudging behaviours and supporting natural collaboration.

Further reading: Interview with Stowe Boyd on the Gigaom Research blog – The New Visionaries: James Dellow.