When thinking about the future of work there is no single solution that fits every company and every situation. To shape a future that benefits everyone, we will need to do work differently, learn the lessons from the past, and evolve as organisations and individuals.
In 1997, the future of work was bright. I was 19: curious, ambitious, bumbling, and deeply, deeply clueless. My parents were doctors, so the business world was a mystery. I did suspect you had to do good internships to secure a decent job after college, so I’d gotten my hands on “America’s Top 100 Internships” and applied to all of the ones in New York.
When I got to my summer 1997 internship, at the New York City offices of advertising agency TBWA Chiat/Day, something inside of me ignited. The famed agency ran their East Coast operations from a pioneering open plan environment with zero assigned seats and many, many ostentatious graphic displays.
My most vivid memory is of a wall covered in multicolored fur (presumably synthetic), as well as a historical photos show, gymnasium-style floors with faux graffiti, a mirror framed by Rolling-Stones-ish lips, and another multicolored wall fashioned entirely of pillows.
To my 19-year-old eye, the daily assault of colors and textures had a clear message: work didn’t have to be so dry. Work could be fun! I felt like actress Dorothy Gale stepping into the vivid land of Oz after a lifetime in sepia-tinted Kansas.
That office was heralded at the time as the future of work – but not because of the crazy décor.
TBWA Chiat/Day New York was famous as an early example of hotdesking. Conceptually, everyone came in each morning, stashed their personal effects in a locker, and chose what seat would suit them that day.
Would it be a quiet corner by the panoramic windows, overlooking the tip of Manhattan? Or would it be a tiny desk on what they called the “trading floor”, a big open room actually more reminiscent of an elementary school classroom than any place stocks and bonds ever changed hands? The choice was yours, daily.
So that’s what everyone did.
Except for everyone I worked with.
The account planners I was shadowing had bucked the office dictates of paperlessness (a laudably ambitious goal given 1997’s state of digitisation), and kept elaborate accordion files of focus group notes, creative briefs, and the like. There was no way to haul all of that paper around, and the lockers were far too small to fit any of it anyway. So the group had quietly colonised a back corner of a side alley and set up permanent shop.
The Absolut account team (the sponsors of our internship project) had done the same thing, but due to their clout within the agency, they were allowed to openly take over an entire room.
In reality, the much-lauded “virtual office”…wasn’t so virtual. And indeed – TBWA Chiat/Day eventually rolled back their hotdesking scheme.
But that summer was a watershed moment for me. Seeing the contrast between the lofty vision of the fluid, hotdesked office environment and the actual ways of working for teams that had to get things done every day forever curtailed my willingness to blindly believe in some stylised future of work.
And as I’ve gotten older, and less clueless, I’ve started to question the very foundations of how I thought about work. At 19, I was so desperate to do interesting things, to not be bored…to have fun at work.
These are, not to mince words, the concerns of someone with incredible levels of privilege.
Most people on planet earth don’t demand that their work be fun - they work to live. But the future of work conversation continues to be dominated by the concerns of folks like 19-year-old me: highly educated knowledge workers in affluent parts of the world.
When we talk about the future of work for everyone else, it’s generally with a lot of theatrical brow-furrowing about the millions, if not billions, of workers who will be “left behind” as technological progress renders them increasingly irrelevant.
80% of the future of work conversation is “Should cubicle partitions be clear or opaque?” and the other 20% is “Hmm poor Larry the assembly line worker…whatever will happen to him when the machines take over?”
The good news is, the future of work conversation doesn’t have to be superficial, it can be inclusive, and it doesn’t have to be dismissive of most of the work of the human race. By digging into what the future of work really should be, we can actually start to consciously shape it.
In Choose Your Own Future, our aim is to start that conversation. Where is work going? How do organizations really change? What questions should organisations be asking themselves – and what debates are worth engaging in? How can we shape a bright future of work for employers, employees, and the broader world?
Check out Choose Your Own Future – and join the discussion, and the journey.