Learning on the Job

The Workplace of the Future Is Here, and It Looks Like College

December 2, 2013

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

So much of the world of work is changing: technology enables ultimate flexibility, mobility, and connectivity; younger workers don’t aspire to the same rewards that the corner office represented for their parents; and key team members may not even be employees, but rather cherished partners that come together as needed to tackle a particular problem. With the confluence of forces enabling a real change in the way we work, the corporate office — and the world of Dilbert it evokes — is a thing of the past.

For one, the repetitive tasks that once made up the majority of someone’s workday can be sent offshore for less cost, or taken over completely by technology. The work that remains is all about innovation and ideas, most of which is better accomplished together. The future office won’t be about housing people and their furniture, but about creating communities that enable teams to do their best work.

Consider a knowledge worker’s typical day. So much of what she does is about moving fluidly between multiple work modes: collaborating with others, building social connections, and solitary transactional or focused work. The office can evolve to be a great place for supporting multiple work modes, providing technology that connects teams and instilling the culture that is critical to an organization’s success. There has been a lot of conversation about where people are most successful in getting their work done. While the coffeehouse down the street provides the kind of background noise that makes us feel more focused and creative, it doesn’t necessarily provide all the tools or space we need. We’re learning that choice and variety matter. A workplace that focuses on the tools, meeting places, and social spaces that help teams work productively, with less priority on individual spaces, aligns better with the evolution of work. The workplace becomes the place where people can connect with the culture and behaviors that leadership believes are needed for success.

While these changes may seem at times overwhelming, we already have a perfect model for them: education. Learning is changing as much as work is. Rather than sitting in a dark lecture hall, trying to absorb information from a single voice, students are encouraged to work in small teams to solve a problem. The student union has become the perfect place for the new way of learning. In addition to food and coffee, play and fitness areas, it also provides a variety of lounges and focused work spaces that accommodate the multiple work modes of project-based teams. The student union even fulfills a much needed resource for everything on student loans, club meeting spaces and concierge services for navigating the campus. Easy to access and open to everyone, it provides the resources that places of individual work — dorm rooms, coffee shops and study carrels — can’t accommodate. And to a younger generation educated to solve problems as a group, the workplace of today could feel like a hindrance to the way they learned to work.

The transition can be hard, especially for older generations caught in the middle of change and shifting expectations. But as our economy evolves, as technology improves our ability to work together across distance and time, and as a younger generation accustomed to mobility represents up to 40% of the workplace, the office will catch up — ready to support the work, the culture and the behaviors organizations need to thrive.

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