The workplace of the future won’t be a place at all. It will be anyplace, anytime, by any technology. Of course, the mantra of “always on, always connected” is well known by many already so why aren’t we there yet? It’s about the business rules; the rules that have yet to be written. To wit, one organization creates an email moratorium rule in order for people to focus on other things. Another goes even further by attempting to eliminate email altogether. Another creates a rule that says instantaneous responses to colleague requests are expected. Yet another organization has expectations of the entire organization responding to inquiries via “social media.” The irony of each these approaches: they’re all intended to improve effectiveness by providing the right knowledge to the right person at the right time at the right cost.
So in effect, the disparity of all these rules means that no single rule yet exists. Each current rule may be useful (and effective) for that organization, but their mere existence creates today’s environment where the workplace of the future can’t happen. If that’s really the case, then what should the “rule” be? Assuming that the workplace for this essay is one of pure knowledge creation and reuse and not one where widgets must be made by specific people at specific locations, the rule must be: you’re working when you’re on call. That doesn’t mean on call is 24/7/365, it means that when you’re on call you’re working, and when you’re not, you’re not.
The concept of being on call isn’t new. Medical professionals, firemen, emergency repairmen all know what it’s like to be on call. Does it mean that they’re always “working”? Well, that depends upon how you define working. If physical movement defines working, then no, most of the time they’re not working. If on the other hand, acting and providing expertise when needed defines working, then these types of activities may represent the most important work that can be accomplished. After all, why would these types of activities be done on an on call basis anyway if they’re not effective? And don’t all professionals of this type know what’s expected of them? I suspect that they do.
How on call translates into the workplace of the future is: we still have working hours (being on call), and we get freedom of mobility to boot (work from anywhere). Of course, some have that environment already; but that’s only a subset of the workplace. What if everyone in an organization could be connected to each other anytime (anytime they’re on call that is), from anywhere (like while waiting for a car repair), using any technology (BYOD on steroids)? What if this organization’s environment is so pervasive as a culture that those on call on the other side of the world understand their importance to responding promptly and accurately? What it could mean is that the former lone SME could actually have some time off call with confidence that her colleagues will do an equally creditable job of helping others. What it could mean is that everyone in an organization understands that the personal benefit of being on call is available only because of the rule. What it could mean is that everyone in the organization understands the importance their role in the success of the rule since they’ll all be responsible for it.
Of course, this workplace of the future may not be comfortable for everyone. We may still want a place to convene, and for that I propose the “company coffee shop.” Yes, no real offices, no cubicles, just a place where everyone can connect with each other while co-located, maybe with conversation islands, fish tanks, soft music, and even a barista. I for one, would enjoy this “workplace” since it would also feed my coffee addiction nicely!
You can follow Jim Lee on Twitter @KM_dude.