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Wow, that’s a big one. How do I answer that? If only I had a crystal ball. It’s not just my daughter who asks me about the future of the workplace. I get asked about this a lot from all manner of people.

The honest answer? Well, I can’t tell you exactly what the future workplace will look like, but I do believe we may be on the cusp of the creation of a new model. I think we’ve woken from a hangover from the industrial revolution model of work, office and city design and realised that the model is a bit rickety and broken. 

In Catherine Nixey’s recent article ‘Death of the office’ in The Economist, she explains how people who had once designed factories in the industrial revolution turned their attention in the 20th Century to designing offices. She states:

‘Offices have always been profoundly flawed spaces. Those of the East India Company, among the world’s first, were built more for bombast than bureaucracy… Created to ensure efficiency, offices immediately institutionalised idleness. A genteel arms race arose as managers tried to make their minions work, and the minions tried their damnedest to avoid it.’ 

Many of our office spaces are still a legacy of the industrial revolution model of design. The problem is, technology has changed so fast that our built environment and our attitude to work and the perceived value of work hasn’t caught up. Enter COVID-19 and it’s put the whole thing on steroids and our cities and corporations are reeling trying to work out what the future of the workplace will be like, and how do we bring people back?

Steve Jobs prediction in 1990

In order to look forward, I think it’s always good to first look back, in order to learn from history if we can. 

In doing some research recently I came across an interview from 1990 with Steve Jobs on a WGBH show called The Machine That Changed the World. In it he said:

“As an example, in an organization, we’re starting to see that as business conditions change faster and faster with each year, we cannot change our management hierarchical organization very fast, relative to the changing business conditions. We can’t have somebody working for a new boss every week. We also can’t change our geographic organization very fast. As a matter of fact even slower than the management one. We can’t be moving people around the country every week. But we can change an electronic organization like that.”

The idea of business conditions changing faster and faster in 1990 makes me laugh a little. What type of speed do the conditions change at now? However he went on to speak about the future of work and the importance of this ‘electronic organisation’ where people could work from anywhere, and teams could be created and then disbanded as need be.

It’s taken us a long time to get here, but the digital revolution and the power of computing and the internet has enabled us to suddenly move around the world, connect with colleagues and clients around the world without leaving our home. His prediction has come to fruition.

CBRE Group, Inc. Singapore HQ by Siren Design

Are we asking the wrong question?

So what will the future of work be then? Perhaps that’s not the right question to ask. How can we truly predict what things will be like? Who could have predicted what would happen this year?

Rather than trying to make crazy predictions, perhaps we should first look within. I think instead we need to focus on purpose. As humans we need purpose and meaning. Even better, if we have a shared purpose as a family, a company or a community, we can achieve great things.

I think the pandemic has given us time for reflection in some ways. What do I want to do with my life? Do I love my work? Do I love where I live? How am I contributing to society?

We also need connection with others. It’s how we learn. We’re social creatures, we need to collaborate. As you get older and more experienced, you can probably afford to have more freedom and flexibility in your work, in fact you may need or crave it.

To have other stimuli and to have connection to the world, that can lead to far greater insight and much better work. But if you’re younger and less experienced it’s your time to learn from others. You don’t want to be sitting in your tiny apartment by yourself trying to work out how to do something, or fearing your mistakes. You need others around you.

To rethink workspaces we need to stop and think workforce first: Rapt Studio shares practical experiments in experience design for a new work culture

PwC Experience Centre by Siren Design

Places for purpose

There’s a Japanese concept you may have heard of called Ikigai. It’s basically about determining your personal purpose and it looks a bit like this:

The theory goes that if you can define your purpose, and if you can find a well-balanced mix of doing what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for and what you are good at you will get to the central point of Ikigai – the sweet spot.

Just Co office Singapore by Siren Design

Ikigai for place

At Siren, we’ve taken the concept of Ikigai, and then applied that thinking to place. Our concept is to create a type of tool for determining a workplace ikigai, that helps to define places for purpose. It looks like this:

Tool for determining a workplace ‘ikigai’ – diagram by Siren

We then use this tool to really try to uncover the key elements of a place or a business. Our aim is to take it beyond how do we make money here, and extend the thinking into how does this place excel, how does it contribute to the community and how do we make this place feel special?

We have to go back to these basics in order to move forward. I believe that we need to get to the heart of things so that our future workplaces have ultimate flexibility and usefulness.

Can you play basketball in your office? Check out the new headquarters of Jägermeister and their playful interiors.

Offices for a tech giant by Siren Design

So how will businesses transform?

Well, there’s no magic formula. It’s more about looking within and being brave enough to be honest (both from a business and employee sense) about what you really want.

It’s about getting clear on purpose. Personal purpose, business purpose and the purpose of place (ie the office).

Once that is clear, then the office and the workplace should evolve around that. It may become a centre of excellence or a place to learn your craft or profession. It may be a collegiate environment to come together with colleagues and clients. It could be more of a third space like your favourite bar or restaurant. Or it could be all of those.

The key is to be brave. To hold true to what matters and to take this time to flip things on its head.

PwC Experience Centre by Siren Design

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