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It's Time to Reimagine the Way We Work

Cover of  by Dave Coplin

In many ways it seems that we are all living the technology dream. The advent of the internet, then the web and the ever faster evolution of services and devices have transformed the way people live their lives.

The technologists among us would say that now the ever accelerating trends of mobile, cloud, big data and social are transforming the IT landscape. Which means that we live in a period where technology is all around us, where it has become a natural, normal part of our every-day lives.

But over the past few years a nagging sense of doubt has grown up about how true this utopian vision of technology as the ultimate liberator for the workplace is. Some wonder whether the very thing that was supposed to set us free might not have instead ensnared us without truly adding the value it so richly promised.

Employees are disengaged as never before. In surveys only a third say they are actively engaged in their work.

We have lost sight of the fact that we are all, for the most part, professional, independent creative beings, employed by our organisations to help them achieve great outcomes.

There are several aspects of knowledge work that seem broken. Open plan offices suck at creativity, workers struggle under the weight of communications burdened by an inability to use the new tools effectively.

We are stuck in old ways of managing, communicating and collaborating. We measure success by process not by outcome. It is time to harness the power of collaboration and flexible working to rethink the way we work towards a better, more agile, more creative working environment.

I think the modern workplace has simply become the culmination of our past experiences, where the place, people and processes are no longer optimised to how we live our lives now either at work or even at play.

The massive risk here is that in a world defined by its processes and not its outcomes, working_smarter_ is not an option and the only feasible other alternative is simply to work _harder_.

We need to take a more flexible approach to both the workplace and the work we do; one that provides us both the physical and cognitive space to harness the incredible power, insight and experience we offer, but focused not on the individual processes but instead on the overall outcomes our organisations are seeking to achieve.

In my book I examine the trends of flexible working and social business and how employees and managers need to change the way they operate to take advantage of them.

Have you heard of the red flag laws of the late 19th Century? Did you know that for 30 years in Victorian England, someone was legally obliged to walk in front of any moving car with a red flag?

It seems ridiculous now that you would want to restrict a vehicle to the walking pace of a man. But when the red flag laws were passed in Great Britain (and similar laws were also passed in the US), legislators were thinking about the present and not about the possibilities of the future.

These measures were later reduced but only effectively repealed in 1896. I always remember the red flag laws when I hear talk of fears about the internet, social networking and the negative effects of the advance of technology. The arrogance of the present is a sort of constraining fear. It says that we've got everything that we need. Anything extra is dangerous. Or could be.

We have to get past this and indulge in a little bit of imagination. What could happen if we did measure by outcomes, if we did empower people to be thoughtful about where they work? If we did stop worrying about processes and looked a bit more at our goals?

My key message is empowerment. Technology is here to empower people. But that doesn't work if human structures, habits or fears constrain them. If businesses won't let their employees be free, they'll be doing the 21st Century equivalent of trotting in front of a car waving a length of scarlet cotton.

And their competitors in the fast lane will wave to them as they pass.

Dave Coplin is Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft UK. Further thoughts on the above are outlined in his new book Business Reimagined: Why work isn't working and what you can do about it

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