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The Obsolete Office

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Today’s work environment requires leaders who can adapt, innovate, and inspire in the interconnected global economy.

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By Shamontiel L. Vaughn 

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Up until the 21st century, people sat side-by-side or back-to-back as telemarketers, typists, word processors, file clerks, and more. Give or take a family photo, cubicles were designed to be a carbon copy of the next person’s work space where workers would complete the same (oftentimes) monotonous jobs. Even in some outdoor work, such as toll workers, one booth worker collected the same dollar bill as the next one. The only difference in their days were the cars that drove by.

Around the ‘80s, Corporate America’s advancement in technology and communication began to blossom. Cloud-computing software took on the duties of printouts in file cabinets. Email, texting, and social media took tasks away from the mailroom. Desktop computers with the Commodore 64 metamorphosed into notebooks, laptops, and tablets. And online faxing cleared real estate in the supply rooms away from 4- to 5-foot fax machines.

Ahmad Mansur

Technology has not only helped with convenience, timely responses, and real-time results. Along the way, it has also opened up opportunities to expand today’s work opportunities and outcomes—creating room for entrepreneurs, co-workers, clients, and customers to brainstorm and create with partners scattered throughout the world.

“What’s happening is that leaders are mobilizing their teams and virtual networks,” says Ahmad Mansur, a Saybrook presidential fellow and managing partner of Consilient EdVentures. “Instead of requiring a team to be located in a certain place, leaders may gather their teams from City A and City B into co-working spaces such as WeWork or The HUB.”

Today’s business meetings are a free-for-all, operating in more collective spaces such as coffee shops, delis, libraries, home offices, and more.

 


 

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Creating a virtual world for business decisions and leadership

“One thing that’s really neat is companies are joining with other companies and other networks to solve different types of business challenges,” Mansur says. “There are virtual spaces such as InnoCentive that allow companies to huddle together for problem-solving tasks, and they have access to use an entire global platform of professionals to get that problem solved. This is more of a crowdsourcing model to allow multiple stakeholders to be part of the experience.”

However, even with a broader network, global leaders are tasked with creating satisfying and consistent working relationships locally, nationally, and beyond.            

Dr. Charles Piazza

“One of the things that I research and teach to business professionals is how to develop quality leadership and management quality skills, and be able to work in what we call a distributed organization,” says Charles Piazza, Saybrook’s director of the College of Social Sciences (CSS) Leadership and Management program. “Global business leaders can use these techniques to establish and lead organizational networks that support knowledge sharing and innovative, sustainable solution building for today’s complex business environments, no matter where they’re located.” 

A little under two years ago, he was asked to design and help launch the M.A. in Management with a specialization in Global Workforce Collaboration and the Ph.D. in Organizational Systems at Saybrook. For 17 years and counting, he has helped to expand leadership competencies for business professionals navigating in a virtual world.

“For me, being in a physical space and a virtual place is no different. If I’m going to have a team, I have to consciously work at facilitating that team to build relationships and to communicate just like I would in a regular, co-located work environment. We have to create a mindset that you and I are actually colleagues in the same place—even if it’s virtual. From my research, without this mindset being built into your organizational culture, people will stumble.

“Then you need to have various types of collaborative processes. You need to have good technological infrastructure, bandwidth, and the right tools to work effectively. You also need to be able to build working relationships. Something as simple as saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ should be as common as planning meetings, in order to build a healthy working rapport.” 

 

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Chasing millennials, creating an open work environment

Leaders are recognizing that when work can be accomplished from anywhere, traditional work environments would be better positioned as inviting, comfortable spaces. This is evident in a casual browse at job postings in today’s economy. It is by no mistake that tidbits about yoga retreats, dog friendly offices, game rooms, couches, and free beer are added onto job postings. Casual Fridays are old news. 

Dr. Kathia C. Laszlo

Kathia Laszlo, a Saybrook faculty member in the Organizational Systems program, has a strong stance about why physical offices have decided to change the feel of their offices.

“Some companies are going to the extreme with their amenities,” Laszlo says. “It’s gotten to the point where you went from assembly line work to never even having to leave the work environment at all. You can sleep on the company couches. There are snacks and meals provided. Get a massage, practice Tai Chi, or hang out in the playroom during your breaks. But even with everything at their disposal, some workers are still disconnected. In order to have productive work, employees need to be healthy.”

Companies such as Cisco have done away with assigned desks altogether to use the office as an open space for collaboration. Now the trend is an open-office layout, but the change in architecture still hasn’t tricked employees into forgetting where they are: work.

“It’s not like this is a retreat,” Laszlo says. “You are supposed to be contributing value to the company, and what you get in return is beyond your paycheck. You need to feel connected, engaged, and productive.” 

 

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In order to have productive work, employees need to be healthy.

According to Forbes, open-office workers still aren’t satisfied with these amenities. While the layout may have broken down barriers between teams, approximately 40 percent were dissatisfied with sound privacy and tended to have superficial conversations to avoid disturbing other co-workers who were closer and more visible to them. Accessibility may have created a more welcoming environment, but some would still argue the pendulum may be swinging too far.


 

The future of the workplace

According to Laszlo, companies have already come to terms with the fact that good health insurance and stability just isn’t enough to stay invested in the jobs of the future. Neither are “these kind of theme park experiences to attract the new generation.” Businesses are taking on more of an employee-centric scope, chasing talent as much as talent is looking out for new employment opportunities, including independent contracting.

“Employers are increasingly utilizing platforms to grab talent from all over the world,” Mansur says in reference to contract work from companies such as Upwork, Fiverr, and PeoplePerHour. “Before, there was a need to have workers come into the office. When you look at the future of work right now, millennials by 2020 will make up 50 percent of the workforce. And then by 2025, they’re going to end up being 75 percent of the workforce. Their concept of work is completely different.

“Deloitte did a survey on millennials and found that they don’t like cubicles; they don’t like to commute; and they don’t like to use legacy technologies, or enterprise resource planning technologies such as PeopleSoft or SAP. Companies are now moving more toward the technologies that their employees are using, such as Facebook, Google apps, and Microsoft apps for work functions.”

For many workers today, the job is to 'create’ as opposed to ‘do.’ 

For many workers today, the job is to "create" as opposed to "do." Job functions for a creative class revolve around the creation process, inventing new ways of doing and being in the world. Two examples of creative workplaces where the duties may be different everyday include “makerspaces” and “hackerspaces,” which help build everything from software to coding to 3D printing in a project development culture.

This shift in employee outcomes also necessitates leaders and management systems that understand how to inspire productivity, loyalty, and results from their employees. It is LinkedIn that Mansur thinks companies should really take a long look at—a company where employees are given the tools and encouragement to create a personalized “learning plan and employee experiences.”

“One of the first questions that they ask you is how can they co-create a worker experience where by the time an employee leaves the company after a certain time period, that employee’s talents and goals have been met,” he says. “More companies should operate this way to help employees develop their skills and assist them to get into ideal roles that may or may not be within that company. Of course by doing this, the assumption may be that all workers won’t work for LinkedIn forever. However, by default, LinkedIn has branded itself as a company that develops talent, which helps them continue to recruit and retain more talent.”  

Instead of the usual “opportunities for advancement” within the organization, companies such as LinkedIn are helping innovative leaders to advance their own destinies from start to finish. Instead of following the direction of a few higher-ups, the skillsets they are building help to customize their professional paths and create a partnership of peers. An additional way to develop these kinds of skills is through post-secondary education, including distance learning schools.

“Everyone needs some type of post-secondary training or skill,” Mansur says. “But there’s a difference between saying ‘you must go to college’ solely for financial gain versus going to develop some skills that give you value within this economy. I tell people to use the power of networking platforms to give recognition to their skills.” 

And with this larger platform and network, leaders in the global economy are also tasked with having a broader mindset. According to Piazza, that includes “cultural sensitivity, being socially minded global corporate citizens, and acting in a responsible manner that is in the best interest of the people of the world, not just one company or country.”