Reimagining the digital workplace

2012-09-28

Technology - not just information technology - has played a critical role in creating the modern workplace (for example, see the history of the skyscraper). There is an interesting dynamic between physical structures, technology and how we organise - without electric lighting, modern factories and offices would be very different places.

If the "digital workplace" is more than simply giving people a better intranet or enabling telework (all things progressive companies have been working on since the beginning of the Internet), what does it look like? And critically, what does it actually mean for the nature of work and how we organise?

Listening to Philip Ross from Unwork present at WORKTECH 12 New York, you start to get a sense of what he calls a "thin workplace" looks like:

(He also presented at WORKTECH 12 in Melbourne too, but the recording is a little hard to hear)

Writing in Architectural Review, Ross suggests a return to the days of guilds:

"Perhaps we will head back to where work started, before the industrial revolution and Frederick Taylor organised work into containers, when trades and professions based themselves in Guild buildings − the original workplace for the craftsman and artisan. Guild buildings and their continental cousins such as the Scuole of Venice were the original building typologies created for a working population; groups or confraternities that were the historic precursors of today’s modern corporation. And the Scuola Grandi (unlike Guilds) allowed people from different occupations to become members. Scuole buildings had many of the attributes that workplaces are creating today, including meeting halls and rooms such as the salone and albergo. As Terry Farrell reflects, space positive environments such as the quads of Oxbridge bring people from different disciplines together. And these principles of connection or collaboration seem to have been lost along the way as the office building morphed into the modern machine that is the container for the organisation."

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Lee Bryant has also pointed out before that the historical model of business was "social" - it was based on people networks and the exchange of value, that operated on trust like a guild:

Designing twenty-first century organisations with social tools from Lee Bryant

Closing the loop, Ryan Anderson from Herman Miller, talks about the parallels between interaction design for social media and designing physical work environments (as well as the importance of privacy in both environments):

Do you think the digital workplace is just an incremental change (more mobile access, a better intranet, a new version of SharePoint)? Or will it actually change work, by creating thin workplaces and the re-creation of people-centric business models?

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