Worktech

London looks east: six big talking points from our flagship conference

From compensating millennials to challenging organisational stupidity and creating fluid networks, WORKTECH London 2017, held at the Here East innovation centre, brought six big themes to the forefront of the future workplace

WORKTECH London looked east for its latest edition as more than 400 delegates gathered at the Here East innovation centre in Stratford on 14-15 November 2017 to engage with 48 speakers and 36 exhibitors. The event, one of the biggest in the history of the WORKTECH series, which originated in London at the British Library in 2003, explored a broad range of topics on the future of work. Here are six key talking points from the conference:

1 Rehydrating networks

Command-and-control and even more benign hierarchical structures have been in decline for a while. WORKTECH London signalled their death knell. In the age of fluid working, the new approach is centred on networks. And these organisational networks are unlike any seen before: they can even be ‘rehydrated’ according to Microsoft’s Ryan Fuller, who explained that mapping networks using data from people’s computer usage will enable a ‘refresh’ of workspace to respond to behaviour and communication.

Another keynote speaker Chris Fussell, former Navy SEAL officer and partner at the McChrystal Group, shared the importance of agile and fluid organisational communication based on serving in the US Army in Iraq. Fast-paced knowledge sharing requires ditching the traditional chain of command and forming an ecosystem of networks.

Does this mean the role of organisational leaders will become redundant? Not according to Anton Andrews, who leads office envisioning at Microsoft. He argued that the most successful network ecosystems are guided by leaders to achieve greater diversity, speed and adaptability. As an example he cited the Chinese technology district of Shenzhen, ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware’, which uses inter-company networks to create the fastest technology production in the world.

The power of networks, said Andrews, will be based on such values as speed and transparency, trust and reciprocity, a spectrum of engagement across many levels and a resilient cycle of knowledge. That’s why Shenzhen works and why large corporations are studying the network approach closely.

2 Taming the meeting monsters

Amid much discussion on data gathering in office buildings and how it can improve the workplace experience, WORKTECH London looked at the meeting room experience, which has long been a cause of frustration and discontent. Peter Otto called for a ‘frictionless experience’ based on aligning new technology with greater agility and choice. Shaun Ritchie of Teem meanwhile suggested ways to use software to address the problems of ghost meetings (the meeting room is booked but is not used) and zombie meetings (the meeting room is haunted by repeat no shows).

According to Teem, 30 per cent of meetings are ghost meetings, of which 20 per cent are zombie meetings. Ritchie described four recognisable profiles of people who screw up meeting space in large companies: the ‘autocrat’ who chucks out underlings from space they have pre-booked; the ‘hoarder’ who books a room for the whole day but does not use it; the ‘overstayer’ who disregards the co-workers waiting outside; and the ‘squatter’ who sits in a room they have not booked. We could all name names.

3 Compensating the millennials

The workplace has become a focus for the intense current debate about generational unfairness – about how the younger generation bears all the economic brunt with a lack of affordable housing, the burden of student debt and real wage decline while older cohorts continue to be protected by government policies.

But as the workforce increasingly turns to the millennials, some companies are lining up compensation for Generation Rent, the hard-pressed under-30s who are house sharing with four others according to Gerard Taylor of Orangebox. This compensation is in the form of modern design classics that they couldn’t possible afford to own at home. The war for talent has opened up a new front with designer chairs and cool interiors. Forget the high-octane salary package or company car: the new millennial perks come in the form of a pair of Eames recliners.

‘Our office spaces have rapidly grown in importance because they are valued by a generation who can’t afford this at home’

4 Movie-making in space

Indeed WORKTECH London wasn’t just about technology, data and smart systems. It asserted both the importance of placemaking and the narrative potential of place. But the new workplace narratives coming into view are not those overt brandscapes of 10 or 15 years ago – they are more abstract, subtle and sublime design exercises, described as ‘akin to movie-making’ by keynote speaker Aaron Taylor Harvey of Airbnb.

When Harvey took us through his transformation of an unprepossessing former microprocessor showroom into Airbnb’s new San Francisco HQ, he articulated a ‘mysterious descent’ through a dark entrance into a large atrium with a wood-slatted, castle-like structure. The filmic quality of this design strategy was inescapable, reflecting the influence on Taylor and his generation of Bernard Schumi, the Swiss architect who created Parc de la Villette in Paris and who is well known for combining film theory with architecture. It is interesting that such ideas are bubbling up now when the fusion of the virtual and physical is coming closer.

5 Pivoting to the analogue

Perhaps as a pushback to technology, the conference also explored what the writer and critic John Thackara has described as a ‘pivot back to the analogue’. Reconnecting with nature, improving our mental health and seeking higher meaning from work all find physical form in the new workplace.  ‘The exterior environment affects the inner self’, explained Kelly Robinson, designer of Headspace, who took us on a tour of cry rooms, growing your own food, biophilia and yoga in the workplace.

‘There are no right angles in nature, so why do we build square buildings?’

‘Our response to algorithms eating us is to want comfy, natural workplace design,’ explained Gerard Taylor, creative director of Ornagebox. ‘We want a workplace made by hand.’

6 Challenging organisational stupidity

WORKTECH London closed with a keynote by Andrew Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School in London and author of The Stupidity Paradox.  Spicer drew together a key conference strand  – the need to rethink HR practices that clearly aren’t working, or, as he put it, the need to eradicate stupidity in the workplace.

Spicer asked why so many smart employees in large companies do such dumb things – from Ford in the 1970s ignoring the fatal accidents caused by a fuel tank in the boot to the recent Tesco financial reporting scandal. The answer is that most companies create facades with nothing behind them but baffling buzzwords and mindless positivity; most co-called corporate leaders behave ‘more like David Brent than Nelson Mandela’.

This was stirring stuff echoed by Lucy Adams of Disrupted HR, who suggested that most employees are not allowed to think for themselves. Companies are either helicopter mums who treat staff as children, or critical, untrusting dads who resort to discipline and punishments. The result is a passive, compliant workforce ill-suited for a ‘vuca’ (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

WORKTECH London told us that we can get the best technology and design in the world, but we have to work on the people too.

Exclusive interview with London speakers

Shaun Ritchie, CEO and co-founder, Teem

Ben Waber, CEO and co-founder, Humanyze

Anton Andrews, head of office envisioning team, Microsoft

Ryan Fuller, general manager of Workplace Analytics, Microsoft

Chris Fussell, managing partner, McChrystal Group

Watch extended exclusive interviews with the speakers in the INNOVATION ZONE