West Coast whirlwind: why things are getting complicated

Don’t look for a single pattern from WORKTECH West Coast 2016 - a wealth of mind-expanding material on the contradictions of future work was what made it memorable

If California is not so much a state but a state of mind, then the latest edition of WORKTECH West Coast, held in San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Centre on 25 October 2016, certainly had its share of mind-bending ideas.

More than 25 speakers covered a bewilderingly broad range of topics, leading co-chair Melissa Marsh of PLASTARC to dub the conference ‘a day of contradictions and oxymorons’.

As Marsh explained: ‘When we talk about generosity rather than return on investment, gravitation rather than recruitment, failing fast to succeed sooner, meetings that start with questions, change management processes that are not top down, workplaces for non-employees, virtual reality to aid construction, and how to measure human experience, it suggests both the evolution and complexity of what we do’.

In a whirlwind of different cultural perspectives, WORKTECH West Coast treated us to a host of insights on how behaviour influences the workplace, and vice versa.

Obstacles to collaboration

Kevin Mulcahy, co-author of The Future Workplace Experience, explained that ‘your culture is shaped by the worst behaviour you tolerate’. His advice as an HR expert that ‘people don’t leave jobs, they don’t leave people – they leave behaviours’ was a timely reminder of why some workplaces misfire.

Tara Carcillo of management consulting firm The Clearing told us, ‘Don’t confuse people being polite in a room with collaboration’, and helpfully identified the corporate characters (such as the ‘scene shifter’ who constantly changes his/her mind) that are obstacles to making progress. Nicola Kahn of designers and innovation experts IDEO urged companies to lead through experimentation: ‘Even if eight out of ten ideas fail, a 20 per cent success rate is worth celebrating.’

Hotbed of workplace innovation with left-field ideas

As the day gathered pace, the alternative perspectives and left-field ideas just kept coming, cementing the reputation of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley in particular as a hotbed of workplace innovation.

There were two separate presentations on what scientific insights space exploration might bring to office design: NASA’s Nick Skyland shared lessons from cockpit design to optimise astronaut behaviour while cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer William Clancey reflected on bringing human-centred computing to NASA.

Compelling co-design

There were also two husband-and-wife design teams on hand to share creative insights. Americans Stanley Felderman and Nancy Keatinge showed why they have been at the top of the office design game since their ground-breaking MTV project in 1995. Brit duo Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway showed a range of projects from Transport for London uniforms to private sector housing that featured a compelling co-design approach.

Add such subjects as autonomous vehicles (BMW Designwork’s Mike Milley), the merits of the Californian diet (Lifework’s Joyce Polsenberg) and the rise of the POPOS – privately owned public open space (Knoll’s Tracy Wymer), plus a host of beguiling new technologies from Nvidia, Serraview, Rifiniti and others, then you get some sense of the heady, unpredictable mix that left us soul-searching in several different directions at once.

Of course, in typical Californian fashion, there were more questions than answers…but that’s where we seem to be with the future workplace right now.

Click here for the WORKTECH 16 West Coast review site.

Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.