I think the palm was dead for around four years before it was finally cut back and cleared: my resounding memory of that first office is one of dead foliage and mouldy coffee cups. The palm had been there forever, the desperate green fingered grasp of some previously incarcerated inhabitant to bring a touch of life and light to an otherwise drab prison, at some point it finally gave up the ghost and retired, but with nobody to own it there was nobody to clear it, and so it became, like a portrait on the board room wall, simply part of the scenery. A dead tribute to workdays gone by.
The office is a symbol of infrastructure: a museum to the days when organisations gave you a phone and a computer and you cared enough to thank them for it: a time when a laptop was a status symbol and which floor you sat on reflected your status and authority in a prehistoric, stratified and fossilised hierarchy that was slowly subverted by social change and collaborative technology.
Offices were not just a place to sit: they were a mechanism of control, the personification and embodiment of policies and procedures to ensure that what you did was for the good of the company, not the booking of your holiday. Offices used to embody hierarchy and provide access to resource.
Until we called time and demolished them. Not the physical edifice of course, which still stands, but rather the concept, the idea of the office as the organisation made physical. Offices used to be about visibility, about heritage, about community, but they became about habit and routine at a time when the ecosystem of the emerging Social Age demanded agility and innovation.
So we started to subvert them: first through the cool startups that eschewed older mechanisms of drab authority and favoured open, colourful and democratised spaces and, latterly, by dissolving the physical boundaries altogether and changing the office to an idea instead of real estate.
The office evolved from being a physical mechanism of control to being an idea that we carry around in our heads and our tablets.
Effective organisations can keep what was good about the Office Age, but lose what was bad, restrictive. They should operate a model of talent magnetism, aiming to provide community and resource that is empowering and agile, attractive to the best and the brightest because it invests in collaborative spaces, collaborative technologies and has a mindset fit for the Social Age. Magnetic organisations value people: they recognise the value of reputation and actively build it in others. They are not threatened by the visibility and vitality of their community but rather seek to enhance and build it.
We need infrastructure and process, but we need agility and creativity too, and one needs to be in service of the other.
It’s no mistake that some of our newest and most successful companies have a campus instead of an office block. A university has always been a place where people collect to learn, to share, to develop new ideas. Just calling it such doesn’t make it so, but if our mindset is a campus one too, we are well on the way.
But how do we evolve beyond the office mindset: what are the skills and approaches that organisations need to foster and develop?
They need to be fluid with technology: don’t view technology as something you need to own, view it as something you need to use, and something we need to experiment with. Remaining agile in our relationship with technology is a very good thing to do. Encourage experimentation and reward outcomes.
They need to respect and develop the building of personal reputation. Reputation sits within a Social Leadership approach and is built in social spaces, not just formal ones.
They need to recognise that policies will not give control or mitigate risk, unless they reflect the true realities of the Social Age. Work with communities, not against them and iterate your approach rapidly as evolving social trends and legislative frameworks dictate.
And they need to put learning at the heart of working: the idea of constant development, of access to expertise and a longer term view of talent.
As the old notion of the office as a physical space is fully subverted by the mental construct of collaboration and community, as the technology matures to be effortless and everywhere, we have to adapt our working practices and mindsets. There is pressure on both sides to adapt: individuals and organisations can’t afford to be lethargic, but whatever happens, you don’t want to end up the dinosaur, dead in the corner that nobody has swept away yet.