The death of the physical space


When you think about the social function of architecture – to increase the probability of communicating with another individual via a physical encounter – you also must consider the radical change technology has brought to it.  If your ancestor a few hundred years ago needed to speak with someone and that person was not home, he would likely wait for hours at a common place like a town square or market place knowing that at some time in the day that person would show up and they could communicate.  This would change forever with the mobile phone.  The opportunity spaces once created by architects and city planners now take a back seat to just calling or sending a text message to the individual.  Being in the same physical space is no longer a requirement and thus the infrastructure changes to meet these needs.  The same case applies to the work environment and in this post let’s explore the death of the physical space we call work.

Let us first rule out all physical work because if you are a masseuse you are not likely to be able to work virtually (that is until you invent robots for the task but I digress).  We are talking about the knowledge worker, the same class of worker that Alvin Toffler and Peter Drucker spoke about in all of their published work.  It is exactly this workforce that is transformed by smartphones, tablets, cloud storage, and all the productivity of Internet-based applications.  Yet the old culture, still requires them to have their butts in some designated seat in some office cubicle.  Their crude measure of productivity is how many hours they are physically at work, not mentally at work and this should be a warning sign.  Ask yourself this: how does your management measure your productivity?  If they are all heavily based on physical factors and you are a knowledge worker, time to get the hell out and join a company that will scale, thrive, and appreciate your value.

With a highly dynamic and adaptable workforce comes also another shift in thinking regarding roles and responsibilities.  The old static roles of yesterday gave rise to the infographic we know today as an organizational Chart or orgchart.  I find this to be useless to misleading when you are trying to build a dynamic cross functional team that needs to deliver a project in a few weeks.  In a theatrical sense, the old way of working was easier with your role and responsibilities being tightly coupled to your title but the new knowledge worker comes to the table with a capability set that is only defined by his/her contribution to the overall group at runtime.  It is no longer about being the smartest person in the room, it is about being the smartest room!  And for those of you not paying attention, I don’t mean physical room.

I’m not going to argue with you about the effectiveness of high bandwidth face to face communication, I’m talking about leveraging and making productive the other 90% of the time when you are not face to face with that person or group.  Being a geographically distributed organization is a reality or you will not be able to scale or remain competitive.  This 10% face to face time is likely to decrease to more like 2% if you are lucky.

The workplace of the industrial age has a long standing tradition of creating memes that get the talent to congregate physically.  While you still need to move to New York if you want to be on Broadway, it is less the case these days that you need to move to Silicon Valley to be a successful software company.  I’m always shocked to hear about arcane work policies that require an 8 hour physical presence of a worker at their desk.  The companies that focus on talent and not location are the ones that will deliver higher quality product, innovation, and operate at a much lower cost.

Face it, [physical] space is optional.  Much of how we work, live, and play does not require us to be in physical proximity of one another.  Amazon is crushing the physical retail, streaming media surpasses other physical delivery of movies and music, everywhere you turn, the physical room is reduced to an information space that facilitates some set of tasks.

Live where you want to live, play where you want to play, and work where you want to work.  Go ahead and try to fight it but you will lose.

BYOD: Bring your own Dissonance



Bring your own device (BYOD), or the policy of allowing employees to bring personally owned computing platforms to work to perform work tasks, has raised security and management concerns.

The reality is that this is a pattern that has been repeated several times over the years. This pattern has to do with the dissonance that forms when humans and computers move to the next level of technology and practices.

Some of you may have been doing this as long as I have – Do you remember when IP or (Internet Protocol) wasn’t the only thing on the wire?  If you were in an IBM dominated shop, they used to call us the “Open Systems” (referring to devices that ran IP.) For the most part, we were treated the way mobile BYOD folks are treated now.  Basically, we were guilty until proven innocent.  At the time no one could measure our productivity gains directly, so it was nearly impossible to make a solid business case against protocol stacks like IBM or Novell’s IPX.  Then suddenly, the Internet happened and, for the most part, IP quickly became the dominant network protocol.  In retrospect this might seem like a smooth transition but I promise if you were there fighting the fight, you remember it as a period of dissonance with plenty of drama.

In the same way that IP connected the world in a completely new way, new personal computing devices are redefining the ritual space we call ‘work’.  Work is no longer a physical place and phrases like “I need to go to work” are going to fade away just like the buzzing and squealing of dial-up modems.  Instead, work is becoming a set of processes. It turns out that more often than not these processes can be executed more effectively when you aren’t sitting in your assigned cubicle in front of your assigned corporate owned computing device.

Recently, I’ve found myself becoming much more sensitive to the context of a task. So much so that now I queue my task lists this way. Call it context-based task execution where one of the contexts is location.  (In my task lists things, people, and places, are the parent categories – you get the idea)

Another factor that’s often overlooked in BYOD is the emotions connected with the buy decision for personal devices.  Compare this with corporate purchases that are all about the numbers and how they stack up in Excel.

People tend to fall in love with their devices; corporations are just evaluating total cost of ownership and specs.  This aspect of BYOD has the potential to drive profound change over time as companies make provisions for their users.

In the not too distant future I can see the IT Ops folks moving away from the role of network device cop and toward the role of device consultant. Instead of kicking users off the network and reprimanding them for attaching unmanaged devices, users will proactively consult with IT Ops about which devices to buy and be involved very early in the lifecycle.

Some companies have already embraced this change and those companies, just like the ones that embraced IP early on, are going to have an easier time attracting and retaining the best talent which translates into better profits.  The trick will be new metrics in the measurement of productivity and associating on-time delivery, innovation, or product quality to these new aspects of work.

Others will fight the change and, as we saw in the transition that made IP the dominant network protocol, may not survive.

It’s estimated that 129 million people will have purchased their own smartphones for work use in 2013.  These numbers are growing and what you must realize is that some of the most important communication and decisions you will make in 2013 will likely be done on your smartphone.