James Ware is a co-founder of the Work Design Collaborative and the Future of Work program. He has over 30 years experience in research, executive education, consulting, and management, including five years on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.
Dr. Charles Grantham is a co-founder and Executive Producer of the Work Design Collaborative (WDC) and the Future of Work program. Charlie leads a number of WDC’s applied research and development projects, focusing on emerging forms of work and commerce.
He has been active in this area for over 25 years and is recognized as an international expert on the design of information and organizational systems that support these new forms of work. Currently he is focused on the design and development of community-based business centers that serve as a link between “talent” in local communities and the global Internet-based economy.
James and Charlie co-authored Corporate Agility with Cory Williamson, which addresses the need for organizations to coordinate and integrate HR, IT, and CRE/facilities to develop new business capabilities for competing in a flat, global economy.
Here’s what James and Charlie had to say about the future of work.
1. How important is it to employees that they have some level of control over their work environment?
James Ware: It’s essential. The most important factor in motivation and engagement is a sense of personal self-control. While employees understand and accept the idea that a “boss” has some legitimate influence over what they do, the biggest source of frustration and anger in the business world is the belief that your boss doesn’t understand or care about your needs or situation. And the biggest source of resistance to change is the fear of losing control over one’s actions and performance.
Charles Grantham: Very important. The more you involve them in the design of the work environment, the more they are ‘engaged’ with the company. Further it is extremely important that they perceive they have significant input to changes in the environment.
2. How important is it to the overall function of a company that employees be given this control?
JW: Critical – see above. Subject, of course, to basic agreement over what is expected of the employee. I am a big believer in “management by results only.” In other words, tell me what you need me to get done, and when, and then turn me loose. Otherwise I might as well be a robot.
CG: It goes directly to retention of top talent. If you want to keep them they have to be given this control in today’s work world.
3. Is there any connection between the small number of companies that offer employees this control and the steady rise in the number of people who are choosing to take the path of self-employment?
JW: Absolutely. Other than forced layoffs and involuntary terminations the biggest reason people are leaving large organizations is their frustration with being treated like robots or children (or both). Self-employment carries all kinds of business risks but there’s no one who can tell you what to do.
CG: In our opinion yes. This shift to self-employment may be slowed by current economic conditions—but everyone who is getting laid off is a potential self-employed person in the future. I’d venture to say that a large number of those being laid off will never return to full-time corporate employment. When IBM did their massive layoffs only about 50% eventually returned to the corporate world—the rest began new careers as self employed entrepreneurs and never looked back.
4. Explain what the “Third Place” is for readers who aren’t familiar with the term.
JW: The term was invented by Ray Oldenburg to refer to coffee houses and other public places where rich conversations take place (public parks, forums, restaurants, other gathering places). We use it to describe the places people work other than a corporate office (“the first place”) and their home office (“second place”). There is an increasing number of shared workplaces – some like Starbucks are “accidental” while others are designed as workplaces where the space, equipment, and costs are shared by the users (or members in most cases).
CG: The “first place” is the traditional assigned company office; the “second place” is the home office. The “third place” is everywhere else you work. Think of a Starbucks on steroids.
5. Can corporate giants exist in a world where coworking is the norm?
JW: Of course. We’re not going to see the end of large organizations. Some industries and technologies still require scale – and make sense only at large scale (eg, power companies, telecoms, automobile and airplane manufacturing), On the other hand, many “large” organizations are increasingly really conglomerations of many smaller subcontractors – even cars and planes are “produced” by thousands of companies and the big names (GM, Ford, Boeing) are really assemblers. Thus we’re going to see many large organizations setting up their own “co-working” facilities to house both their own employees and their many vendors, service providers, and subcontractors.
CG: They have no choice. Do it or go away. The global economy will no longer support organizations who are only 60% effective in terms of its use of real estate, technology and people.
6. What is corporate agility?
JW: It’s basically the ability to move quickly in any direction – to respond to competitor moves, to shift operations from one location to another, to grow in one place and shrink in another at the same time. Agility comes from having few fixed costs, and from not trying to build a giant firm that “does it all.” When firms use outsourcing and subcontractors they can switch talent or facilities or technology much more easily than when they have made long-term commitments. It means “rent, don’t buy” in the broadest sense. Agility also means a state of mind that takes nothing for granted and assumes from the get-go that the world is dynamic and ever-changing.
CG: It’s the ability of an organization to change and change quickly as dictated by external pressures and events. The degree to which you can change your products/services, location, methods of production and distribution and talent pool is directly related to your ability to sustain yourself-in short the agile will succeed. Those that aren’t agile will disappear.
7. Why have so many organizations lost their corporate agility in recent years?
JW: I think many of them are still operating on industrial-age assumptions about stability, certain environments, and a slow pace of change. In addition, too many organizations have invested in large, hard-to-change IT systems that have locked their business processes into “electronic concrete” so it’s harder than ever to change business processes. Finally, I also believe that many executives have responded to all these business challenges by “hunkering down” and staying with what they know instead of opening up to change and recognizing it can’t be business as usual.
CG: Three reasons: Executives can’t hold a vision of company purpose larger than quarterly profit growth; they lose focus on the basic value proposition their customers see; and they can’t overcome obstacles to change inside their companies.
8. Strategically what should companies do to regain, enhance, and retain their corporate agility?
JW: Cut their fixed costs as close to zero as possible. Spend time with their customers to understand what they really need and how to add value. Keep it simple, stupid. Pay more attention to the outside world. Spend a lot of time in conversation with peers (inside and outside the company), employees, customers, service providers, and public officials. See the world as they do and as it is, not as they want it to be. In others, listen and learn.
CG: First understand what value they bring to their customers. Then strip down to that core value and get rid of everything else. Build an infrastructure (real estate, it and people) that is variable cost in nature—not fixed cost. Lastly, hire leaders who embrace change, even encourage it.
9. How much of a factor has technology played in changing the way companies operate?
JW: Very dramatic. IT has clearly changed the paradigm of what people can do, where it can be done, and how much it costs. While it sometimes locks companies in to old processes, when done right it can create incredible agility. It empowers individuals – and changes the role of management itself.
CG: Increasingly a larger factor. it started as a way to do old stuff more efficiently. Now it allows companies to do new things—especially in extending and managing networks of suppliers, customers, partners and employees.
10. What affect, if any, do you see the rise of social media and social networks having on the future of work?
JW: Very powerful. The essence of knowledge work (which is what creates value today) is conversation – creating and exchanging information. Social networking applications extend the reach – they are global – and they accelerate the processes of information exchange. The business world depends on two things – ideas and relationships – and social networking enhances both. And the new apps are so much more “natural” than the old stuff. The world really is becoming a “global village.”
CG: A tremendous effect. The core organizing principle of businesses in the next decade will be consciously built and ever changing networks. Networks of people, ideas and resources. Nothing will be static and time horizons will collapse. Think of how the movie industry works. Its always organizing and reorganizing.
11. In terms of the future, what are you most excited about? What do you see as the biggest threat?
JW: I’m excited about the opportunities for new knowledge creation – out of the diversity of multiple cultures and personal experiences, brought together by social media of all kinds. And I’m particularly excited about how IT empowers individuals and small businesses. We may actually one day see the end of arbitrary authority – we may finally see the rise of organizations that reward merit and ability and are more collegial and much less hierarchical.
For me the most exciting prospect surrounding the future of work is the fact that individuals have so many more options for expressing themselves and benefiting from the value of their ideas and efforts. I’m personally convinced that most large organizations make horribly poor use of human talent – and IT is creating a “new economy” that really – finally – rewards talent.
In terms of threats, I think the biggest challenge is the power that senior executives still wield and don’t want to relinquish. In other words, they will become the biggest resistors to change. I believe ultimately the “people” will win, but as we’ve seen in the political world, those who have power don’t give it up readily or without a fight.
CG: The most exciting thing is people realizing they are in charge of their destiny. They get to make choices. Do what they want. Go where they want and on more and more on their own terms of engagement.
The biggest threat to social stability is the possibility that governments can’t provide the basic infrastructure to allow people this freedom.
JW: I think the most important question is why these changes have taken so long to be realized. And the answer is resistance to change – from those who hold power and benefit from the status quo (by the way, I don’t believe the anyone basically resists change – they just resist being changed by forces beyond their control – back to my original point in Question 1). Ultimately I believe technology is incredibly revolutionary, and I’m thrilled to see it becoming so much more widespread.
This post is part of the Future of Work interview series, discussing the future of work with leading experts from some of the world’s most progressive marketing, advertising and strategy organizations.