The New Revolution: From Static Machine to Human Ability, Mobility, and Agility

For more than 15 years, my colleagues and I have worked with some of America’s “Great Places to Work.” We’ve implemented workplace flexibility initiatives to increase workplace productivity, effectiveness, and resiliency.

Yet we’ve been met with real resistance and challenges while implementing these initiatives, from compressed workdays and flextime to part-time schedules and job sharing. These all are noble ideas that carry applications to the problem of “work-life fit”(Williams-Yost, 2012). However, after all these years, these “band-aid” solutions have not brought about the fundamental change in what I like to call, “the design of work.”

Traditional Work

Most of us are still stuck in the vestiges of the industrial age – in grey square cubicles, with grey square walls, feeling pigeonholed into grey square work-lives. Mostly because, as a society, we cannot mentally or legally shed the structural relics of the industrial age.

The truth is, even with nearly two decades of data to support change, most of today’s workforce is essentially stagnant in yesterday’s jobs (with benefits and labor laws), buildings/architecture, and in design (cubicles). Why? In part because of structural “red tape” and the perception that “This is the way we should do it, because this is the way we’ve always done it.”

However, the ground is shifting!

A New Work

Monumental mobile technology, the burgeoning Cloud, and social demographics are slowly yet fundamentally restructuring the “design of work.” The “employment contract” — a good job for life, working to sell a corporate brand in exchange for job security with lifetime benefits and a pension — has all but disappeared in the private sector.

Influencing this shift are an aging (and disabled) workforce; middle-aged Generation X with young children at home; and Generation Y, the most socially and technically conscious — and “green” — generation ever. And they’re all looking for flexibility and virtual work for different, yet compelling reasons.

Organizational structures and the physical spaces of work must now change to face the realities of exponential technology and workforce needs. Even though unemployment has hit a significant high, most workers now own their own technology: the means of production (Pink, 2001), and retaining and engaging your greatest assets, your people, is never more critical!

In a world where talent and knowledge have replaced capital and raw materials as the primary competitive advantage at all levels of society (Ware & Grantham, 2003), it’s clear that unlimited access to knowledge, creativity, and service and power lies within the individual. Thus, retaining these human capital assets — even in non-traditional, customized, agile, and mobile ways — is paramount.

The Influence of Mobile & Agile

As mobile usage overtakes the PC as the primary means of accessing the internet, social networking and mobile technologies will continue to push the boundaries of traditional work. Rapidly powerful, inexpensive, and expansive technology in the hands of all people will drive organizations to create more customized and mobile work experiences, especially for knowledge workers.   Leading, resilient organizations are capturing these rapid advances in technology and will shift the paradigm from organizational standardization, compliance, equality, and conformity to individually customized and versatile work.

Nimble organizations understand that the employee/employer bond is quite tentative; employees are attached yet unattached. The demise of the “employment contract” is real. Your people are not only working to advance your corporate brand, but are publicly and actively devising and advancing their own personal brand. Hence the popularity of social networking sites such as LinkedIn.

In essence, power is devolving from the organization and emerging within the individual and their personal networks (Pink, 2001).

Agile companies understand and harness these shifts, allowing more workers to move in and out of organizations in order to bring their knowledge, experiences, and expertise to the task at hand, while the employee garners new experiences that they can promote into new opportunities elsewhere.

Ybor City, Florida
1920’s Era Factory Workers in Ybor City, Florida

Technology provides increased freedom for many workers to move and shift their careers within organizations. They can participate in different capacities within different business units, and within different physical spaces on-site and off-site. Organizations that excel must devise ways to keep these workers engaged, continually attracted, and committed to their current organization.

Beyond “One Size Fits All”

The most forward-thinking organizations acknowledge this trend and are incorporating the non-linear life and work paths of workers. In short, they are moving beyond one-size-fits-all career paths, work experiences, and structures traditionally designed for a homogenous workforce.

Deloitte’s Mass Career Customization is one such example that allows their people at all levels in the organization to “dial their career up or down” on four dimensions of a career: Pace, Workload, Location and Role. Another restructuring work example is the successful use of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) by Best Buy, Gap/Banana Republic and Highgroove Studios.

“ROWE is a bold, cultural transformation that permeates the attitudes and operating style of an entire workplace, leveling the playing field, where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence, giving people complete autonomy, as long as the work gets done.” (Ressler & Thompson, 2012)

This customization shift will not only impact the “design of work” but will influence workspace design. How can a complete shift in operating style, such a ROWE and Mass Career Customization, impact the spatial, physical and technological attributes of the work environment? This is the future, and a necessary next step in the transformation to truly Agile work.

Finally, the current economic downturn, with its resulting unemployment (many of whom are seasoned workers) may just be another structural lever to propel the creation of more Agile work. Those “out of traditional work” are looking to create opportunities for themselves in non-traditional contractor, “free-agent” ways.

At the same time, employers have fewer monetary resources available for costly benefit administration, programs or pay increases. So organizations must think outside the box about what other low-cost, high-touch workplace benefits, ideas, and atmospheres of intrinsic value can be created to engage talented human capital.

The most innovative organizations are steadily curious about these issues and are asking their people, “What do you need to do your job well?”


AOL West Coast HQ
AOL West Coast HQ, Interior Designer: Studio O+a, Architect: Clem Soga, AIA


Sources for Further Reading:

Benko, C. and Weisberg, A.C. (2007). Mass career customization: Aligning the workplace with today’s nontraditional workforce. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Pink, D. (2001). Free agent nation: The future of working for yourself. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Ressler, C. & Thompson, J. (2012).

Ware, J. & Grantham, C. (2003). The future of work: Changing patterns of workforce management and their impact on the workplace. Journal of Facilities Management, 2(1) May, 142-159.

Williams-Yost (2012). Term “work/life fit” attributed to Cali Williams –Yost of Work +Life Fit. Inc./Flex +Strategy Group.

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