While such noted luminaries as Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, have managed to predict, decades earlier, a world where workers can conduct business from anywhere, virtually, the truth of the matter is that we’re not completely there yet. And it’s not necessarily because of technology, but because many organizations have yet to change their ingrained mindsets and create environments that will accommodate this changing reality.

Arthur C Clarke Knew We'd Go Virtual

Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps best known for authoring 2001: A Space Odyssey, clearly understood the power of communication. Clarke, who can also be seen as the inventor of the communications satellite concept in late 1945 when he published his proposal of geostationary satellite communications in the Wireless World magazine, understood that rapid developments in communication and information technology would revolutionize every aspect of society, business and life in general. In 1964, Clarke shared his prediction of what the city would be like in the year 2000:

A world where we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we might be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible, in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London."

It's amazing that Clarke, already in 1964, was able to predict that we now would have technologies that enable us to do business from anywhere, without having to travel to an office.

The Concept of Work & the Office is Evolving 

To be honest, we aren't really there yet. Clarke's vision is still valid, but perhaps he underestimated the time and effort it takes for people and institutions such as corporations to change their existing attitudes and behaviors, especially when it comes to letting go of old conceptions of what work is and how it should be incentivized, measured and evaluated. Many organizations are still captivated by ingrained mindsets and practices that hinder them from becoming more virtual and taking full advantage of new information technologies. Yet the insight that it takes more than technology to make the vision of the virtual organization a reality is far from new, as illustrated by Charles Handy in his 1995 article, "Trust and the Virtual Organization” in Harvard Business Review:

If we are to enjoy the efficiencies and other benefits of the virtual organization, we will have to rediscover how to run organizations based more on trust than on control. Virtuality requires trust to make it work: Technology on its own is not enough."

For those of us who are engaged in knowledge work, we understand that work is no longer a place but something we do. We carry it with us wherever we go, in our minds and in our devices. And since the very concept of work is changing, so is also the concept of the office; it is evolving from being just about a physical place to becoming a physical and digital environment that is designed for highly collaborative knowledge work.

Adjust Practices & Performance Models

The main challenge we are up for now is finding new ways to design and manage our organizations and work environments so that they are fit for collaborative knowledge work. A central task lies on management to develop a proper understanding of what drives performance in highly interdependent work environments and adjust management practices and performance models accordingly. Many of the dominating and wide-spread management practices and performance models are in fact based on incorrect assumptions of what drives individual and collective performance in knowledge-intense and highly interdependent organizations, such as the deeply rooted belief that internal competition contributes to the overall organizational performance that is questioned in “The Knowing-Doing Gap” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton:

The confusion between what it takes to do well in routine tasks, especially for physical tasks, versus novel intellectual tasks is another reason why people develop misguided beliefs about the positive effects of competition on performance. People in business, particularly men, often draw on analogies from physical competition such as various sports to guide their thinking about how work should be organized and rewarded…Hundreds of studies show that intellectual tasks that require learning and inventing new ways of doing things are best performed under drastically different conditions than tasks that have been done over and over again in the past.”

Final Thoughts

To design the future office so that it's fit for the future of work, making Clarke's vision finally become true, organizations must go further than designing and implementing technologies that enable us to work easily from anywhere with anyone: they must also dare to challenge and innovate their current management practices and performance models. Technology is no longer holding us back; it's our mindsets and concepts of work and what kind of environment that best supports it.

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