The Productive Workplace – Activities and Skills

The purpose of a workplace is to support the activities that need to be undertaken so that they can be done in the most productive way. Is it as simple as that?

In a sense, yes, I think it is as simple as that, what I don’t think is simple is an understanding of what those activities might be.

It’s clear from many workplaces that the view of activities is limited to two basic activities:

  • Individual working at a desk – either in an open plan room or in a small office
  • Teams meeting in a room

The other thing to note is that desks and meeting rooms are often kept very separate. Because of this the meeting room is somewhere that you go to for a planned interaction; it’s not an ad-hoc space. There’s often a special meeting room set aside for video conferencing, this is normally the loneliest meeting room of them all.

That’s quite a narrow view of modern working, it might fit some types of modern work where the activities being undertaken are primarily task based, but that’s not what the knowledge worker requires today or in the future.

In a world where people can undertake many of their activities from any network connection a workplace needs to offer more than the other places available if it is going to be used. That’s not to say that a workplace needs to be the best place for all activities, but it needs to offer something that the other places can’t or don’t.

Rather than focus on the current activities that the current workplace doesn’t support I thought I would consider the future activities.

As a framework for this thinking I’m going to use some work done by the Institute for the Future for the University of Pennsylvania Research Institute – Future Work Skills 2020 – where they identify key work skills for the future. We are going through a significant shift in the nature of work and people’s definition of a job will be radically different in the future, but it’s not easy to see what those definitions might be. The skills required in these jobs are, however, becoming easier to see as they are influenced by some significant drivers for change. They characterise these change drivers like this:

  • Extreme longevity – increasing global lifespans change the nature of careers and learning
  • Rise of smart machines and systems – workplace automation nudges human workers out of the rote, repetitive tasks
  • Computational world – massive increase in sensors and processing power make the world a programmable system
  • New media ecology – new communication tools require new media literacies beyond text
  • Super-structured organisation – social technologies drive new forms of production and value creation
  • Globally connected world – increased global interconnectivity puts diversity and adaptability at the centre of organizational operations

From these drivers for change drivers they then define a set of skills for the future workforce:

  • Sense-making – ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence – ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desire interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking – proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond what is rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency – ability to operate in different cultural settings
  • Computational thinking – ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • New-media literacy – ability to critically assess and develop content that uses media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  • Trans-disciplinarity – literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mind-set – ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management – ability to discriminate and filter information for importance and to understand how to maximise cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration – ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

From this list, and the associated more detailed report,  a number of things that characterise the activities involved.

That will have to wait for another day though because I think that each one will need some space to explore them. As an example, though, here’s something to think about – social intelligence requires the ability to “quickly assess the emotions of those around them and adapt their words, tone and gestures accordingly”, to do that though you need to interact on a basis that communicates emotions, social interaction.

What are the social interactions of the future?

Will a conference call continue to be regarded as an acceptable social interaction? Is it possible to adequately discern emotion on a conference call?

Will a slide-lead presentation continue to be regarded as an acceptable social interaction? Does it offer the best level of interaction?

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