In the history of work, any step change in technology has altered how work is organized, the tasks employees handle and the places where they work. Whether it’s rows of typists in the 1960s, or the cubicle onslaught of the 1980s, the visual cues, tools, layout and location of the places where work gets done speak volumes on what is expected of the people who work there. With the shift into digital, the rise of data and the growth of platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, this hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, at a time when virtual work and a “no-office” culture have never been more possible, the workspace and the aesthetics of work matters more than ever. The current era of intercompany collaboration, iteration and start-up experimentation requires people to come together and work – and the work they need to do necessitates a new type of look to the way work is done.
This look extends from our offices to our cities and even our work attire. Think of walking down Wall Street and observing the sea of blue, grey and black suits, this look has been synonymous with the high-flying corporate world for well over a century. The suit has almost always been a sign of status and business acumen, and for many getting their first tailored business suit was a coming of age. But the balance of power is shifting, one simply has to look at the list of the world’s 10 most valuable companies, which include Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, and Facebook. Walk into any of these and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in a suit. Instead, you’ll see a kaleidoscope of different coloured hoodies, ripped jeans and faded Converse. The uniform for industry 4.0 is now the hoodie.
The new acceptance of what is deemed “professional” is been driven by the new breed of digital leaders, think Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerburg. These new leaders are much more concerned with “what” work gets done as opposed to “how” work get done, and thank goodness for that! The age of cubicle culture, where one-upmanship of who left latest, is finally coming to an end and instead workers are free to drive business value from wherever they lay their laptop, smartphone or tablet. Be it airport, home, coffee shop or indeed, the office. In response to this new connected but nomadic worker, office space is changing. The cubicles of old are been replaced by collaborative spaces for colleagues to connect and ideate. The couch, wherever is may be, is now our new cubicle.
The imminent death of the cubicle is leading to collateral damage, the decline of the suburban office park. Our hoodie wearing, nomadic workers aren’t content to live the suburban lifestyle of their parents and are instead flocking to urban areas. The UN estimates that by 2050 68% of us will live in urban areas compared to just 55% today. And we’re seeing this play out in numerous locations, from London’s Shoreditch, San Francisco’s SoMA and New Yorks Hudson Yard. Theses previously derelict or low-income areas are becoming the places of business for the tech-fueled digital economy and attracting the young, cool hipsters that big companies need. And rather than the glass of steel of the previous home of big business such as London’s Bank or New York’s Wall Street, these new urban areas of business are holding on to their working class roots by recycling old factories, rail yards and warehouses. Glass and steel are out and are been replaced by aged brick and wood.
And for a moment let’s turn our attention back to our digital workers, because the term “IT” is no longer synonymous with all digital nomads. The tribe of IT is now been split in two and we have a clear divergence between the “originals”, the stereotypical geek that everyone congers up when thinking of IT, think Bill Gates and then the new breed, Digitals. Originals are those tending the servers, databases and Ethernet cables whilst Digitals are the people writing dating apps, music distribution platforms and e-gamers. Digitals are the new corporate rock stars, commanding massive salaries whilst maintaining a level of cool the Originals simply can’t match. In the end these two tribes will continue to co-exist until the world’s infrastructural workloads are automated, leading to the eventual demise of the Original.
Ultimately, the aesthetics of the people, places and areas we do work in are changing in response to the digital economy. This digital economy is ushering in a new class of sought after workers that have extremely diverse views on how, where and why work should be done and business need to take head of this new aesthetic of work to remain relevant.