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The Work People Do Better than Machines

I’ve just completed a piece of work called Space Matters. The report makes the case that the new tools for work—data,...

6 Minutes Read

I’ve just completed a piece of work called Space Matters. The report makes the case that the new tools for work—data, algorithms, automation, etc.—are changing workflow and the places where work gets done (see this post corporate form follows corporate function). The report unpicks the types of work that are now emerging and the types of spaces they need. We propose decision-makers start to divide work into two main categories, and then “color in” the workspace around them:

  1. The work people do better than machines (blue work).
  2. The work that machines do better than people (red work).

Here is my reasoning. Work that demands judgment, empathy and creativity, for example, is best done by human workers – let’s call this blue work. Red work, on the other hand, involves data analysis, repetitive tasks and pattern recognition. These two types of work require different characteristics of the workspace to support them. What I’ve tried to do in the study is to understand how you can rethink the workspace around red or blue work and focus on what people need from their places of work.  In this post, I will focus on blue spaces and why they matter.

So, onto blue work. Blue work relies on getting people together to iterate, experiment, discuss and create, using visual cues, emotion, empathy, ethics, teamwork and social context. Spaces set-up for blue work need tools and technologies to help people see, and explore, the art of the possible. They allow multidisciplinary teams to assemble and integrate agile development methodologies with customer experience methods like customer journey mapping or design thinking. These places are gadget heavy: they need the requisite 4K screens, 3D printers or Google Jamboards with an ethos more in tune with the maker movement, i.e., exploring that art of the possible. These spaces also need to be capable of rapid set up (modularity, tear-up and tear down), allowing teams to work as required in the moment. By turning space “blue” for blue work, businesses can get the best from people that do tasks that need high levels of human interaction.

Turning some of the workspaces over to blue work goes deeper than just clever interior design. Using space differently can signal a cultural transition for the company as well as catalyzing ideation, experimentation and co-creation initiatives among staff. Think about it—these new spaces could work to create a new cultural epicenter for your organization. The design, furniture, layout, and equipment used to create a blue space can be a reflection of a company’s changing approach to how it sees itself; its future; and the working styles of its people to get there. Want to see it in action? Go and explore GE’s digital headquarters in California which includes a maker space devoted to employee-led innovation. The social nature of the innovation process is important to those that do it, and these human-led blue spaces encourage different styles of working and provide a signal to the wider workforce. With a bit of creativity, you can curate these spaces to improve the flow of ideas with regular show and tell sessions to explore the next big thing, a start-up, or to show-case how teams have co-created a solution.

Blue spaces can also act as a magnet for in-house and third-party talent that work to ignite a start-up spirit. Check out how Swiss engineering company Bühler set up an innovation space to feature product development labs, a 300-person auditorium and working space for 100-plus individuals with dedicated co-creation spaces. Bühler did this to attract the smartest and brightest ideas into firm’s orbit. These innovation labs are run as show and tell zones for staff to appreciate how Bühler and the manufacturing industry will evolve, and prosper, in the future. You can see these dedicated blue spaces as entities in their own right, with a curator employed to foster the exchange of ideas between teams and showcasing third-party innovation initiatives. These spaces work to break down silos and encourage new, cross-functional processes. And, in our work on the Future of Talent, we emphasized how important it was (and still is) to co-locate cross-functional teams together. Even if it’s just on a temporary basis, the results can be impressive for sales, marketing, service, product development, production and technology staff to focus on a specific niche or customer segment. Relocating teams in a space designed for experimentation and idea generation can help break down silos to improve knowledge flows about a customer, market, niche or process. They can also redraw the dynamics around organizational power.

I do think the most important thing a workspace makeover can do is to begin to craft a new narrative for an organization. I recommend using blue spaces as a proxy for changing the culture. It’s not only the organizational system that can determine how people behave and feel but also the structural environment they work within as well (in our experience, the actual task of transforming an enterprise and retuning its culture takes years, not just months or quarters). The target is to get to a point where empowered teams habitually roll up their sleeves and lean into a problem or a challenge rather than pass it down the organization through hierarchies (or choke points). Blue spaces allow people to see an enhanced culture and its working methods evolve.  Locate these blue spaces where everyone can see them. Next up. Red work and red spaces.


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