Friday, July 9, 2010

The Workplace of the Future

Been reading a lot lately about changing workplaces. It seems a lot of urban pundits, especially the BS artist whose last name is also a coastal state, have just woken up to the world those of us in the tech industry have been living in since 1995. Actually funny to read all the stories about "results-oriented work environments", working from coffee shops, and casual dress. When I see these, I feel like I should be able to click on the Top Stories link, and get the latest breaking news on the President's affair with Monica Lewinski.

While urban pundits only have something to write about if things are changing, one thing that's not changing is simple economics. And one of the most fundamental economic principles for cities, employers, and employees, is that you're usually better off owning a scarce resource than an abundant one. And there is no shortage of nonsense being published today about 1990s-style work arrangements that aging pundits have just picked up on. And as I've written many times, Jennifer Granholm and many in the econ development industry are very impressed, and are preparing their cities and states for the economy we had in 1997.

The workplace of the future is still a place, not an Internet connection. Because for every new T-1 that gets installed, face-to-face becomes an even scarcer commodity, especially where that human interaction does not depend on any sort of connection to the Internet. Nurses, part of an incredibly fast growing profession, aren't meeting their clients at Starbucks, 3rd grade teachers are not turning their classroom into "ROWEs" where students only have to show up if they have a meeting with another kid. And health care and education are now a quarter of the economy and growing.

The workplace of the future exists today, and anyone who's smart isn't moving to Portland or some other slacker city urban pundits can't stop fawning over, but is looking for a job where they will have to interact physically with the people paying the bills, whether they're clients, patients, or students. Face-to-face is only going to become scarcer, not unlike Javascript skills were in 1998, except it's not going to be outsourced to Bangalore, unless you decide to visit India. So smart people today are not planning a tech startup, but rather thinking about how they will build on the scarce resource of face-to-face contact.

Not all face-to-face jobs will pay well, but at least working face-to-face can prepare you for future jobs that require that skill. Sitting in Starbucks writing a blog won't.

The workplace of the future doesn't look that exciting from a let's-hype-some-trend perspective. Restaurants, hospitals, and schools are far too mundane for the chattering class to start talking about. But the foosball playing, cappuccino machine-in-the-office companies we read about now are just implementing the workplaces of today. Trying to recruit such companies does little to prepare a city for the future.

1 comment:

  1. Large mainline offices are on the decline. If you do rewind to the 1990's, you'll see that virtually all of the jobs were onshore, and companies beefed up their office space incredibly. Today, even growing companies generally eschew investments in showplace downtown offices. My old employer (Accenture), eliminated so much office space over the last decade that multiple times it took special charges to write off real estate so it could accelerate the disposal of the leases.

    There's a huge focus on the use of non-traditional work arrangements, shared space, work from home, services like Regus, etc in corporate America today. It's all sold by employers under the guise of talent, but the reality is that it saves huge money. Who wants to pay for a gigantic office building? I don't. Plus, my own view is that by going WFH with corporate jobs, you can test the waters on offshoring it.