The workplace of the future: did we get it right in 1995?

There is plenty of discussion about what the workplace of the future might look like. When we talk about ‘workplace’ we mean both the physical environment and the socio-economic patterns that shape how we use it. We conducted our own future workplace prediction exercise back in 1995. How closely did we get it right?

Back to the future, and quite possibly forward to the past: future walls 1995 and 2019

We recently attended the Workplace Trends: Towards a New Era of Work and Workplace conference in London, where we ran a “Future Wall”. It’s described in some detail in our Future Workplace Wall post. For Dan and John Varney it was also a reminder of a similar event some 25 years ago (where are these years going?) in Harrogate, at which a very similar process was adopted on the CMC stand at the IPD conference & exhibition on Millennium Scenarios.

This awakened memory sent us searching for the output from this previous event. You can view the 1995 workplace predictions here. We couldn’t help but compare the outputs. There is nothing quite like the thrill of looking at historic predictions and seeing how they panned out. There is a certain schadenfreude in it, a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”. How do we think the Decca record label executives felt later, having rejected the Beatles in 1962 on the grounds that “guitar groups are on the way out”?

So, we asked our colleague Richard Copley, who had attended neither event, to compare the two events based on the outputs visible on our website. We’ll let him take over now……

Gathering the ideas

The focus of the first event was on gathering many ideas from disparate minds. We asked attendees to contribute their intuitions to possible scenarios for the year 2020 on the theme of People making the difference. This was done with no instruction, no preparation and no facilitation. Around 200 individual ideas were clustered into 20 themes. We then created two extreme and polarised “scenarios”, one pessimistic (“A Ghetto Society”), and one optimistic (“A Common World”). We will talk more about scenario planning as a method for divining and negotiating the future in a later blog. For now, we should be clear that our extreme scenarios were not predictions (possibly not even scenarios in a conventional sense), but markers around which you can plan. The source of the value here is the idea that, if you plan for the extremes, you are more likely to be prepared for the real future.

The 2019 event was about gathering ideas from disparate minds, in answer to the question “What does the workplace look like in 2035?”. At this event the goal was to create a picture, a description, of a single aspirational future. This creates an upbeat vision that those who contributed ideas to can identify with and claim some ownership of. This can help you define and plan for a future you want to create with ownership of the team around you.

Differences between the events

One immediate difference between the two events is the shortening of horizon. While the first event looked 25 years into the future, the second only went for 15 years. A recognition perhaps that change is happening far quicker, the future is becoming harder to anticipate, and that longer-term thinking is likely to be so hypothetical as to be less useful? Maybe. Possibly it’s because the first event was focused on scenario generation, and scenarios seem to work better with a few touches of the incredible in them.

Another difference is that the second event had about two-thirds fewer ideas to play with – 70 as opposed to 200. We grouped these 70 ideas into 9 themes. One thing the Logovisual team are working on for next year is increasing the number of raw ideas from the participants – more on this in a later blog.

One common feature of the two events was the emphasis on people. The Institute of Personnel and Development (now the CIPD) ran the first event with the theme of “People making the difference”. Our team took away from the second event a theme of humanisation in the face of digitisation – the balancing of technological advancement with people engagement as meaningful active stakeholders in that advancement, not its passive victims.

Extremes from 1995

Down to the nitty gritty – how do the ideas from 1995 hold up? I think we can say that while elements of the ghetto society scenario are present today, we have not arrived at this destination, typified by macro-militarism, social isolation, and persistent criminality. We may be though, in many senses, travelling towards it whether we know it or not. Equally, the common world scenario has proven too optimistic. The focus on the environment has recently risen to the top of many people’s and organisations’ agendas. However it hasn’t yet resulted in the curbs on behaviour predicted in this scenario. That’s largely, many would say, because the threat of environmental disaster has not yet been made real enough for people to grasp. The common world might be as green as we are convincing ourselves we would like it to be, but the world we are actually prepared to live in is nowhere near as green. Nor are organisations yet the benevolent sources of learning and meaning this scenario anticipates. So, one target of the environmental grass-roots organisations will be the corporate world, and its perceived focus on short-term profit, and the postponement of any facing up to its long-term responsibilities.

So, elements of the extreme scenarios are present, but not their totality – which is exactly what we should expect.

Will we work less?

One big question (and one now given some impetus in the General Election campaign) is “are we going to work less (shorter working week, earlier retirement) as a result of technology or work longer (multiple jobs, the gig economy, postponed retirement) out of demographic change and economic necessity?”. In the 1995 results, the bias was definitely to shorter hours, and much more flexible working. In 2019, there is still the same focus on the shorter working day or week, but also a suggestion that our working life itself might be longer.

Whether technology is our friend in employment is an idea that we are still struggling to resolve. Keynes’s idea of the 15-hour week is still a long way off, but echoes of it are there in John McDonnell’s recent call for a 32-hour week. So far, major technology shifts have not reduced overall employment, just changed its distribution among news-sectors. The world has seemed able to accommodate technological change in the workplace better than it has economic shifts (the major depression and high unemployment of the 1930s had little to do with technology).

Optimism in 2019

One major difference between the two outputs is that the 1995 output uses short, factual descriptive titles for its 20 clusters (e.g. Careers, Health, Workstyle). The 2019 event is more ambitious, in using epitomes – a sentence that describes the meaning behind the cluster. This shows an evolution in the Logovisual Thinking method that we used to manage and develop the ideas. More fulsome titling of epitomes intends to derive more meaning from the collection of ideas. In this instance the epitomes are very optimistic. Are they disproportionally optimistic relative to the content they aim to describe? No, it doesn’t seem so. It looks as if the attendees at the 2019 event were, indeed, optimistic about the future workplace.

What we want versus what we think

All of which raises an important point. Painting a picture of what we WANT the future to look like is a valuable exercise in starting to manage what it might look like. We often treat external trends and factors as if they are immutable, unstoppable juggernauts. Actually the first step in managing these factors is in determining how we WANT them to manifest themselves. In a future blog we will explore approaching the future from three angles, and when and where each have their merits:

  • What we want it to be (our aspirational futures);
  • What we think it might be like anyway based on the external trends and factors (including the use of scenarios);
  • What we think we will be (what might happen to us) if we don’t change (the concept of our “default future”).

Add your predictions

In the meantime, we ask you, if you are interested, to compare and contrast the two outputs, recognising they are not exact equivalents and let us have any comments you have on their similarities and differences. If we have enough comments we will develop a future blog around them.

Finally, one interesting idea was hidden in the 200 or so from 1995 – “We must have a referendum on Europe”. From tiny acorns……


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