Taking Charge of Tomorrow

The beginning of a new year is a natural time for looking forward—for making predictions about the next 12 months, or the next 10 years—whatever time frame is most relevant for you.

Given the high uncertainties in the economy and employment, it’s doubly important for workplace professionals to look well beyond the horizon, even when the air seems filled with fog.

I have contributed my fair share of prognostications over the years, but this time I want to focus more on why “future-proofing” your workplace strategy is so important. I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about how people think and talk about the future, and what the role of workplace professionals is in preparing their organizations for tomorrow.

Townhouse

It has been said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” However, as much as we’d all like to create our own future, most of us have limited choices about where we can take our organizations.

And even though we hear frequently about all the profound changes that are about to hit the workplace, the pressures are far greater in most organizations to maintain the status quo—to do what people already know—than they are to innovate or experiment.

Yet workplace professionals must do both: they must provide a stable, predictable workplace that employees can just take for granted, and at the same time lead the way to the future. And, of course, the lead times for producing meaningful change are totally out of sync with the realities of today’s dynamic economy.

 

How can we straddle the competing demands of today and tomorrow?

I believe it starts with rethinking—from the ground up—the role of a workplace professional. I’ve recently been tracking several debates about the definition of “facilities management” as discussed across a number of LinkedIn groups.

Without dwelling on the specific threads, I have to say that most of the contributors seem to have a very limited view of their jobs. They focus on keeping their buildings open and clean, on controlling costs, on ensuring business continuity, and sometimes on improving sustainability.

In contrast, I believe your job as workplace professional is to support work, wherever and whenever it takes place. And for me “support” means focusing on the work itself, and how it’s being done, almost more than the workplace.

Collaboration Park

As one senior executive commented to me several years ago, “The most expensive cost of any workplace is the salary of the people who use it.” Thus, the most important measure of workplace effectiveness is workforce productivity, not simple cost control.

Note that my definition explicitly puts workplace professionals squarely into flexible work programs and other organizational practices that enable work away from the corporate office.

I see the workplace (broadly defined) as a “stage” (or stages) on which the work experience unfolds. Thus, workplace professionals—whether architects, designers, facilities managers, or real estate specialists—are essentially designing employees’ work experiences (creating the context in which work experiences unfold).

The workplaces we design, create, and manage determine how employees interact with each other, and how productive they are—whether they are doing heads-down individual work, meeting with colleagues in a whole variety of collaborative spaces, or working remotely.

But that is only one side of the workplace services role. Don’t forget that innovation and experimentation—leading change—are an equally important part of your job. That focus on the future, which I consider the more important—and more difficult—part of the job requires an entirely different mindset. More importantly, it requires different skills and different business processes too.

 

Preparing for the future means designing and managing change.

Don’t forget that today is yesterday’s tomorrow; in 2012 we certainly work very, very differently than we did just five or 10 years ago. It’s important to recognize that work, and the workplace, will change— whether we want it to or not, or whether we lead that change, or scramble to adapt to it.

We all know why work has changed over the last decade. Mobile technology, along with powerful collaboration software, has made it not only possible, but actually desirable, to work from many different physical locations over the course of a day or a week. Just think about how much more time employees spend out of the office, to say nothing of moving around the buildings they are in, than they used to.

Work Anywhere

Indeed, as I am fond of saying, “Work is no longer a place you go, it’s something you do.” But that change snuck up on most of us, and many organizations in 2012 still have no formal policies or programs to support flexible work.

But taking charge of tomorrow isn’t just about flexible work. It’s about creating pictures (visions) of alternate possible futures, and then being sure your organization is prepared for any or all of them.

Historically, strategic planning was all about focusing an organization’s attention on a particular marketplace, and then ensuring that it had the operational capabilities to compete effectively in that market segment. Even today, most strategic plans make explicit assumptions about future trends, estimate probabilities, and include educated guesses about what’s going to happen.

That kind of strategic planning traditionally embodied several fundamental assumptions that are patently false in the current business environment:

  • Industry conditions are relatively stable and predictable;
  • We can extrapolate current trends into the future with reasonable accuracy;
  • There is one “right” picture of the future that can be predicted by the careful analysis of trends and their underlying drivers; and
  • Strategic planning can be done periodically (typically once a year) as a way to step back from daily operations and be reflective about the future.

What we need in 2012 is an approach to planning that moves at the speed of the internet, embraces uncertainty, and prepares the organization to move in several different possible directions, often at the same time.

 

Scenario planning can help us get there.

The only approach I know that meets those basic requirements is scenario planning. Scenarios are stories about the future that, when taken together, describe a range of plausible future states of an industry, its markets, and a particular business—or a way of working. Scenarios are not predictions of the future; rather, they are images of possible futures, taken from the perspective of the present.

Because scenarios are developed explicitly to describe a range of possibilities, they enable managers to open their minds to the inherent uncertainties in the future, and to consider a number of “what-if” possibilities without needing to choose or commit exclusively to one most-likely outcome. Scenario analysis enables managers, business planners, and executive teams to develop multiple options for action that can be compared and assessed in advance of the need to implement them.

Future Office

An effective scenario identifies critical implications for a business and contains personal meaning for the people who build it. Scenarios are useful tools primarily because they facilitate—indeed, require—a strategic dialogue about the unpredictable outcomes of today’s rapidly changing business environment.

Scenarios are powerful tools for thinking about tomorrow. But they don’t just happen by themselves, and they aren’t a “normal” form of strategic planning. Building them—and learning from them—requires an investment of time and creativity.

But that’s time you can’t afford not to spend.

Carve out that time out of your calendar from now on, even if it’s only an hour or two a week, or a day a month. That’s 12 days a year more than you are spending now.

Enlist your peers in HR, IT, and Finance, and together build the stories of how you believe your employees could be working in three to five years. Then, develop plans for a workplace laboratory where you (and those employees) can experiment with new layouts, new technologies, and new ways of working.

As a workplace professional, you have an important responsibility to lead your company into the future. A workplace isn’t just a place; it’s a strategic tool for enhancing organizational performance.

 

For Further Reading

For a somewhat more detailed description of scenario planning and preparing “Playbooks” for making those scenarios come alive, please see my essay “Scenario Planning: Preparing for Uncertainty,” in Chapter 2 of The New HR Analytics, by Dr. Jack Fitz-Enz, AMACOM, 2010. Or download this brief article from The Future of Work Agenda, my monthly e-newsletter.

 


Headshot for Jim Ware

Jim Ware is a former Harvard Business School professor who has spent his entire career helping clients interpret the changing nature of work, the workforce, and the workplace. He is currently the founder and Executive Director of The Future of Work-- ¦unlimited, Global Research Director for Occupiers Journal Ltd., and a Partner with the FutureWork Forum. Jim is also Editor in Chief and a principal writer for the monthly newsletter Future of Work Agenda and posts regularly on the Future of Work blog.

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