Over the past few months I have viewed and read countless opinion-based articles on the future of the office and how the last industrial revolution lead to what we now know as the brick ‘n mortar office. The problem is not with the point of view and insights but the repetitive nature and onslaught of the “experts” in the space. Like most offices, it’s all rather dull. The silver lining to Covid for some, including myself, has been the time to think and learn new skills outside of our comfort zones. I have rediscovered music and burned countless hours watching Rick Beato’s “Everything music” on YouTube [check him out!]
I have perhaps forgotten how much I love some good old rock ‘n roll and time at home has given me this luxury back. So now, for your entertainment and education please find a piece on the future of office that doesn’t suck, subtitled “If offices were rock bands!”
Drum roll please…
All one needs to produce a great rock song is a red guitar, three chords and the truth. Unfortunately producing a great remote working environment for a *service-based business is a tad more complicated and requires 5 stages of refinement.
On stage one: Status Quo.
A band whose name literally means the current state of affairs was a formulaic rock band previously called The Scorpions before they renamed themselves in 1969. This band had no rock star mystique and what you see is what you get. We have all heard some of their songs, but I bet you couldn’t name them or even tell me if I played you one if it was a Status Quo song or not. They released 33 Albums [33!] and the only song that comes to mind is ‘Rockin’ all over the world . Like Status Quo, there are offices all over the world and even though they are prolific, they are what some might say, stale.
The Status Quo Office:
The Status Quo of offices are as we know them; non-deliberate, with no real move towards a decentralized system. Their knowledge workers can work away from the office for a day or 2 without leaving a major impact but the organization can’t function with team members being “absent” from their place of work for extended period of time. If you are happy to have staff off on sick leave or leave for a few days at a time, but need them back to work and are focused on bums in seats, then you are Francis Rossi, the lead singer from Status Quo: dull, stuck and now, irrelevant.
Status Quo was large format stadium rock. You could hide in the stadium just like your team “hides” by just being present in the crowd. Counted for, but not counted on.
From an employee’s perspective there is so much out of their control that it’s often constraining. One can’t control the room temperature, the shared toilets, no pets or pets, fresh air and windows, the smells, the talking of people over you, the kitchens, the shared fridges and the inconsideration of others.
On stage 2: Linkin Park
What do you get when you take heavy metal music and combine it with other music genres such as hip hop, alternative rock, EDM, funk, industrial, and grunge and then throw in some singing, rapping, screaming and growling? Nü metal. And nobody did Nü metal better than Chester Bennington and the guys in Linkin Park. This is obviously my opinion, but I’m absolutely right! At first, their songs were 20% samples 80% instruments, and later was more like 60% samples and 40% instruments.
Linkin Park took elements from the big bands that came before them; Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, U2 and Korn and mashed them together to define a new sound that was timeous to the milieu. It was new, but it was just old thinking crushed together to make a new sound that filled stadiums. God, I miss Chester.
The LP office:
The Linkin Park of offices is simply recreating the office but online, trying to keep the past but doing it remotely. In the Linkin Park office you are now adopting some new technologies but still think time-based delivery and a factory model of online and inline office production work. In this group you are actually less productive as an organization than when you had an actual office. The processes, procedures and policies are just copied and pasted across the interwebs with no thought about the changed landscape and new efficiencies and frictions. You are still tracking where staff ARE.
Culture will be dramatically impacted here if an overhaul in the way you think doesn’t happen and you don’t love George, Ringo, John and Paul.
On stage 3: The Beatles
Ok, ok, they may not be hard rock, but they were definitely “year one” of rock ‘n roll and pathed a way to so many great bands that followed and imitated them. They wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Were they great musicians? Probably not the best but here’s where innovation trumps skill and their styles changed with the times and dominated every genre.
“Yesterday” is the most recorded song of all time recorded more than 1,600 times by acts as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Boyz II Men. It easy to copy and works with the audience.
The Beatles reached a dizzying, gargantuan level of popularity and success that we had not seen before and have not seen since. They released the first “concept” album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” in 1967 and is almost certainly the most influential recording in popular music of the second half of the 20th Century.
When they stopped touring in 1966, they thought of the brilliant idea of sending videos on tour instead of themselves in order to promote their singles. Their promo videos, specifically “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, are considered to be among the first “music videos.”
The Beatles office:
Necessity breeds invention and offices at The Beatles level take full advantage of the medium. This is where we start seeing synchronous meetings and smarter tech usage. The factory model of the previous industrial revolution is being disassembled and rebuilt. It is also typically where the business starts investing in better equipment and is starting to look at outcomes rather than inputs. Your organization is 100% laptop based and cloud hosted and is investing in the written word and increased written word quality.
The remote thinking has been replaced with a decentralized rational. Your people will be able to move houses, tweak furniture, buy equipment, upgrade their internet, and otherwise adapt to being more productive in a distributed environment than they ever could be in an office. Products and services are being perfected all around the world that will make it even better. It’s exciting to see how this decentralized model will improve the majority of people’s quality of life, and unlock incredible creativity and innovation at work.
The Beatles level will most importantly require a very different management style with more personal check ins and culture dipsticks in order to keep a closer eye on staff welfare as you can’t see the physical cues of staff in the office. The staff that have been dust on your shelf [read; lazy and unproductive] protected by the dark, now have early morning sunshine sprinkled all over them and it’s clearer now more than ever, who should stay and who should go. [See what I did there?]
On stage 4: Led Zeppelin
Led Zep were the definitive story tellers with the most harmonized percussion, voice and guitars. They were 1st and may never be repeated. This is why 50 years later, kids still talk about The Zep with Stairway to Heaven being one of the most recognizable songs ever. What is crucial to recognize here is that Led Zeppelin had a jazz-like asynchronicity something you can feel in a “Whole lotta love.”
Zeppelin was the right band at the right time and understood production and harnessed the studio’s potential to make a super-grandiose sort of hard rock with mystical overtones. John Bonham recognised as one the greatest drummers, kept the group together. They were the start of a music genre copied and envied by generations.
The Zep office:
Things go asynchronous, with people all not online at the same time. KPIs are judging WHAT they produce and not HOW or WHEN they produce. The global workforce start using a clean “baton hand off” between time zones and skills, delivering work in a third of the time, a Status Quo office can, in the designated traditional 9-hour day. You start intentionally hiring from the global talent pool with teams only in 2-3 time zones on a 24-hour production cycle.
In the Led Zep environment, there are less meetings and more time to be thoughtful with a higher level of critical thinking. There is a massive move towards a meritocracy supported by sophisticated online security and processes. People behave like trusted stakeholders and not employees. There is nowhere to hide now, and the stars shine brightly on centre stage. At this level, most companies have outsourced hardware already and trust the software to protect them and their privacy.
On the main stage: Nirvana
Firstly, and some may say most importantly, Kurt, Chris and Dave saved the world from hair metal. Nirvana helped get a whole new genre of music out into the mainstream and certainly changed an entire generation by tapping into a new Zeitgeist. There are few flawless albums in the history of hard rock that hit me the way Nevermind did. After Nevermind nothing was the same. On Nevermind, everything just seems right, this album is perfect end-to-end, from the first sounds of Smells Like Teen Spirit to the soothingly simple but haunting final chords of Something in the Way. It was a new way, a brand-new thinking and once you saw this you could not unsee it. The death of Kurt Cobain crystalized a moment in time that can always be reflected back on a change in the path of music for many. Kind of like Covid-19 has done for so many now.
The Teen Spirit office:
The word “Nirvana” divorced from the band, speaks directly to the almost unachievable. It is an idyllic state or place in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self. [Thank Wiki.] Something the current Zeitgeist is longing after, something that is not achievable in Status Quo office cubicles.
In the Nirvana workspace your business is doing better work than any office-based business could imagine
In Nirvana you can design your environment around health and wellness and exercising when it suits you. The old school HR department no longer indexes on time spend at the desk but will now focus entirely on output and quality. There are no questions about how or where you do the work and employers have no idea where their staff are hour to hour.
Dear team, there is nowhere to hide. In Status Quo there was ‘something in the way’ we worked that gave office staff a place to hide by being present [in the meeting, first to the office and last to go home,] dressing well and having a louder voice etc. It certainly appeared that these employees were delivering work and adding value, when they actually weren’t.
In Nirvana, just like Kurt, you can be socially awkward with no impact while now being recognised as the most productive, most creative and best thinking contributor who actually delivers valuable output.
The workforce and workspace is 100% distributed with organisational knowledge being hosted centrally on an internal “Wiki” with answers to FAQs and best of breed solutions to prior questions resolved in the org. Think internal Google alerts. A full work day is no longer 9-5 and people get paid for their own efficiencies and working smarter, meaning fast people work less and get paid as much as the slower people but can do more, output more and earn more.
I hope that people’s biases are removed in the new decentralized spaces where the work is being measured and not the people. Nirvana is a place where an organization’s communication is read with a positive intent first, so tone is never miscommunicated. Language and text will become human and kind, and audio is preferred over email, in fact, there is no space for email in Nirvana.
In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” he refers to three layers of an employee’s motivation and believes that if companies can give these three elements to their employees then the organization will thrive with happy, productive staff and clients:
- Mastery – Are you able to get better at your job and can you accomplish your work?
- Autonomy –Do you have the freedom and agency to control your environment to do work as effectively as possible?
- Purpose – Are you working for something bigger than your job, bigger than yourself or pay check – something that motivates you intrinsically?
None of these rely on an office.
“A common misconception about company culture is that if you have a good one, you have to hold on to it. I believe this to be wrong. If you want to have a great culture, the trick is to evolve it forward with your environment. Take the best things with you from version to version. Until recently, work happened in the office. We’ve always had some people remote, but they used the internet as a bridge to the office. This will reverse now. The future of the office is to act as an on-ramp to the same digital workplace that you can access from your #WFH setup.” – A tweet from Tobi Lutke, founder and CEO of Shopify.
The office; where most meetings are a waste of time, where the rumour mill and politics thrive, where proximity breeds contempt and where the old culture is protected. Yes, some firms and people will return to physically co-working with relative strangers, and some employers velcroed to the past will force people to go to brick n mortar offices, but the illusion that the office was about work has been shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy thinking will be replaced by businesses who embrace the durable nature of distributed organizations.
Like all great musicians who were inspired by those before them, I have blatantly borrowed [and mixed] some thinking from Matt Mullenweg, Stephan Wolfram, Sam Harris, Tobias Lütke, Tracey Brower, Prof. Scott Galloway, Daniel Pink, Jo Meunier, Wikipedia and Rick Beato to produce this piece. *It’s also a sidebar but this all really only applies to organisations that sell knowledge and are not reliant on assets outside of laptops to deliver products.