New ways of working – the revolution is still rumbling along

It was the early 1990s, and a new generation had started entering the world of work at just the time that personal computers were creating opportunities for significant change to the way the workplace functioned. Within just a few years, fax machines were released from the “fax operators” who controlled them, the typing pools were closed, secretaries were recommissioned as PA’s and then also released from service, outsourcing bloomed, management structures began to flatten, and all the men (and a few women) had to learn how to type.

And so business leaders looked around for new models of how to work. Most just made it up as they went along, and adapted their old structures to be workable in a technology driven office. But a few companies went to the edges, and tried to radically reinvent how work might work in the future. This is when our company, TomorrowToday, was started, and some of our early work was to look for these examples and extract the principles of these workplaces. We were most impressed by the Brazilian company, Semco, and the writers and thinkings of its CEO, Ricardo Semler (starting with ‘Maverick’ in 1993, followed by ‘The Seven Day Weekend’ and others).

But it was largely smaller companies, or departments within companies, where we saw the most innovation. A small manufacturing company in Durban that went completely open plan and hot desking before anyone else, and fully embraced Gen Xers need to have flexible careers. Or the finance department of one of Africa’s largest retailers, who went to flexi-time before anyone else did. Or the insurer who put a climbing wall and foosball tables into their reception area, and actively encouraged staff to use these regularly. Or many of our call centre clients who experimented with working from home, flexibility and different approaches to remuneration. We were even featured on Africa’s longest running investigative journalism TV show, Carte Blanche, as experts in this field of changing workplaces – see an extract of the feature here.

More recently, we’ve tracked companies like Zappos as they built an entire business around a different approach to workplace creation, and Google who have become the poster children for funky workplaces. (For ongoing insights, and our archives, see our blog category on ‘the workplace’).

But now in 2013, as we look around our clients – especially our larger, multinational ones – the revolution seems to have stalled. Management layers have flattened as much as is possible, it seems. Digital technology now threatens to overwhelm our clients, rather than enable them. And they’re largely still ‘doing work’ the way they were doing it in the late 1990s – just faster, cheaper and with slight improvements in quality. But only a very few are trying to revolutionise how we work in the light of all the changes taking place in the world around us.


The next steps, as always, will come from the fringes. And this is where we at TomorrowToday continue to look. I therefore really enjoyed a piece in Business Insider late last year, that aimed to identify ten highly innovative workplaces and what they were experimenting with or what resources they are making available so that the rest of us can innovate. You can read their full article here, but here is a summary of the categories of innovations being attempted in various companies:

  • Give your best people access to administrative support. At least, give them permission (and a budget) to use virtual assistance (something like eLance or oDesk).
  • The assistance that people need is not only for their job function, but for their lives. Some companies call these concierge services – they’re worth it for your best people.
  • Develop web collaboration systems, and do your best to kill internal emails.
  • Collaborate. Even outside (maybe especially outside) of your own business.
  • Let people work flexibly and from anywhere, but have times and reasons to get together in physical space. There are plenty of technologies that can keep team members connected and help people work virtually. Do it already!
  • Gamify your challenges. Learn lessons from the world of video games.

If you know of any innovative companies, departments or workplaces, we’d love to hear from you. Please do let us know.

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