Work Futures Daily — New Thinking for New Times

Since everything about work is changing, everything about the workplace should change, too | Jim Meredith

2018–02–28 Beacon NY — Yesterday, I had a great experience, one that emerged from this Work Futures project.

Months ago, I had created a Typeform to capture information about folks interested in the newsletter I was creating, and which is now Work Futures on Substack: like the newsletter post you are reading. (I may have set it up during the Moonmail/Steady/Tumblr era of my wanderings in the newsletter wilderness.)

Yesterday, I had created a new Typeform to capture comments and feedback here (look at the bottom of the page), and noticed the earlier one, remembering that I hadn’t looked at the results recently. I found a a dozen or so new sign-ups (they must have come from the link on, and thanks to the new Typeform 2.0 interface, it was simple to walk through the results.

A few readers caught my eye, one of which was Jim Meredith, who tantalized me by saying he leads workplace strategy for a national architecture and design firm. I searched for his firm — MEREDITH Strategy + Design — and took a look at a post or two on the blog.

In Can we rely on workplace utilization metrics anymore? he discusses a project with a client company, one where the client is intent on driving design decisions about the workplace redesign on data rather than a vision [emphasis mine]:

We consistently find that the current approach to “data-driven” design drives merely incremental change and does not always provide positive futures. It is rare that we have found specifically usable value from metrics derived from an analysis of existing conditions. It is more common that those metrics put us in a difficult place, occluding a good path to the desired transformation by wrapping data around things rather than around purpose, around the cost of space rather than the value of space, around an agenda for new furniture but not around the future agenda of the transformed business.These metrics arose as part of practice because a company’s facilities people needed data to convince executives of the need for change and break through their typically spare commitment of resources. Now, more typically, it is the executives who are leading the change initiative, and the CRE/FM people who then feel a reflexive need for data to inform the design program and shape the designer’s concepts.

But we are in the midst of a momentous shift in the nature of work and the design of organizations. And since everything about work is changing, everything about the workplace should change, too. That’s why starting a project with an assessment of the existing workspace and the belief that its data will provide the logic for its transformation feels so misleading.

He lays out some examples of industries being pulled inside out by the need to transform around the needs of customers, rather than the form of internal processes. And because that transformation is so radical, asking today’s workers about the shape of the workspace needed in a new way of doing business won’t yield much, because you need to tackle a bigger question first:

Valuable and useful information to inform a design brief in these contexts requires our clients to start in a different place. Their projects need to start with consideration of the design of work, itself.

In almost every case of business transformation, the organization and processes of work will require new thinking. Those transformations of organization and process will, in turn, require new behaviors as people adjust to the patterns of innovation in business models. The successful transformation will come from a design that supports those new behaviors and provides the settings nurturing the organization’s emergent culture.

A great read. I will be looking at others, there, too.

And I only stumbled upon Jim’s work because of that form, and his comment catching my eye.

So for those of you who haven’t filled out that form, please click here, and do so. It only takes a few minutes, and it gives me a great deal of insight, And it could turn up another gem, like Jim’s post.

On The State of Remote Work

Buffer published a report, State of Remote Work 2018 Report: What It’s Like to be a Remote Worker in 2018. Some points were unsurprising, like the fact that 78% of remote workers work primarily from home, but much of what I read was unexpected.

As just one example of the unexpected:

When it comes to ways to build a remote team, there are several different approaches. From our survey data, we noticed two ends of a spectrum: a fully remote team where 90% or more work remotely and a team just dipping its toes into remote work where only 1–10% of the workforce is remote. The majority of survey respondents fell on one side or the other of this spectrum.

This surprises me because if companies start with a few remote workers, and that works out, then they would grow more and more, right? So the graph would be linear, right?

The link above in the ‘there are several different approaches’ points to a post by the CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, called 5 varieties of remote working in companies. He lays out the five forms:

  1. Not remote/office-based culture
  2. Office-based with a work-from-home-option
  3. Remote team, in a single time zone
  4. Remote team, in multiple time zones
  5. Distributed team, with nomadic members

In Gascoigne’s thinking this last form is the workplace of the future. But most important, I realized that the data — and Gascoigne’s narrative — says that companies with 90% or more of their workers working remotely are started on a vision like Gascoigne’s, from the outset. It’s not likely that a conventional office-based culture will get there a step at a time.

On Law Bots

In a recent test, LawGeex pitted human lawyers against the company’s AI in reviewing Non-Disclosure Agreements.

After two months of testing, the results were in: the AI finished the test with an average accuracy rating of 94 percent, while the lawyers achieved an average of 85 percent. The AI’s highest accuracy rating on an individual test was 100 percent, while the highest rating a human lawyer achieved on a single contract was 97 percent.

But the net net net was this: on average, a lawyer takes 92 minutes to review five contracts, and the AI? 26 seconds.

And analysis by Gillian K. Hadfield, Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Southern California, suggests the reality of a lawyer’s life means that they would perform at an even lower speed in the real world:

The lawyers who reviewed these documents were fully focused on the task: it didn’t sink to the bottom of a to-do list, it didn’t get rushed through while waiting for a plane or with one eye on the clock to get out the door to pick up the kids.

40 Acres and a Bot

Last year, I spelled out a future scenario in a Pew Research Center report, The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training, written by Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson. I was cited for spinning this vision:

Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice and a well-known thinker on work futures, discussed the intangibles of preparing humans to partner with AI and bot systems: “While we may see the creation and rollout of new training programs,” he observed, “it’s unclear whether they will be able to retrain those displaced from traditional sorts of work to fit into the workforce of the near future. Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold. Individual training — like programming or learning how to cook — may not be what will be needed. And employers may play less of a role, especially as AI- and bot-augmented independent contracting may be the best path for many, rather than ‘a job.’

Homesteading in exurbia may be the answer for many, with ‘forty acres and a bot’ as a political campaign slogan of 2024.”

This vision is becoming more tangible:

When farmworkers harvest table grapes in California’s Central Valley in 109-degree August weather, part of the job involves repeatedly wheeling about 80 pounds of grapes hundreds of feet down a long row of grapevines. A new robot is designed to do the job instead, leaving workers free to spend more time picking grapes.

“People spend as much as 20%-30% of their time picking in the field actually walking up and down these picked rows,” says Charlie Andersen, CEO of Augean Robotics, the startup developing the robot. For farmers, who are struggling [to] find enough labor to pick their crops–a problem that has grown in the current state of immigration politics–the robot can make labor more productive. For workers, the robot could make a difficult job slightly less painful, and help them earn more.

Photo: Augean Robotics

The electrically powered robot, called Burro, is designed to either follow a farmworker around a farm or run loops down rows of grapes or berries. In the “follow” mode, it uses an algorithm to recognize a worker. “You literally approach it and it locks onto you, once you reach a certain point, and then it follows you like a dog,” Andersen says.

So, maybe 40 acres and a burro.

A Question from Thomas Dridel

Thomas Didrel took advantage of the new comment/question form on Work Futures, and asked:

Hey Stowe, you mentioned earlier the move from collaboration towards cooperation. This subject has occupied my thoughts ever since, could you elaborate?

Here’s an encapsulation of the distinction, one that is expanded in Cooperation, Collaboration, and the Diffusion of Affiliation (subscribers only):

In the collaborative business, people affiliate with coworkers around shared business culture and an approved strategic plan to which they subordinate their personal aims. But in a cooperative business, people affiliate with coworkers around a shared business ethos, and each is pursuing their own personal aims to which they subordinate business strategy. So, cooperatives are first and foremost organized around cooperation as a set of principles that circumscribe the nature of loose connection, while collaboratives are organized around belonging to a collective, based on tight connection. Loose, laissez-faire rules like ‘First, do no harm’, ‘Do unto others’, and ‘Hear everyone’s opinion before making binding commitments’ are the sort of rules (unsurprisingly) that define the ethos of cooperative work, and which come before the needs and ends of any specific project.

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Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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