In the history of work, any step change in technology has altered how work is organized, the tasks employees handle and the places where they work. Whether it’s rows of typists in the 1960s or the cubicle onslaught of the 1980s, the aesthetics of work – the visual cues, tools, layout and location of the places we work – speaks volumes on what’s expected of the people who work there.
With the shift to digital, the rise of data and the growth of platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, this hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, at a time when virtual work and a “no-office” culture have never been more possible, the workspace and the aesthetics of work matter more than ever. The current era of intercompany collaboration, iteration and start-up experimentation requires people to come together and work – and the work they need to do necessitates a new type of look to the way work is done.
The New ‘Look’ of Work
This look extends from our offices to our cities and even to our work attire. Think of walking down Wall Street and observing the sea of blue, grey and black suits – this look has been synonymous with the high-flying corporate world for well over a century. The suit has almost always been a sign of status and business acumen, and for many, getting their first tailored business suit was a coming of age.
But the balance of power is shifting. One simply has to look at the list of the world’s 10 most valuable companies, which include Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook, where you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in a suit. Instead, you’ll see a kaleidoscope of different colored hoodies, ripped jeans and faded Converse.
The acceptance of what is deemed “professional” has been driven by the new breed of digital leaders (think Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg), who are much more concerned with “what” work gets done than “how” work get done. The age of cubicle culture, where one-upmanship of who left latest, is finally coming to an end, and instead, workers are free to drive business value from wherever they lay their laptop, smartphone or tablet, be it the airport, home, coffee shop or, indeed, the office.
In response to this connected but nomadic worker, office space is changing. The cubicles of old have been replaced by collaborative spaces for colleagues to connect and ideate. The couch, wherever it may be, is now our new cubicle.
From Suburbs to Cities
The imminent death of the cubicle is leading to collateral damage: the decline of the suburban office park. Our hoodie-wearing, nomadic workers aren’t content to live the suburban lifestyle of their parents and are instead flocking to urban areas. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 68% of us will live in urban areas compared with just 55% today.
We’re seeing this play out in numerous locations, from London’s Shoreditch, to San Francisco’s SoMA, to Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. These previously derelict or low-income areas are becoming the places of business for the tech-fueled digital economy and attracting the young, cool hipsters that big companies need. And rather than the glass and steel of the previous homes of big business, such as London’s Bank Street or New York’s Wall Street, these new urban areas are holding onto their working-class roots by recycling old factories, rail yards and warehouses. Glass and steel are out and are being replaced by aged brick and wood.
Originals and Digitals
Meanwhile, the tribe of IT has been split in two, and we have a clear divergence between the “Originals,” the stereotypical geek that we traditionally conjure up when thinking of IT, and the new breed of “Digitals.” Originals are those tending the servers, databases and Ethernet cables, while Digitals are the people writing dating apps, music distribution platforms and e-games.
Digitals are the new corporate rock stars, commanding massive salaries and maintaining a level of cool the Originals simply can’t match. In the end, these two tribes will continue to co-exist until the world’s infrastructural workloads are automated, leading to the eventual eclipse of the Original.
Ultimately, the aesthetics of the people, places and areas we work in are changing in response to the digital economy. This modern economy is ushering in a new class of sought-after workers that have extremely diverse views on how, where and why work should be done. Businesses need to take heed of this new aesthetic of work to remain relevant.
Join us for our live video webinar, “Thriving Amid the Ever-Morphing Future of Work.” Futurist Ben Pring, VP and Managing Director of the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, leads a frank and thought-provoking conversation on how to anticipate and adapt to key future-of-work challenges and business opportunities, informed by recent research from the Center for the Future of Work.
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