Why the Office Won't Go Out of Style

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address, among other things, the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1996. His columns and writings have appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Wired.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What will the workplace of the future look like?  
 
Clay Shirky: Well so, the “everybody can work from wherever they are” logic has been around for a long time.  And in fact, well again, well predates the Internet.  I mean, really, in every consecutive year since the 1964 World’s Fair, when AT&T you know, unveiled their video phone, we’ve been promised that video conference is going to mean that nobody has to have, you know... there doesn’t need to even be any business travel anymore. And that has turned out to not merely to be wrong, but actually exactly backwards.  Which is to say, communications and transportation are not substitutes for one another except at the margins. They’re mainly compliments, right?  If you talk to somebody for a long time, after a while, you want to meet them face-to-face.  And if you meet someone face-to-face and like them, or have business to do with them, and then you separate, guess what?  You want to stay in touch. So, more transportation drives more communication, more communication drives more transportation. In particular, the ability to connect with the home office using these tools have meant more people have spent more time on the road because face time with clients is often more valuable than face time with co-workers. 
 
So, I don’t believe that there is... I don’t believe that there’s any work coming in which the telecommuting model becomes the normal case for most workers.  It just... getting humans in the same room creates a kind of coordinating value that’s impossible to replicate in software right now. Again, to the open source people... even open source projects they’ll periodically all fly to the same city to sit around and, you know, work together in the same room.  So, I think the workplace of the future, I think the big change in the workplace of the future is an increasingly loft-like flexibility.  Right? If you look at what Jennifer McNolty is doing at Herman Miller, the research on configurable work spaces.  I think that what we’ve learned about businesses and habiting existing loft basis, such as the one in which we are doing this interview, is that the flexibility of the business to periodically reconfigure itself matters more than the kind that "anybody can work from anywhere" logic which has not played out very well. 
 
So, I think the premium is going to be on designing work spaces that are a good fit for whatever the local work climate is, but still using the space as places to get people together face-to-face because social pools, you know, social software, is not better than face-to-face, it’s just better than nothing.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown


×