When hindsight isn't 2020: How to move forward with confidence (anyway).

Even the youth are confounded.  Who wouldn't be?  Sometimes those of us with some years on our clock are finding the old adage isn't holding up 100% in all cases.  Humans are thinkers.  We learn through our life experiences.  Burn our fingers on a hot stove and you can bet we will think twice before touching that stove again.  But it's the anomalies that throw off even the wisest professionals.  And the greater the frequency we observe anomalies, the more we challenge our historically accurate hindsight.

How do you dress to go to work?  Hindsight tells us that you dress for the job you want, or you emulate your boss or the firm's clients.  Not so fast there old man, today's workers are dressing for comfort and a long day at the office.  Today, too casual is the only breech of etiquette frowned upon.

How do you get to work?  Hindsight tells us that you drove in, parked nearby and walked into your office.  Nope. Today, folks enjoy living in the urban environment, close to work, walking a few blocks or minimizing the commute and maximizing their time off.  If not, it may be by bicycle, with UBER, on the bus or light-rail leaving the driving to someone else altogether while we deal with morning email.

Where do you do your work?  Hindsight tells us that you work in your office or workstation, you know, where the pictures of your family and dogs are placed, right next to the Star Wars action figure of Boba Fett that says, "Trust me, I'm still cool....."?  Wrong again, today the correct answer might be "it depends, am I doing focused work? collaboration? teamwork? or brainstorming?"  I might be outside all day working in the shade on the office deck area if the weather is nice.  You might find me at home and connected.

How about that Internet of Things?  Hindsight says caution, it's not allowed or not available, or not encouraged.  Today most folks find the Internet their primary research tool and method of marketing and communication.  It brings the world to your desk(top) or mobile device. Anywhere, anytime is the mantra.

While the situations above are personal and part of the evolutionary workplace, some of the more interesting hindsight shifts might be better filed under the label paradigm shift. As a retired Architect for Corporate Interiors with 45 years of private practice in my rear view mirror,  I see many, many changes sprouting and growing tentacles into the workplace.  Many of these ideas were spawned in the dot com era,  when 24 year olds created empires out of their garage or their bedroom at their parents house.  It grew with the delightful discovery that OPM could purchase a lot of toys and tricks to share with co-workers.  It matured when savvy investors learned to carefully guide those businesses to profitability.  Now it is spreading to mainstream, engineering, legal, accounting and so many others as employers embrace the meaning of productivity and creativity over conformance and formality.

Change.  It scares the h*ll out of most, including younger staff but especially the middle management and executive leadership.  My city is not a technology driven city.  It's a large and substantially old school business climate and ownership, the wonderful people we call clients and who we hope will write checks to our firms for the services we provide, have not all turned the corner yet and must be shown the way.  There are plenty of guides out there willing to lead those traditional clients to the light.  On the other hand, it's likely they will not eat the entire elephant at once to cite an old proverb.  They must eat it one bite at a time.  Here is what I see that could drive our clients towards the change makers amongst us:  

  1. Clear thinking firms need to explain (perhaps slowly and in old school language) what is transpiring in the workspace.  Education is far better of a tool in this case, than slapping clients with a 2x4 and screaming, "why don't you get this?"  It's not magic, and there is no mystery.  Smoke and mirrors only confuse the issue.  There are benefits and measurable metrics that can illustrate beneficial results.  
  2. Understand that many client decision makers are not quite yet getting all their news through social media.  Teach the lessons where the students live.  Snail mail, email, brochures, case studies and the absolute best method - face to face.  Better yet, show them your ideas in action at recently designed work places where they can kick the tires and get questions answered.  These actions remove the fear of change and replace it with familiarity and understanding.
  3. Survey your recent clients after 12-18 months in their new environments and share the findings in white papers. This interaction can reveal the success of intended consequences and exposes the unintended.  Exhibit passion.  Become the expert.  Speak to the client at their peer organizations and associations.  
  4. Learn change management.  Back to that elephant proverb.  You need to be sure the client is hungry, but understand their limits of taking in new information and change.  Change is rarely happens suddenly.  Hold their hand. The clients first project may not be 100%, but if you have done your homework, you will have a client for life who appreciates your future vision of his workspace today.  

I attribute much of this workplace change to the digitalization of absolutely everything. This phenomenon is having the effect of removing many, many differences between dissimilar businesses and rendering them more and more similar, except for the data on their screens.  See my earlier blog post (The Next-Gen Office:  Are we there yet?) Now it's all in the process:  Sell, design, produce, deliver, invoice, collect the money.  Lather rinse repeat. 

"Only human interaction can bridge the gap between neurons and electrons."

For me, I have observed this digitalization initially reducing the human interaction as programs, computers and devices replaced slow, inefficient humans.  Then hindsight struck again.  It's has come full circle.  Only human interaction can bridge the gap between neurons and electrons. Only a human can create a relationship between staff and management bringing focus to a solution over a cup of coffee or a beer after work (OK, during work).  Humans buy from humans.  People love to work with people.  Just when it seems everything has changed you realize that nothing has changed.  What a wonderful world.

As someone whose career spans multiple cultures I can help you guide your firm into this new world and capture the work you need for sustenance.  I'd enjoy touring your place of business and learning something how you innovate.  I may just have a key to unlock a few mysteries.  Give me a call. 

William M. Burwell is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff. Bill retired in 2014 and began Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com