FF Life: The future of office and work

February 11, 2023: Futurist Bob Johansen on work, our lives, and what we ought to prepare for

Charles Assisi

Good morning,

On Thursday evening, I logged in to moderate a conversation with the futurist Bob Johansen at the Global Leadership Seminar organised by iSpirt Foundation and NSCREL at IIM Bangalore. Johansen is a futurist affiliated with the Institute for the Future (IFTF). This was my second interaction with him. It was 5 am in California, where he lives and now spends most of his working hours. But he looked super-fresh, and all ready to go.   

The trigger for this conversation was Office Shock, a book co-authored by Johansen and published last month. It talks about the future of work, our lives, and what we ought to prepare for. 

All I can say is that much emerged by way of mind food that was provocative. Futurists have this way of thinking ‘future backwards’ that we must all learn, which he says, will be a vital skill. After the conversation got done with, we picked three arguments Johansen makes about our present and the emerging future that everyone must pay attention to—right away. This is basis what we are witnesses to right now. Be assured, all of it is compelling. And you will want to dive in and listen to the hour-long conversation with him after this. 

1. Know that it's going to be a tough job convincing older managers. 

For the first time in history, Johansen points out, “young people ages 24 and under make up the largest portion of the global population.” And they have very different expectations of offices and ‘officing’ (what you do at offices). “They are less likely to be loyal and more critical of current ways of working.”

But as things are, the people in senior roles who call the shots outnumber those who are young. It is inevitable then that tensions between them surface. When probed on how this may play out, he had interesting pointers to offer. 

I'm sure that there will be tension here between more senior managers who are used to more traditional office buildings and are making rather simplistic calls back to the office. Just this last week in the Congress of the United States, there was a new bill introduced to try to call government workers back to the office. And it was an unfortunately written bill that basically assumed that office workers were lazy. 

It's kind of a crude, but understandable logic that happens in polarised times. And in the US government, we've got civil servants who are not beholden to any political party. They do quite a good job. So to me, this all boils down to trust. We've got to figure out how to build trust and grow.

We know from the neuroscience of trust now that trust is processed in one, the rational portion of our brain and mistrust is processed by the emotional portion of our brain. And social media, particularly in polarised times, is really good at spreading mistrust or distrust. Mistrust is now the default emotion. And in a world where mistrust is the default emotion, you can see why some traditional managers say, ‘Well, I only know if people are working, if I see them at their desk.’ 

Now, that's not true. Those managers will just have to get over it. And we may have to outlive them to see how to reimagine this space. But in another sense, we've got to figure out a way to grow a sense of trust to grow a sense of how do you evaluate people and make sure they're performing, but also create a climate of trust and a climate of meaning and and purpose. So it's going to be very dicey and difficult.

It's going to take five to 10 years for it to play out. I'm afraid some of those senior managers are going to need to retire. And they're going to need to be out of the picture for the new world to happen on a fully scaled way.

2. Think of advanced technologies of today as a prototype or crude versions of technologies we will see in ten years.

So what will the new offices look like? Do we have any clues? Is the writing already on the wall?

If you think about the office as a place where you have in-person communication, looking 50 years back at the history of offices, office buildings have been traditionally designed for efficiency and many offices are very boxy. They're not particularly pleasant places to be in. 

Now they could be depending on what your home environment is. So that's where the issue of equitability comes in. 

Because if we talk about ‘officing’ which means that's really the ways in which you work, including the issue of where you work and how, we can put it all together again. 

So, let me just be personal again, for this. I'm a writer. And I work in a think tank in Silicon Valley. And before Covid, I was on the road, 2-3 times a month. Now, I work out of my study, and I've rethought how I work. 

The metaphor for me is inviting people into my study. I've got a chair. And I invite people to come sit with me in my study. I couldn't do that when I was on stage. I've got Virtual Reality (VR) headsets hanging on the wall. If you want to switch into VR, I'm happy to do that. I've got a story for everything around me. I've got microphones, I've got sound protection, I've got a green screen. I've got everything that allows me to do things virtually, in ways that are better than what I could do when I was on stage and was travelling. And for me, it's a lot easier on my body. Now, you have to decide what your needs are for your career and your interests and then design around that. 

And the neat thing about thinking future-back is we're going to have many new tools for doing this. 

So, the medium we're using right now—Zoom is going to look crude 10 years from now. Microsoft Teams, WebEx, all of those that we use now, will look extremely crude. In fact, think of these as prototypes or ways of doing it better. 10 years from now, it will be dramatically better. People got familiar with Zoom during the pandemic and it became a verb. But it was not the first video conferencing tool.

Video conferencing started in the 1980s. Many of those systems failed. And they were a lot worse than what we have now. But what we've got now is pretty good and what existed 10 years ago looks crude now. So the ways in which we can put it all together are going to get dramatically better.

So it's up to each of us, and then to each of our organisations, and then to our communities to decide which medium is good for what and how to grow that. This isn't just the medium. It's about how you use the medium. What you must remember is that when people say things such as: “Oh, I hate Zoom meetings”, what they're really saying is “I hate badly run Zoom meetings”. 

That isn’t different from what people mean when they say how they hate meetings. People just hate badly run meetings. 

3. Don't fight AI. Augment yourself.

The world is hooked by ChatGPT and the potential of Artificial Intelligence. Did people he and others like him see this coming? What do they think about it? The answer was a compelling one because he gave it a personal spin and added why he isn’t intimidated, but fascinated by it.

We did see it coming. We've been experimenting with language models for a long time. And of course, the term AI has been around for a very long time. You know, I'm a writer, and if I'm going to still be writing major league books 10 years from now, I'm going to be augmented. 

So I think all of us have to ask, “Well, how might we be augmented?”

And to me, augmenting is kind of a hedge against ageing. It's a hedge against the ability to pull things together in powerful ways. 

So, I'm not going to use ChatGPT to write my books. At the end, I'm going to use tools such as this for ‘augmented writing’ — to do the first drafts. The hardest part about writing to me is the first draft, 

In fact, in this new book, we actually use GPT-3, the predecessor to ChatGPT. So, yes, I think we're all going to be augmented. When I look from the future, as a writer, it's going to enrich my writing. It’s not going to replace me as a writer. It is going to enhance me. 

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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