Embrace the future – in spite of the uncertainty of the present time. At least, that is what I took away from Bob Johansen, Joseph Press, and Christine Bullen’s book Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Working and Living. Yes, it’s more or less a futurist’s version of a business and leadership advice book. But with the ‘futurist’ angle in full effect, Johansen, Press, and Bullen are able to dig into something deeper. Much deeper. “During the COVID-19 shutdowns, many people working in offices were shocked by too much change in too short a time regarding where and how they worked. People were stunned by orders to evacuate their office buildings and work from wherever. A cascade of jagged future shocks followed, with second- and third-order consequences.
Office work and private life are now intensely entangled, with emotionally mixed consequences. Office shocks were deeply unfair: for some the sudden flexibility was liberating; for others it was awful,” they write. “…During the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations were surprisingly productive when people were working from home. Owners of office buildings struggled to make their offices safe and adaptable for new hybrid work arrangements, but the sanitized adaptations were often unsettling and rarely welcoming for a warm- and-friendly reunion. Some returned to ghost offices and quickly went back to work-from-home if they could. Nobody understood what permanent hybrid work at scale could become. Many people did want to return to in-person offices…The old-fashioned office is dead. Office shock is an opportunity to make offices better than they were—and most offices need to be better.”
“Office Shock profoundly blends two concepts: future and back,” they add. “…Even though the future is unpredictable, we can do a lot better than just waiting for the future to happen to us. In the introduction we used the example of sensors. Thinking futureback from ten years ahead, it is obvious that sensors will be everywhere, they will be very cheap, many of them will be connected, and some of them will be in our bodies…Our goal is to reduce the cone of uncertainty, help people develop their own zones of clarity while resisting certainty. We can develop clarity by looking futureback, even though we can’t have certainty.”
It’s this blend of the decidedly practical, with the imaginative flair of the so-called ‘futurism’ Johansen, Press, and Bullen espouse that takes Office Shock to the next level. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, making you feel genuinely inspired and wanting to wrestle with the ideas and implications it promotes. “At the present time, the cone of uncertainty…is very wide regarding the future of office buildings and distributed office work. ‘Return to Office’ is a term often used with certainty, but not clarity.
The past is known and certain. The present is all-consuming. The future is unknown and filled with uncertainties. Futureback thinking can help narrow the range of uncertainty and help bring clarity. Nobody yet knows what hybrid work will look like in the future. Each worker and each organization will need to develop their own zone of clarity regarding where, when, how, and why they work,” they write.