January 25, 2023

Bob Johansen on the officeverse, augmented intelligence, thinking future-back, and people as filters (Ep48)

“It’s more than the Great Resignation, it’s more than the Great Reset, it’s more than Quiet Quitting, this is all about reimagining. It’s an opportunity to create something better, to be better than we were before.”

– Bob Johansen

Tim O'Reilly

About Bob Johansen

Bob is Distinguished Fellow and former CEO at the Institute for the Future. He has worked as a professional futurist for nearly 50 years, including in the 1970s exploring the social and organizational implications of ARPANET, which evolved to become what we call the Internet. He is a frequent keynote speaker and the author or co-author of 12 books, including his latest title Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Working and Living.

What you will learn

  • What is the office verse? (02:56)
  • Where might we prefer physical or remote collaboration in information value creation? (06:28)
  • What are the factors that drive information productivity? (10:37)
  • Are there design factors for organisations which drive the ways they create value? (13:23) 
  • How can we augment ourselves to create better organisations? (18:36)
  • How can we design the work within organisations to be pleasant and avoid overload? (23:39)
  • What are some practices to create insightful books and guidance for leaders (26:59)
  • What are practices to engage with information throughout the day ?(31:52)



Ross Dawson: Bob, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Bob Johansen: Great to be here.

Ross: You have a book, just out, Office Shock, which looks at how offices are changing and what they will become. Perhaps you can just give us the thesis in a minute, we can dig into how they can help us to thrive on overload.

Bob: Sure. Office Shock is an abrupt, unsettling change in how, when, where, and even why, even why we work. Office Shock has been invoked, it has been scattering us as a result of COVID.
But it’s much deeper than that and it’s much more than just “when do we go back to the office?” We think this is a historic opportunity to rethink just how work happens and how work is integrated with our private lives.

Ross: One of the ways in which offices are shifting which you describe in the book is the “office verse” which is beyond any particular place, I understand.

Bob: Yes, definitely. The term metaverse has become quite a pop culture term. Those of us in Silicon Valley realize that one big corporation has tried to own the term metaverse.

We’ve decided to coin our own word, the officeverse, and it’s actually a sequence. We think of the office as the place, the buildings, officing as the process, the verb, and officeverse as the way it all fits together, the anytime-anyplace mix of how we work, and indeed how we thrive. I love the title of your book in terms of Thriving on Overload.

The notion of the officeverse is an attempt to create, and it’s not just an attempt, it’s now a requirement to create ways of working anytime, anyplace. We’re futurists, our hope is to create a work environment that’s better than we’ve ever seen.

Ross: I always think that an organization is a set of individuals working together, as you point out in the book as well, with a common purpose and working to be able to achieve that. That’s the context. The officeverse is the space for an organization with an aligned purpose and to be able to create something. Is that the case? Is the officeverse where an organization resides?

Bob: That’s right. Yes. It’s an interesting way to phrase it, where an organization resides, it’s where individuals reside as well, and it’s where we work and live. The opportunity that’s presented now is a historic opportunity to rethink all the basics, where going into COVID, for the past 50 years, there have been efforts at remote work and terms like telecommuting and telework, and all these different options, then, of course, the internet made the connection possible, and the technologies, including the one we’re using right now, they didn’t just happen with COVID, they were developed over a 50 year period and it took roughly 50 years to be an overnight success.

The overnight success was forced by COVID. We were scattered from offices, it wasn’t an option, it was forced. Luckily, the technology was good enough to function in a surprisingly productive way. Even though there was very little preparation for this, it was pretty productive for most organizations. It was actually very productive for some individuals. It was also very unfair. For some individuals that didn’t have a good place to work at home or had little kids around or elders they were caring for, it wasn’t a good thing. But for many people, it was a good thing. It’s more than the Great Resignation, it’s more than the Great Reset, it’s more than Quiet Quitting, this is all about reimagining. It’s an opportunity to create something better, to be better than we were before.

Ross: There are some work environments that you do require to be physically there, the classic assembly line which Ford used to run or there are some people that do need to be on-site for a nuclear power plant. But most people are dealing with information. This can happen physically where you’re next to each other and you’re bouncing ideas around, you may be assisted with the trust or the other things which give you that ability to throw around ideas better, but a lot of that information can also be done virtually.

In that context of physical versus remote and this idea of information being the element which we are using to be able to create value, what are the differences or where might we prefer a physical or remote location in that collaborative information value creation?

Bob: Yes. Great question. To begin with, you’re exactly right, that some things just have to happen in person. When I’m talking to the CEO of BorgWarner, who’s one of our clients, the world’s leading supplier of auto parts, 160 factories around the world, we refer to that as the “factoryverse” because the center of the world for BorgWarner is not the office, the center of the world is the factory. We also work for Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. When I talk to their CEO, I refer to this as the “retailverse” because the center of the world for them is the store and the next most important is the distribution center, so we think of that as the “retailverse.”

Now to come back to the offices, in the officeverse, what we know from research is that in-person meetings, could be at offices or other places. In-person meetings are best for orientation, trust building, renewal, early-stage creativity, and culture building, particularly for young people. When you’re young, you need to travel, you need to visit places, you need to be there in person, cross-generational mentoring is very powerful. In-person is really important. That’s why we should have offices, but we don’t need them all the time, we don’t need them nine to five, and we don’t need them for many other things.

One of the big questions, when I am introducing the Office Shock book to CEOs, I just talked to one last week, I said what I just said to you about the importance of in-person meetings for orientation, trust building, renewal, and early-stage creativity, he looked around and he said, our office isn’t that good for any of those. If that’s the reality, you gotta rethink your offices. My co-author in this book is Joseph Press, who is a Ph.D. in architecture from MIT. He was a workplace architect early in his career and became a digital transformation expert later in his career.

Architecture is so important. Office shock is a shock for commercial real estate. It’s a shock, that says we’ve got to rethink the offices we do have, and almost certainly if you think future-back, which is what we’re doing, almost certainly, we’re going to have fewer traditional offices. Good riddance, they were not that good, to begin with.

Almost certainly, we’re going to have fewer. The offices we do have are going to be different. They’re going to be designed to facilitate early-stage creativity, orientation, trust-building, and the like. The negative scenario is that CEOs pull people back into the office, and they go into their offices, close the door and have zoom meetings. That’s the worst scenario.

Ross: There are of course, many substantial organizations that are completely virtual, or remote-first, whatever terminology they use, in which case, hopefully, they’re enabling good places to work, wherever they are, be there at home or co-working spaces, what it may be.

But this becomes then a purely information-based organization, you’re dealing with technologies to collaborate on documents, to throw around ideas to be able to create outputs, value-generating software or other things, so what are the factors that drive what I describe as information productivity? The information being more productive in this completely virtual context?

Bob: I’m not sure how it’s going to match out in terms of completely virtual, I think most environments are going to be mixed. We’ve got a map in the book about this territory from the office building to the factory to the retail store to the home office to distributed. It really is a question of which medium is good for what.

Leaders and organizations and individuals are going to have to be really graceful in all the different media options. As they’re trying to figure out how to thrive in this information-rich environment, they’re going to have to be able to choose when do we meet in person, and it isn’t always going to be at the office.

There’s this very traditional company we studied in the Midwest, which is pretty much gone all virtual. But three times a year, they bring people into the home center, they call it the homecoming, and they don’t always even meet in offices, sometimes they meet in resorts or hotels or whatever to try to encourage the orientation and the trust building and the renewal. The real challenge is, what’s the mix, what’s the right mix, and that mix can help people thrive in an information-rich environment, can help them be more productive in an information-rich environment, and can also help them avoid being overloaded in an information-rich environment.

Ross: Was that 37signals?

Bob: I wasn’t thinking of them. This was another company that I can’t name at this point. But it’s a large, very conservative company that would surprise you.

Ross: Okay, interesting. So then the times when it comes together are those of trust-making, of building the collaboration, being able to do the things you can’t do virtually?

Bob: Yes.

Ross: But a lot of the work does happen virtually, and that is when these information-based flows. How is it that we can maximize the productivity of organizations beyond the aspects of bringing together the culture, are there design factors for organizations or how they are configured which will drive the ways they can create value?

Bob: Yes, definitely. We’re just learning those ways. I think it’s going to be a mix of in-person and virtual. I’m a public speaker, and I used to be on the road all the time pre-COVID. Now, I’m still a public speaker; I still write books but I’m inviting people into my study. The metaphor here is, I want to be better than if I was on stage so I’m inviting people into my study in a way that I couldn’t if I was on stage. I’ve got VR headsets up there if they want to shift into VR. I’ve got a story around everything in my study. I’ve got a local videographer I work with to produce videos for pre-watching and post-watch. I can be interactive in ways I couldn’t be if I was on stage.

Everybody has to figure out for themselves how to best do that and how to do what their intent is. We talk in the book a lot about purpose and you do in your book too. What we say is, the question that many people are asking today is when do we go back to the office? That’s a legitimate question. But for us, it’s number six in a list of seven questions. The first question is, why do you want an office at all? What’s the purpose of the office? As I said earlier, there are good reasons to meet in person but that should be a question asked, not an assumption made.

That’s what I’m talking about, you have to begin with the purpose. Then in the book Office Shock, we’ve got seven spectrums of choice, which we present in order. The first question is, why do you want an office at all? The second is, what are the outcomes you’re seeking? The third is, the most important outcome over the next decade is climate; if we don’t deal with the climate issue, we’re out of the game in some serious ways; so we focus on climate in the third spectrum.

Then we ask the question of belonging. As you were asking Ross, what are the ways you build a corporate culture? How do you create a sense of belonging? Traditional offices weren’t that good at that. If you walked into a traditional office, everybody looked alike and talked alike and dressed alike, it’s not facing up to the reality of the next decade which is diversity will be everywhere. We’re going to be in a diverse world. That’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. We ask in the question, how can we be purposely different to create a sense of belonging no matter how different we are?

Then we ask the question of augmentation, number five on our scale. What we’re saying is that if you look future-back 10 years from now, we’ll all be augmented, and the only question is, how will we be augmented? I don’t like the term artificial intelligence. I think that’s quite misleading. We use in the book augmented intelligence.

The key question is, what are the things that humans do best? What do we want to keep for ourselves? Then what are the places where we need to be augmented in? I’m a writer, I write books, and this is my 13th book, I realized that if I’m going to be a big-time writer 10 years from now, I’ve got to be augmented. We use GPT-3, the new chatbot, that was just released a couple of weeks ago. We used an earlier version as we wrote that chapter on augmentation. Writers are going to have to be augmented, it’s just going to be a cost of entry.

Then we face the question of place and time, when do we work? Where do we work? What’s the mix? Then finally, the seventh spectrum is agility. How do we hold it all together? How do we animate our account activity in a way that’s more future-ready?

Ross: Take me into a couple of those. One of them is augmentation.

Bob: Yes.

Ross: One of the spectrums you have in the book is around human to technology, I’d like to think there are many facets or dimensions to how we can augment ourselves. Again, taking this information perspective, humans are information-processing animals, and machines in various guises do the same. In combination, they can do that in a whole variety of, as you say, augmented ways. What are some of the ways in which you see that we may augment ourselves individually or collectively to be able to create more effective organizations?

Bob: That all begins again with purpose. What’s the purpose? What’s your own personal purpose? What’s your own organizational purpose? Then you ask, what are the capabilities of augmentation?

For example, we did a custom forecast a couple of years ago for the world’s largest rental equipment company, United Rentals. They rent large-scale equipment for constructing big buildings and other big projects. If you imagine construction workers 10 years from now, they’ll all be augmented in some way. Exoskeletons will be practical, you see this, particularly in Japan, where you have an aging society, and you want people to be able to work longer without getting hurt. Some of these exoskeletons for construction workers in Japan are just elegant. They’re really nicely designed. The best ones we have in the US are in the military. They’re more for helping injured warriors recover. Sometimes they’re used on the battlefield too. But it depends on your purpose.

Then you ask, well, what are the capabilities? In information companies and for knowledge workers, we have to ask questions like, how can we augment the things that we’re doing? The release of the ChatGPT three weeks ago, that’s a very significant signal. We talk about signals at the Institute for the Future. We refer to the Gibson quote, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. GPT-3, the Chatbot is a signal of how we’ll be able to interact with augmented resources for information to create pretty good things.

We’ve got a group at Institute for the Future now, we’re the longest-running futures think tank in the world so we’re always questioning our methodology. We’re methodologically agnostic. We’ve got a group at the institute using ChatGPT to do what we do. Basically, we’re pushing ourselves and saying: “Ok, what would it take to have a chatbot do a custom forecast, like what we do at the institute? What are the things we do best? What are the things we may be able to have a chatbot help us do, or even replace us in certain areas?” I think all of us in the information business have to be thinking about that.

The other thing I’m interested in is DALL-E, Midjourney, and the other texts of visualization. We’ve got a visualization in the new book, Office Shock, about the officeverse. We recruited young artists from all around the world to help us tell the stories of these seven spectrums of choice. We weren’t happy with what we were coming up with, with human artists. We pulled in Midjourney. My colleague, Joseph, who is an architect and an artist, worked with Midjourney to create that image.

I think all of us need to be asking that kind of very serious questioning of our own ability and saying: “What do we do best? What do computers do best?” Thinking future-back really helps you do that. That’s a really important element of this book, where most of the talk about offices now is based on the present. But the present is so noisy. If you think future-back, it just gives you a much fresher view. In this case, the fresh view is what do we do best as humans and what do computers do best. How can we partner to become augmented? Because in a real sense for us, 10 years from now, we’re all going to be cyborgs. The only question is, what’s the mix? In a real sense, we’ve already begun that. You and I both wear glasses, 10 years from now, those are going to be souped-up glasses. Google Glass failed, but it failed in an interesting way.

Ross: One way you can think of the offices as an architecture within which we are literal or metaphorical architecture in which we are working. One of the functions and dysfunctions of those is meetings. There are certainly many organizations where particularly in the last few years has been an excess of meetings, this whole back-to-back meeting syndrome, and a whole array of other ways in which we’re working, which contributes to overload. The overload is of information, overload of meetings, overload can be simply people are allocated too much work.

How is it that we can design the work within organizations, wherever that may take place, so that we can avoid, as much as possible, this feeling of overload to be able to be functional, to be able to work in an environment where we have the feeling of going beyond overwhelmed to when we are comfortable, and where we can operate in a place, like, this is a work environment where I’m comfortable and happy, and not overwhelmed by everything is being thrown at me?

Bob: It’s a great question. I think meetings are really critical. We’ve got to figure out a way to do them better.

I’m a sociologist by training. I’ve studied group dynamics my whole career, and a lot of that has been studying group dynamics through electronic media. My Ph.D. is from Northwestern and I was there as the internet was just being born in the days of the ARPANET.

One of the big realizations is meetings or video conference meetings, it’s not a clean, independent variable. If it was a clean, independent variable, then we could say, well, video conferencing is good for this, or in-person meetings are good for that.

The big challenge is the quality of the meetings. It’s rarely too many meetings. It’s badly-run meetings. That’s really a key element. It could be frequency, but more often, it’s quality. Leaders have to be great at running meetings. There are good meetings, there are lousy meetings, and lousy meetings lead to information overload. Well-run meetings mean you’re able to manage complex information much better.

The key question to me is not how many meetings, it’s how good are they. It’s a little similar: you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about Zoom or complaining about Microsoft Teams. I’m sure there’s some relevance to those critiques, but mostly what they’re talking about is badly-run Zoom meetings or badly-run Teams meetings, it’s not the medium, or PowerPoint, you say death by PowerPoint, well, that’s lousy PowerPoints. That’s the fault of the author, the fault of the designer. We have to unpack those things a little more I think and get into not just the medium, but the quality of the use.

Ross: I’d like to turn to you, Bob. You have been looking at the future for a very long time. You are the author of any number of books. I’ve got at least one on my bookshelves around here. I would love to hear in a nutshell, what are some of your practices for thriving on overload, for taking the universe of information that you’re exposed to, to create insightful books and guidance for the leaders you speak to, and your other information outputs?

Bob: Sure, I’m happy to do that. I’ve thought a lot about this. I love what I do. That’s probably the beginning.

The research that came out during COVID by the Blue Zones project, I thought was really instructive. What they found was that purpose-driven people are happier, they’re healthier, and they live up to seven years longer. People who work at purpose-driven companies are happier, healthier, and they live up to 14 years longer. Purpose-driven companies tend to perform better. I’m a purpose-driven person. I became focused on being a futurist in my 20s when I was a Ph.D. student. I went to Divinity School before that, and that was actually where I was introduced to futures thinking. This is very early.

Later in life, I got to interview the management guru, Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker, at that time he was 94 years old, told us at that time, the first half of your life, do many different things and work with many different kinds of people, because you don’t know who you are; the second half of your life, it’s pretty optimistic, he was 94, and he was still going strong, so roughly 50, by the time you’re age 50, you try to figure out what your clarity is. Then you only work with things you’re passionate about and only work with people you love to work with.

I was really lucky. I found what I wanted to do in my 20s. When I joined the Institute for the Future, I joined a community of people I love to work with. The earlier you can find that, the better. I think one of the big personal guides for me is to stay focused on purpose.

The other thing and this is more unique to futurists, I focus my life 10 years ahead. I am not that interested in the present. The present is really noisy. I’m not an expert in the present. Fortunately, in my career, I’ve got people around me who take care of the present for me. I’ve got a calendaring assistant, a human, I’ve got a research assistant, and I’ve got 50 colleagues, who are constantly filtering for me and constantly looking out for me. Then periodically, I’ve got co-authors. Of my 13 books, I think half of them were co-authored, so there’s always that as another filter.

The essence to me is the principle. You want to be very clear about where you’re going but very flexible about how you get there. I’m very clear that I’m focused 10 years ahead. I want to write books. I have chosen to live on an island. During COVID, I moved to Bainbridge Island from Silicon Valley. I’m looking right out at the Puget Sound. I’ve chosen to live in a natural, beautiful environment to figure out how to be better than when I was on stage as a way of pacing myself at this age and continuing to do what I love to do. But everybody needs to do that at some stage. What is your clarity? Then how do you go about pursuing that clarity with flexibility and with humility? Then you build in your values. I value kindness, I’m really seeking out people who are not only good at what they do, they’re doing good things.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I think a lot of people just get lost in information about the present, which is, as you say, probably a very little interested person like you thinking about 10-year’s future but probably very little value to them as well.

Bob: I’m not saying the present is unimportant. I’m just saying I’m not good at it. I’m really good at thinking 10 years ahead.

Ross: You’ve chosen not to be good because you’ve got other priorities. Just in a nutshell, what are your daily information habits in terms of sources, types of content, formats, digestion, or flowing, what are some of the ways in which you choose to engage with information throughout the day?

Bob: Let me just get real personal on this. I think sleep is really important. I sleep more than a lot of people. I sleep maybe eight or nine, sometimes 10 hours a night. But I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’ve always got a journal by myself.

One of the ways I filter information is by understanding what keeps me up at night. What keeps me up tonight is often the most profound. Usually, when I’m writing a book, when I’m in the middle of writing a book, I wake up with three or four pages of notes, a few kernels of which are actually useful; not everything is useful in the middle of the night. But I really believe in that notion of sleep.

I also believe in the more ancient concept of second sleep, that you do the first sleep, then you pause, and that’s where the big ideas happen to me, in the middle of the first sleep and the second sleep. I think that’s really important. A lot of the high-powered people I work with don’t sleep nearly as much as I do. I think sleeping is really important. That’s the first thing.

Then I think having people around you who serve as filters, who look for different things than you do, the criteria I use for who I work with is I want to work with people who are different than me in an interesting way. By interesting, that links to my purpose, so people who help me understand the world 10 years out working back those are the people I want to hang around with. I filter out everybody else.

I’m not very social, I’m more introverted than extroverted. I don’t spend a lot of time at parties. I don’t spend a lot of time without reach. I’m quite selective. I’m new to this Island as of two years ago. It’s a very rich Island. There are artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and amazing people, we’re just a ferry ride from Seattle.

What I’ve done is volunteered for groups that I’m interested in, like, there’s a group here doing Bainbridge Island 2035, and a group called Bainbridge Prepares, that’s all about preparation for wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. There’s a group called the Bainbridge Island Land Trust, and I’ve volunteered. I don’t do boards, I’ve tried boards of directors, I just find those not a good use of my time, but I volunteer for them to bring in foresight and to do things. Then I select from that, people I would like to get to know, and I ask if they’d like to go for a walk with me. I’ve developed a handful of really good relationships by selectively meeting people.

I think that’s an important part of information overload. They’ve now become my sources of the kind of information that I want to pay attention to. I don’t make systematic filtering use of a lot of online tools. I have colleagues who do, and I’m close to them. But again, I think that’s partly an age, a skill, and a career decision thing. It works for me, but I’ve got resources that a lot of people don’t have.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I absolutely agree with the sleep thing. I’m a big believer in sleep. Despite the 4 AM mantra, many of the most successful people do sleep a lot.

I think that’s a wonderful description of the specifics of how it is you’re building what I describe as personal information networks, of course, they’re far more than that. It is a community, and personal connection, but they are information networks.

Bob: It is community. I think you’re right. The other thing I didn’t mention but I should is exercise. I think exercise is way more important than most people think it is.

I was a college athlete. I went to college on a basketball scholarship and played Division One at the University of Illinois. I wasn’t great, but I was good enough to get a scholarship. I wasn’t good enough to be a pro. It meant that I had to come up with a new identity when I went to graduate school. But I do think physical exercise and having some kind of exercise routine is critical to every great thinker I know. Yet again, it’s often overlooked.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Bob. Office Shock is an important and insightful book. I think as a leader, you should use it as a resource to get an insight into how they will create the officeverse to achieve their purposes in the organization. Thank you for your insights. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

Bob: Thank you, Ross. I really appreciate your book and your effort to help people learn to thrive. We’re both in the thrive business.

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Ross Dawson

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