COVID forced the workplace to change abruptly. It was an unsettling change and disruptive event for most people and organizations. Bob Johansen, the co-author of Office Shock, shows us how thinking future-back gives us a fresh set of eyes to see possibilities in creating better futures for working and living. The first thing executives should have is the mindset to teach themselves to think future-back and how they fit in that future. How can we work together better to be productive, attract talent, be responsive, and have a strong corporate culture? This is a great opportunity to transform your "officeverse," so seize this time and tune in to this episode now.
In this episode, Bob Johansen discusses:
- How to create a better future for working and living
- What does future-back mean in the workplace
- Future-back essentially means you set a navigational star and work backward.
- We like to call the COVID crisis the Great Opportunity. There are many bad things about it, but there are historically important good things too.
- The world of virtual work was surprisingly productive during the COVID shutdown. It was amazing how office workers with no prep and very little training were very productive without offices.
- The forward-thinking is more the story than the dark side of that, the negative-thinking.
"Leaders are all going to have to be superminds. We will have to be augmented." - Bob Johansen.
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Bob Johansen - Creating Better Futures For Working And Living
Hello and welcome everybody to this episode of the Insight Interviews. I've got a special guest today, Bob Johansen. Bob is a futurist, having written or co-authored more than ten books. And he's a futurist which, Bob, I got to tell you, the first time I'm like, "Are you kidding me? I get to interview a futurist? How cool is that?" Bob, welcome to the show.
Thanks. It's great to be here.
I've got a whole slew of questions that I want to ask you. You know, as we kind of did some pre-recording chat, you said that you've listened to a few episodes of The Insight Interviews. So you may know the first question that's going to come out of my mouth which has nothing to do with being a futurist or even the ten books that you've written or the nonprofit that you're on. But today, as we face each other, you're on the West Coast. I'm on the East Coast. Bob what are you grateful for today?
I'm grateful for the ability to think about the future. The now is so noisy. It's just such a noisy polarized threatening now that I'm grateful for the opportunity to be able to think about the future, be able to think future-back in order to develop a clarity of direction even within all this noise.
When you're talking to a host that helps people with the way that they're thinking for a career and to hear you say you're grateful to be able to think about the future, brother, we're already friends. This is already going really well. You've got some terms in your latest book, Office Shock, which I have read and highly recommend. You've got some terms in there that I'd love for us to use as a jumping-off point. You just mentioned one of them. You did this conversationally. You mentioned the word future-back. But I'm going to guess, like me, many of our listeners might not fully understand what you mean by that. So would you mind defining future-back for me a little bit?
Sure. So future-back means for us, go ten years ahead. And ten years is about the sweet spot. It's beyond people's normal planning horizon, but still close enough to be credible. So go ten years out, and then think future-back. Where most of us are just kind of stuck in that noisy now and we kind of inch our way out to the future, present forward. So we think about the now, and then we think about the next, and then maybe the future.
You know McKinsey first called that Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3. And what we say is that in a stable time, thinking about horizons in a kind of linear way, thinking about the future from the present to the next to the now, that that works pretty well when things are stable, but not so well in these highly unstable times like we're in now. You know, what the Army War College calls the VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.
And I teach there now and I've learned so much from them in terms of that ability to think future-back, that ability to think not in a command-and-control way but in what they call the commander's intent. You get your clarity first, and then you work backward from that clarity. Future-back essentially means that you set a navigational star and you work backward. You can't have certainty, but you can have clarity. And that clarity of direction frees you to be very creative, very open, very creative in your approach to how you get from the now to the next, but only if you begin by thinking future-back.
Thank you for defining it, which is what my question was. And I followed most of that and even took notes. Do you have an example or a story or maybe a client or coworker... Can you run through a specific story or example that would even further define future-back?
Sure. So we did a custom forecast a while ago for Syngenta, one of the world's largest seed and crop protection companies. They were bought not too long ago by ChemChina. And we were doing a ten-year forecast for them. And it was on the future of food security. And so instead of just beginning with their current business, which is seeds and crop protection, we identified that as an exploration of food security.
We went ten years out, but we kind of got stuck. They're a West Europe-based company in Basel, Switzerland. We got stuck because the GMO foods conversation was so polarized and it was hard to have a reasonable conversation about food security. Because for a lot of people, a lot of smart people, they think GMO foods is a yes/no choice. It's not a yes/no choice. It's a spectrum of choices. Some of which are good and some of which are bad.
So we ended up focusing 30 years out to develop a clarity around food security and the conversation around global hunger and issues of food security, and then we worked back from that to the now. It's essentially starting a different kind of conversation. And that's exactly what we're trying to do in the book, Office Shock, the new book, is to start a different conversation about how we work. Not just when do we go back to the office, but how we work. We've got this unprecedented opportunity to consider ways of working, consider ways of living that were never possible before. But you can only get that if you start future-back.
Thank you. I'm going to start using that. That's going to be some vernacular that I'm going to use right now. And I appreciate that example. I want to go one more level deeper on future-back, and then we'll move on to maybe some other terms or some other things that you mentioned in the book. And I appreciate that example. For a listener who's running a 500-person organization, that this is true in the industry that we mainly serve which is mortgage and real estate but it's true in many industries right now, where the pandemic brought this virtual working atmosphere.
And now we're in this time where companies are trying to figure out, "Do we come back to the office? Do we not come back to the office?" You mentioned that. If I'm a leader of such an organization that is in that situation right now, what is it about future back -- and maybe I'm connecting dots that shouldn't be connected here -- what is it about future-back that will help me gain some clarity with how I make these decisions of office, no office, or virtual? And maybe how I communicate that and what I should be thinking about?
The crises, the COVID crisis was first called the Great Resignation, and then it was called the Great Reset. More recently, it's been called Quiet Quitting. We like to call it the Great Opportunity. There are lots of bad things about it, but there's also a really important good thing, and it's a historic good thing. Because we're taking a pause now, and we've got a chance to ask more basic questions.
While many people are saying, "When do we go back to the office?" we're saying, "That's a good question, but for us, it's number 6 out of 7 questions you should be asking." The first question should be, “Why in office at all? What's the purpose of the office?" We developed it in the book. I should say this book began during the crisis when we were approached by the CEO of USM, the very large furniture company in Switzerland. He asked us, “How can we begin a different conversation about the future of offices?”
We have done a two-year research project now about that, thinking future-back. And our seven spectrums of choice begin with purpose, but then we say, "What are the outcomes you're seeking?" And you know, we're futurists and future-back. One of the most important outcomes over the next decade is going to be climate and climate impacts. Office buildings don't have a very good track record about that.
Asking the question, how can we be not just climate neutral or net zero, how can we be regenerative in our ways of working? Then we ask, "How do you create a culture of belonging? And we ask "How might you be augmented as you think future-back?" Because, future-back, we're all going to be augmented if we're going to be thriving, if we're going to be leaders.
I write books. If I'm going to be writing big-time books ten years from now, I'm going to have to be augmented. Things like ChatGPT, we actually used that to write this chapter, to augment our ability to write. But then we get to the sixth spectrum which is place and time. When do you go back to the office from office buildings to what we call the Officeverse? And then, finally, agility. How do you hold it all together? These seven spectrums of choice in order are the questions you should be asking. And it's an opportunity question. A chance to do things to work together to live our lives in ways that are just different than we were able to do pre-crisis.
What I'm hearing from you is, you used the Great Resignation and the what did you say, what was that?
Quiet Quitting is the most current one, but the Great Reset is another term.
And you reframed it to the Great Opportunity, and then explained what that meant. I really appreciate the reframe there. Basically what I heard, and I'd love for you to expand on this, Bob, is hey, yeah there might be a challenge. You might have a lot of signed leases that you're on the hook for, for office space. You may have some employees that want to come back to the office, and some employees that don't.
Rather than looking at that as a handwringing challenge, which we don't want to ignore that, that that's there. Reality is reality. But instead reframe it to an opportunity to say, "Why are we doing offices, to begin with? What's the purpose? What do I want to achieve?" It's not about specifically coming to the office or not. It's about, “Why are we doing it? What are the outcomes that we want to have?” You're just reframing that a touch is what I'm hearing.
We are, and it's reframing more than a touch. We're acknowledging that it is a threat. There are very real threats. There are very real challenges about this. The COVID shutdown was not fair. It worked fine if you had a good place to work at home and you had a good internet connection. It didn't work fine if you had kids to take care of or elders to take care of or you didn't have a good place to work. So it's not fair.
But if you view it as an opportunity to rethink the basics, thinking future-back, ten years from now, our ability to connect is going to be dramatically better than it is right now. We're using Zoom right now. Zoom didn't just happen. Video conferencing started in the early 1980s, and it was awful. I grew up with that. This is so much better than we used to have.
Ten years from now, it's going to get dramatically better from what we have now. So this is an opportunity for us to ask those really fundamental questions and to do a restart, in ways that allow us to do things that have never been done before. The focus of that restart ought to be on productivity. How can we be productive? That's got to be the basic.
The world of virtual work was surprisingly productive during the COVID shutdown. It was amazing how office workers with no prep, with very little training, were very productive without offices. It's pretty amazing, office workers were productive without offices. Productivity is the basic thing. But then we have to ask, "How do we attract talent?" And now, people have gotten used to the idea of flexibility. The talent war is going to get more intense. And if you aren't flexible, you're out of the game.
The world of virtual work was surprisingly productive during the COVID shutdown. It was amazing how office workers with no prep, with very little training, were very productive without offices.
For jobs that can be flexible, you're going to need to be flexible, but there is a challenge. How do we create a corporate culture, a climate of belonging, a climate of inclusiveness, a climate of equity? And we can in better ways now in this, what we call the Officeverse. This archipelago of possibilities that still includes in-person. In-person's not going to go away. And then finally, we've got to be more resilient in the VUCA world. We've got to be able to be prepared to be future-ready because the VUCA world's going to get worse. It's going to get more VUCA. But there are new ways to be prepared for that.
I've got 38 more questions based on what you said there, Bob. First of all, let's go to the term Officeverse because you've mentioned that a couple of times now. I saw it in the book, but for our listeners, define that, and then I want to go back to some of the things that you said.
Sure. So the simple definition is the metaverse applied to offices. Another simple definition: it's what's next for the internet beyond where we are now. But we view it as the combination of in-person, of same time, different place, of different times, different places, of same place, different times. It's the mix of all the time and place options. Leaders are going to have to be really good at choosing which medium is good for what.
And this is also important to realize. The more virtual we become, the more we're going to value in-person, but we're going to be much smarter about how we do that. And the research is very clear. The research suggests that in-person meetings and in-person offices are better for orientation, "Why are were here?", for trust building, "Who are you?", for early-stage creativity, and for culture building. That's why we get together in person, but there are also a lot of limitations about it.
Office Shock: The more virtual we become, the more we value in-person, but we will be much smarter about how we do that.
Only one person can talk at once. You have to travel physically to get there. It's harder to bring in distributed people. So there's real trade-offs. We would have used the term metaverse, but as we were writing it... We're based in Silicon Valley, we're the world's longest-running futures think tank, Institute For The Future. And metaverse was just... Lots of companies are trying to own it. One in particular.
We don't think that's going to work, but we just decided to coin our own term, Officeverse, for combining it all. It isn't just the Officeverse. It could be the retailverse. We work with Walmart. For Walmart's point of view, the store is the center, then the distribution center, and then the office. Or we work with BorgWarner and with WestRock, the large manufacturers. For them, the factory is the center, so we call it the factoryverse. We work with United Way International worldwide. For them, it's the community. It's the communityverse. It's really that mix. Again, that archipelago of possibilities including in-person, but also including this unbelievably rich mix of media, which we’re already beginning to just taste. But it's going to get dramatically better.
I get excited when I hear you say that. We became a society that did it that way, so that's how we did it until COVID came in and disrupted that. I'm hearing you getting excited about the opportunity, the Great Opportunity, as opposed to many of the executives that we hear from. They're pulling their hair out about, "I got to have people come back to the office." And they're not lifting their head up at the 10,000-foot view and asking some of the foundational questions that you're bringing up.
Which would be a great reason for the listeners to pick up the book. I know we're not here to sell books, but at the same time, after reading it and then listening to you verbally expound upon it, for the executive that I brought up and many others, it's a good place to start. There are some harsh realities, like you mentioned, that they're dealing with, but it's an opportunity to augment it and make it so much better as a result of the Officeverse and exactly what you're saying.
It actually is. And we're not here to tell people what to do. We're here to help them make smart choices. The future-back view does give you a very clear sense of the direction we're going. We have the Seven Spectrums of Choice as a little handout in the book. It's on our OfficeShock.org website. You can use that as a quick start guide. We use a music mixing board metaphor. So it's not a binary choice on each spectrum of choice. It's a sliding scale. It's a great conversation starter about how can we work together better to be productive, attract talent, be responsive, and have a strong corporate culture.
I saw all that quick start guide in there. As an author myself who's been involved with a few books, I recognize when I saw that insert. It's full color. It's a sliding-scale thing. I'm like, "These guys spent some money on this thing." I know how the book world works, but at the same time, it lends itself to creativity and it's more visual in nature as opposed to just words on the pages. I appreciate the fact that you guys did that.
I'm that same executive that's listening to our conversation right now, I understand Officeverse. I understand future-back. You defined it. You told a story around it. But I've got some things that are in front of me right now. Where is a good place for executives to start with this? I know you might say, "It's ten years and then go back." Where are 1 or 2 good places and jumping-off points for somebody to go, "I hear you, Bob. I want to reframe this as an opportunity, not just this challenge type of thing. Where do I start?"
Thinking about it from an individual point of view, a good example of thinking future-back is financial planning. We all have to imagine ourselves as being older. It's really hard. Most of us, even those of us who are professional futurists, have trouble imagining our future self. That's what good financial planning is.
Imagine, "Do you expect to be 100?” and then you work backward. Where do you want to be when you're 100? Do you want to be close to your kids? Do you want to be in a warm climate? What are your choices? You work back and you model it. That's what good financial planners do. The first thing is the mindset to teach yourself how to think future-back. Start with yourself. How do you fit in this particular future?
Then you get back to what's a framework for making choices. That's exactly what our book, Office Shock, is intended to do. It's to start a different conversation about where, when, how, and even why we work. So it's basically a framework for that kind of choice-making. Then begin working internally with your leadership teams. And Office Shock -- which is this unsettling change in how, where, when, and why we work -- Office Shock is not going to go away quickly and it's much more than an operational concern.
It's a C-Suite concern. It's a board-level concern because it's just so basic. If you don't take this opportunity to rethink, it's going to become a threat. You're going to have trouble getting talent. You're going to have trouble being productive. You're going to have trouble responding to the VUCA world. It essentially gives you a framework for choice-making. It's a framework that starts ten years ahead and then works backward to your current choices.
You're going to have trouble getting talent. You're going to have trouble being productive. You're going to have trouble responding to the VUCA world. It essentially gives you a framework for choice-making.
Sometimes ideas are so big and I hear individuals go, "Okay, but where do I start? What are the first couple steps?" That's what then leads to the next couple of steps and so forth. I appreciate you expanding on that. Bob, we've touched on a lot of topics. I know for most of them, we stayed at a pretty high level. Are there topics in the context of this conversation that I have not asked you about that you would like to expand on or talk about?
One of the spectrums of choice that we introduce in the book that's become even more important... The book just came out. It just happened, so we're having one of the first conversations about it. One of the things that happened as we finished the manuscript is ChatGPT took off. Probably all your listeners have heard about it and a good proportion have tried it.
It was released as a public free trial on November 30th, 2022. It wasn't stable until January 30th. It's only been out in a stable form for a couple weeks. It's upped the conversation about the spectrum of augmentation. That's a spectrum from thinking of ourselves as leaders. Each of your audience can do this. Where do you want to be on that spectrum from a separate human with no augmentation to a fully augmented human given your future-back goals for the next decade?
I'm a writer, so I'm a professional futurist. I do custom forecasts, I write books. I do talks. I used to be on the road all the time. I used to be on stage. Now, I'm pretty much all virtual and I'm using a different metaphor. I'm inviting people into my study. I've got VR goggles on the wall if you want to go in there. Honestly, there are not many takers yet because VR isn't good enough, but it will be in years.
I've got a comfortable chair for you to sit in. I've got artifacts all around. Mickey Mouse is when I worked with Walt Disney World on the first sensors guiding people around the park. The Big Bird is when I did a talk on Sesame Street and Big Bird was there. There are stories about everything, and I'm giving people access to me in a way that I couldn't do if I was on stage.
My goal is actually "better than being there." I've got soundproofing, I've got mics, I've got cameras. I've got an experience that's different. We all have to ask that question, "How can we engage in ways we've never done before?" If you think future-back, if you're running a company, or if you're a top leader, you're going to have to be augmented. Cyborgs will win.
I'm not saying that computers will replace people. That's part of the story, but that's not the big story. The big story is what Tom Malone at MIT calls Superminds. Leaders are all going to have to be superminds. We're all going to have to be augmented. As a writer, I'm going to have to be augmented with something like ChatGPT. We used it to write the chapter on the spectrum of augmentation. You'd get a taste there, but it was an early version, it was GPT-3.
Leaders are all going to have to be superminds. We're all going to have to be augmented.
Ten years from now, it's probably going to be built into Microsoft Word. That would be my guess. Part of good writing will be to use some kind of large language model like GPT, and whatever it's called at that stage. Maybe it's going to be Google's Bard. Who knows what it's going to be? It's going to be something to augment, not to replace.
But it means, for all of us who are leaders, we're all going to have to be augmented. We just have to get used to it and make the choice of how, and answer the question, "What are the things humans do best? What do we want to keep for ourselves? What are the things computers do best? How do we want to be augmented?"
I so much appreciate that answer. My biggest takeaway is a lot of times you hear about speakers. You may not remember what they said, but you remember the way that they made you feel. I'm excited from listening to you, Bob. ChatGPT is just one example of many where people do get a little worried about it. The "When are the machines going to take over?" type of thinking.
What you're saying is, no, there might be some things there, but the real story is, how can it continue to help us? How can the technology augment what we're already doing? We're already, as humans, doing amazing, creative, and meaningful things. These technologies that are coming out faster and faster and faster are able to even augment that and help that. And I think what you're saying is, you'll be left behind if you don't do it, but wow, look how amazing this is if you do it. The forward-thinking is more the story than the dark side of that, the negative-thinking.
Office Shock: The forward-thinking is more the story than the dark side of that, the negative-thinking.
Yeah, that's right. There are negatives and challenges. We include a lot of those in the book. I'm not rosy-glassed here. It's a VUCA world. That's where we start. But I am really hopeful and I am really positive. I'm particularly positive about kids, about young people, if they have hope. They're growing up digital in much more sophisticated ways than we did. There's a real opportunity there if they have hope.
That's the spectrum of purpose. We have to be sure we have those opportunities for hope and economics of hope. A base there that allows for that great clarity of direction, and great flexibility of execution. I've been doing this for a long time. The Institute is the only futurist group that's ever outlived its forecast five times over. This is the most optimistic forecast I've ever been involved with and it's the most threatening. So the stakes have gone up.
Very interesting. On that note of hope for the next generations coming up, that's great. Even though you only answered 3 of my 38 questions. I'm just kidding. You did a wonderful job, but that's a great place for us to put a stake in the ground and start to wind our conversation down with that idea of hope. Thank you for that. Bob, how do people find you? I have a feeling that people who are reading this likely will buy the book, but they may want to reach out to you, find out more, and connect with you. What's the best way for people to do that?
The best way is through the Institute For The Future website. We're an independent nonprofit. It’s IFTF.org and we can put a link to it. We can also do a discount code through our publisher if you want to buy Office Shock. I'll give you a fast way to do that. And then on the OfficeShock.org website which is on the IFTF website, we have all the resources including color images of all the futures we're exploring. We recruited young artists around the world to look at our scenarios about purpose, outcomes, augmentation, and the like, and then created visuals and illustrations. We're inviting people to create their own stories about those futures and make them attractive and make them engaging.
That is great. Bob, I have a feeling people will reach out to you. Thank you for offering discounts and all of those types of things. I know you've got free tools and everything on your website. I'm looking forward to listening to this episode again myself to continue to internalize this. I'm excited for our listeners. I appreciate your time, Bob.
Thanks for what you're doing. I appreciate this chance to have this conversation.
Bob, take it easy and we'll talk soon.
About Bob Johansen
Bob Johansen is an IFTF Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, a sociologist focused on top leadership in shape-shifting organizations. He is co-author of: Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Working and Living (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Jan. 17, 2023), shares how to prepare for the emerging officeverse. Learn more at http://officeshock.org