We live in interesting times: there is a great deal of primary narrative about ‘the future of work’, with an increasing number of Organisations wading into one side of the battle or the other. Is home working the ‘aberration’ that Goldman Sachs believe it to be, or is a mixed and self determined model the future, as PWC have announced. Or does the truth lie somewhere else?
In parallel to these rather public spats and plays for engagement, we could ask if government is working to protect a legacy model of social distribution and infrastructure, or actively legislating to allow a new one to emerge? With everything from planning and zoning rules to tax breaks and subsidisation of public transport, the dynamic interplay between infrastructure and social desire has never been hotter than today.
It’s hard to disentangle the debate about ‘the future of work’ from a conversation about ‘the infrastructure of work’: we already are seeing shifts in the patterns of house buying, as well as rocketing sales of skylights and ring lights as people adapt their space to fit their purpose (as well as the trend of Organisations shedding real estate, leases, and associated service contracts and suppliers).
The argument posted by all sides in this debate relate to a range of common features: the ‘Location’ of work, the ‘Mechanisms’ of work, and the ‘Control’ of work, alongside a topic that has been on the lips of Execs for some time, the ‘Purpose’ of work.
Location relates to where work is done. Mechanisms of work relate to how that work is done, with a particular focus on collaboration and culture, and the Control of work relates to how people are treated, managed, recognised and rewarded. The Purpose of work is rather more existential, and sometimes self delusional, and relates to why we do the work, and who the work serves.
The conversation about Location typically starts with ‘Space’, but you cannot have a conversation about ‘Space’ without also (or accidentally) veering into a conversation about Power. The fragmentation of space inherently leads to a democratisation of power, which forms a challenge to the hierarchy that represents the legacy model. We see all sorts of weird and futile attempts to control this dynamic: in the last two weeks i have experienced the following – comments disabled in public ‘town halls’ with leaders, a ban on sharing images in collective chat, and attempts by ‘comms’ teams to limit direct interaction with leaders, as well as controls on what those leaders share in public social spaces.
Where people work clearly carries two main challenges: our responsibility to ensure everyone has equitable access to a healthy space to work in, and our willingness to accept that people do good work even when we cannot see them.
The research is reasonably clear that the former condition is not consistently met: people do work from ‘home offices’ and standing desks, but i have also met people who have worked from their bedroom, corridors, and in two cases, their bathroom or toilets, for a year. And both health and wellbeing outcomes correlate to the conditions that we work in.
Increasing numbers of Organisations are recognising that the loss of the office may save them money, but that they will need to invest some of that saving into subsidies or benefits for home workers, beyond the simple subsidy of a new headset. Providing funds to use shared workspaces or work from a cafe for hours or days a week may be a minimum.
Some entities, like Nationwide bank in the UK, are also distributing their workforces into hither-too ‘branch’ networks, so a permanent shift to give people access to more local office space, alongside their frontline colleagues, which sounds to me like a triple benefit of reducing the environmental impacts and costs of the commute, creating new spaces for collaboration, and breaking down legacy cultural divides between ‘branch’ and ‘head office’.
If we know anything about the relocation of work, it is that we are unlikely to find the answer in one hit: but at the very time that we should be rapidly prototyping new ideas, we are collapsing into polarised argument about the ‘best’ approach.
I suspect that the winners here will be the ones who make rapid adjustments to manage expectation and costs (so they engage with their employees, and also shed assets fast), but that then work together over 3-5 years to prototype different models, including the repurposing of the remaining space, as well as addressing questions of fairness in distributed models, and between roles that cannot be distributed. They can then spend the following ten years learning how to truly generate the benefits of the synergy as it beds in.
The losers will likely be the ones that reject any change, or who try to codify a new normal as a fait accompli with no iteration or a humility to listen.
The Mechanisms of work are potentially the area of greatest interest, once you see beyond the initial noise: this is less about ‘where’ we work, but more about what we stand to lose, and gain, by being ‘together apart’. It is a conversation about collaboration, co-creation, and culture, and relates to the ‘power’ aspect of remote as well.
A naive initial reading is that ‘together is best’, and that we must simply find ways to be ‘together’ in person to retain our networks, trust, and ability to innovate.
The only thing we can say for sure is that ‘together’ is different than ‘apart’, but the link to creativity and collaboration is less clear. And even those pieces of it that are clear may become cloudy as the impacts of new normalised practices, and emergent and advancing technologies, continue to bite.
In my own work on the coherence and effectiveness of Communities, i describe two types of activity: ‘Pointless’ and ‘Purposeful’. Organisations typically are thinking of the purposeful aspect when they consider collaboration, but i suspect that 90% of what we do when together is pointless. Not without point, but rather not directly focussed on productivity. Instead, this is the time when we weave the social fabric, capital, and connection, that allows us to be purposeful in bursts.
I wrote about this recently, to say that the pointless activity weaves the fabric, which we can raise into a sail to make a purposeful journey. If we neglect the weaving of the fabric, the sail will tear.
So in our models of operation, when we consider the Mechanisms of work, we will need to consider this in several layers.
One layer is simple utility: how do we connect, how do we share, how do we collaborate. The second layer is about ‘how’ we are together: where do we build social capital, where do we share experience, where do we forge connection and trust, and most importantly where and how do we interconnect beyond simple structure.
The Utility of remote is a challenge in itself: often we are trapped in collaborative models that are a legacy of the office: hour long meetings, sending documents to each other intact, and working nine to five. There are significant productivity gains to be found in more creative models of utilitarian collaboration: effective use of shared documents, wiki approaches, and dynamic, synchronous collaboration, including use of non verbal modes, such as whiteboards, or dynamic audio collaboration (e.g. walkie talkie models to share snippets of meaning in service of a co-created story). Also, models of time management that trade small blocks and fragments of time and effort more so than hour long meetings. Self selection of blocks of time in other people’s diaries can tend to lead to shorter overall meetings (e.g. you can book my time in five minute blocks, and choose how much you need).
The ‘How’ was already a dominant question in my own work before the pandemic, but now feels central to the question of leadership. What is our role as the Organisation, as leaders, and as members?
This is a large topic, but the governing themes are likely to relate to the use of learning and rehearsal spaces, the levels of consequence experienced, the freedom to experiment, and the space to explore.
Clearer signposting of where we have to ‘perform’, and where we can purely learn, or carry learning into rehearsal, will be key. Often ‘rehearsal’ time is limited, and in the exhausted teams of the year long ‘remote’ organisations, is frequently absent altogether. Consequence relates to this: if you cannot clearly vary consequence between these spaces, then you are unlikely to see change: in my own research the most common words associated with change, even in Organisations that state they want change, are ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’, implying that there is a high cost of change, and being the one to stand up first.
In both the research into Trust, as well as into how we ‘Believe’ in our leaders, our freedom to explore, and permission to experiment, came out as highly valued. So one reading of the ‘how’ we collaborate is that we need space and freedom, and that our Organisational responsibility is to create these conditions.
Part of it is mindset: what if the future of work is more about providing space, resource, and freedom, more so than the direct control and regulation of labour?
This feels to me like a key developmental area for the Organisation that is shifting to more sustainable remote working: to develop leadership, managerial, and working patterns that are focussed more around ‘Opportunity’ than direct control.
There is a parallel conversation relevant to the questions around the Mechanisms of work, which relates to the scale of Organisations. If the ‘remainers’ win, and the Office dominates the future of work, then monumental scale is likely the outcome. But if we are more distributed, we may see a more permeable and even tribal model, which will itself bring challenge and opportunity.
Possibly this results in an Organisation with more ideas, which is a foundation for greater Innovation, but which will have to work on it’s ability to hear those ideas, and crucially to retain an ability to move into production and scale, whilst not falling into the trap of becoming monumental again.
In my work on the Socially Dynamic Organisation i try to address this from an Organisational Design perspective: as we move ‘beyond domains’, we will need to address core leadership and collaboration skills, predominantly around the facilitation of community, and the freeing up of stories and storytelling, across the levels, at scale.
Control forms a backdrop to conversations about distribution and home working: can you truly control people if you cannot see them?
One answer would be that if you have to try to control people, you have already lost. Engagement, the type of engagement we will likely need in any future facing Organisation, will be earned, not demanded.
For sure, we need levels of control, but most of our safety will lie in cultural strength, not legislative or oversight models.
The aspect to focus on may be the extent to which power, especially Exec power, is held in empire, and how much of that empire relates to head count and real estate. The fragmentation fo physical space, alongside potentially the erosion of the Domains, may mean new forms of power that come with oversight of smaller teams, but power found through the facilitation of collaboration. A reputation economy: still powerful, but differently powerful.
Purpose is on the lips of many of the most senior leaders i speak to, but often with a level of wilful blindness around the true context of work.
For publicly traded, shareholder led, Organisations, a purpose is to make money, and not to ‘do bad’ along the way. The aspiration to ‘do more good’, which is variously expressed as social responsibility, or sustainability, is to be larded and rewarded, but is nonetheless hollow unless it also addresses shareholder value, and an honest appraisal about commerciality and markets.
Possibly ‘Purpose’ can sit alongside this, but cannot subsume it.
I believe it is naive in the extreme to talk about sustainability unless we are directly addressing it at both the level of the individual employee, and also the local societies and communities in which the footprints of global Organisations are trodden.
Vague but well intentioned statements about social mission and fairness are delusional unless backed by action today.
It is possible that the Organisations of the future, the future of work, lies with less direct central profit, but with greater sustainability of profit over time, held in entities of work that are smaller and more permeable, easily restructured, liquid or agile, and adaptive at speed. Grounded within, and accountable to, their local communities, and yet able to be a global force at scale, because they have earned that right.
This story is not one that will be written by a photogenic CEO alone, but rather will be held in the individual action, and Agency, of many thousands.
In this piece i have tried to line up four dimensions of the battle lines being drawn: prompted and accelerated by COVID-19, this battle will play beyond the vaccination programmes and legal constraints of the pandemic.
The question of the LOCATION of work is one of power, and memory. Organisations that can live with ambiguity, and engage heavily, will win this one.
The question of the MECHANISMS of work is one of legacy, and opportunity, with a strong need for discovery and experimentation. The agile will win this one.
The question of CONTROL of work is one of hierarchy, pride, and power. The adaptable will win this one, if they are willing to earn the culture they need.
The question of PURPOSE of work is one of aspiration and delusion: possibly the pragmatic, open, and fair, will win this one.
The battle for the Future of Work is just beginning, and the only certainty i carry is that where we end up will be both radically different from today, and almost certainly unknown today. The best gift we can give ourselves right now is to remain uncertain, and open to change.