The Future of Work – The Work of Place

Around the world, both very publicly and quietly in private, Organisations are struggling to figure out what the future of work looks like.

It’s a challenge that conflates a number of elements: where will work take place, how will work take place, what will happen to culture, how will we lead, how will we control, where will identity lie, and will this be a competitive or innovative advantage or hurdle?

Sometimes the debate is couched in predominantly geographical terms: will we be ‘in the office’, ‘remote’, or ‘hybrid’, implying that our challenge is simply one of where we breathe and how often we commute.

It’s not.

There are more fundamental questions at play, not the least of which is to ask exactly ‘what’ an Organisation is, and ‘how’ it is effective, as well as ‘how’ does it change and ‘what’ should it change into.

As i explored in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ last year, our legacy Organisations are largely (structurally and culturally) an artefact of the Industrial Age. They are remnants of the structure that dug things up, melted it, and sent it around the world.

These organisations are optimised for place, expert at consistency, conformity, and replicabilty in service of scale. And they almost universally want to change.

The future is no secret: more for less, greater permeability, less control, more individual agency, speed of innovation, deeper fairness, and a long list of similarly attractive aspects.

The challenge is that you cannot have the new without first burning out the old. And this has become mixed up in, and sometimes confused with, the ‘return to work’.

The one dimensional question of ‘where’ we work is naive: the zeitgeist is clear. Aside from some machismo and outliers, it will be a mixed model. Understandably and fairly some Organisations will get people ‘back’ to the office, and will tell a story of how their culture relies upon it, how they cannot function without it. As i say, that is fair enough, although it does belie an underlying mindset of legacy instead of innovation.

There are then those who will be deceived into believing that ‘hybrid’ or ‘remote only’ is the answer: it is not. If you are lucky, it is the foundation of an answer.

Essentially the fundamental challenge is one of Organisational Design, in service of three key things. Firstly, how we belong, secondly, the mechanisms by which we are effective, and thirdly, how we innovate and change. These three aspects lead out into a broad array of secondary and tertiary questions: how do we lead, how do we control, how do we learn, and so on.

But it is at heart a question of vision: can we envisage an Organisation that is different from that which we own today, and are we willing to pay the price to build it?

Last year i published ‘Finding Your Campfire’, exploring how we can be together apart, as a remote work survival guide. Now, as we look beyond the pandemic, the question may be how we learn to be together again: where, how, and why.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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