The Future of Work – what Binds us to the Past?

Last week i shared an introduction to a new body of work around ‘The Work of Place’, exploring perspectives on the Future of Work. The intent of this work is to move beyond the primary analysis of ‘where work takes place post pandemic’ – a conversations about offices and hybrid working – and into a conversation about what the ‘place of work’ is, how we are effective, and some of the ambitious visions and efforts to discover or invest new mechanisms and systems of work.

We are bound to the past for a whole range of reasons, some of which i have tried to capture in this illustration: the past is what we know, and also what we are tied into. Or to put it another way, the past is not simply a story, it is a system, with tangible, structural, legal and social ties. We are literally held within it’s arms.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ [2019], i talked about how Organisations cast a shadow into their own future. Hence to invent the new ‘place of work’ will require us to disentangle or unwind the shadow – we must free ourselves from the past to find the future.

One broad narrative is this: Organisations have learnt how to be effective – which we can define as knowing what to do, at scale, and optimising their ability to deliver that, in a controlled way that minimised deviation – and have then nested within that effectiveness. They accrete systems of power (hierarchy), craft stories (culture), build infrastructure (control) and find comfort (belonging and belief). They find purpose. Hence, to act against the system, to seek new ways of working, is an act of violence against all of these aspects of the system.

This is almost the easiest facet to understand, and it’s this which frames and contextualises much of the media narrative about the ‘future of work’ – and partly it is this which directs the conversation to be one of geography, one of place. So we come to understand the debate to be about ‘return to the office’, about ‘remote’, ‘hybrid’, or ‘office’.

In reality the future of work can potentially be better couched in terms of ‘collaboration’, ‘belonging’ and ‘scale’, or (if we feel bound to stick to threes), ‘engagement’, ‘risk’, and ‘power’.

We could expand a couple of terms on this sketch in greater depth: ‘Maps’ relates to our systems of understanding. As we learn, we create our mental landscape, we draw out maps – but our future navigation is then held in that relative space – in relation to ‘what we know’ and where the dragons lie. This itself can lock us into vertical systems of understanding.

It may be that we need to consider new maps – and the process by which we find them. Will we simply walk into the unknown and seek to illustrate them – or will we buy them or borrow them from someone else?

Will we follow the crowd? There appears to be a great deal of risk is current media narratives that polarise the debate into ‘where we work’ – and correlate it closely to culture, power, and control. Some Organisations seeking to demonstrate gravitas by insisting it’s ‘back to the office because we need a serious culture’, others seeking to show that they are listening. Many, i suspect, as lost as the rest of us.

In reality, we should be experimenting fast, and finding great comfort and tolerance for ambiguity – charting a future that is based around enabling technologies, most likely more fluid structure, new models of productivity, and more discretionary engagement.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation i painted what may be an extreme view of this: Organisations that consciously erode their vertical segmentation, their domains, in service of being lighter weight, more permeable, and able to change – because they have structurally fractured aspects of that constraint.

In this work i hope to use question frameworks to help re-phrase, or vision, the challenges. To give us an opportunity to ask about which narratives are more ‘true’ than others – what is our relationship with space – how is our notion of ‘place’ constructed – and how does it persist – who controls it – how do we collaborate now and what is our relationship with technology, and so on.

I will continue to #WorkOutLoud as i do so.

In 2020 i wrote ‘Finding your Campfire’ as an emergency guide to remote work, with the tagline ‘being together apart’. I intend ‘The Work of Place’ to be a companion volume in this.

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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1 Response to The Future of Work – what Binds us to the Past?

  1. aexei says:

    Very interesting Julian!

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