The start of the construction of the future of work may be to take everything apart: the great lesson of the Pandemic is the one least learned: that everything (and anything) are possible. That our truths are simply beliefs. That opportunity will lie in edge-lands, at intersections, in the remix, but rarely in the known. That both context, and opportunity, have changed, and that stability, optimisation, legacy power, infrastructure, and even knowledge itself, may be a constraint.
Yesterday someone asked me if i was an idealist. I am not. But i am strongly an opportunist, and a pragmatist, as well as being ignorant enough to not have learnt why things can’t be done.
As i’ve written before, much of the debate about the so called ‘Future of Work’ has collapsed into a conversation about the geolocation of work (which is inherently a conversation about the power dynamics and ownership of work). But to large part this is a distraction, as we already have an answer. The office is not the future of work. Or at least, the office as a physical place. Part of work, maybe, but as a feature, not an answer.
I guess i should add a caveat: if we seek to simply do what we have done before, they we had best rush back into geography. We should take solace in our naive false narratives that collaboration/innovation/magic can only happen when we are together, we can take comfort in the known.
But there is another way: to take the disruption and use it as a lever. To recognise that the legacy narratives of work, of productivity, of ‘jobs’, of engagement, of effect, are fractured. And to use the shattered remnants as a lever to pry the pieces ever further apart.
Why do this?
Because this is the opportunity to examine connections – to examine how things are bundled together – to challenge convention and conviction.
When i wrote ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’, i had intended it to be a very practical and structural examination of ‘a new model of Organisational Design’. And yet i still wrote a chapter that discussed the Organisation as nothing more than an entity of story and belief.
This is a recognition that almost everything we see around us is made up: the notion of ‘work’ itself, the idea of ‘jobs’ the ways we bundle infrastructure into ownership, and productivity into systems. We can rethink any (or all) of this.
Perhaps it comes down to a consideration of what the point of an Organisation is: is it to achieve an effect, or to perpetuate the notion of the Organisation itself?
I find the notion that it is about ‘effect’ to be liberating: what if we can achieve ‘effect’ through different means? Would we still insist that the Organisation as a legacy structure exists?
This may sound like revolution, but it may simply be iteration, re-conception, or imaginative reinterpretation. Just because everything may change does not mean that everything gets thrown away. Perhaps the Organisation we seek is simply radically reconnected, rewired, relocated, reformed?
Perhaps the same people are involved, but within different modes of engagement, different interpretations of work, even different mechanisms of reward, of scale, and so forth.
Our starting point should be a deconstruction of the fundamentals: jobs, management, quality, productivity, control, research, ownership, reward, marketplaces, infrastructure, systems, and so on.
What is a job? Is it defined by tasks, or output? By skills, or capability? Individually, or collectively? Could one job be held by a team, by a community? Could tasks exist independently of jobs? In marketplaces, where work is bid for, allocated by people, or generated and assembled by intelligent systems? Will tasks be paid for in money, in opportunity, in reputation, in pride, in trust, in power?
Will management, or leadership itself, always be held in infrastructure, or can it be divorced? Can power become fully contextual, so a fully flat team distributes leadership as required, or where it’s held in committee, or even in, or through, technologies, that mach individual capability to need.
Historically infrastructure has been owned within Organisations, followed by periods of outsourcing or shared infrastructure and service, but could this be taken further? We understand principles of hollow Organisations, but are there more fluid versions of infrastructure, possibly relating to collective ownership, or fluid models of sharing returns?
Innovation, typically seen as a driver of future revenue, and fiercely protected, could it take a model more akin to collective songwriting, or even follow an example of hip-hop which only thrived when it had overcome legal structures that inhibited the creativity of sampling.
Are there shared, quantified, models of reputation that tie into innovation, whereby people find ‘career’ not in one space, but as inter-connectors between many?
To what extent have our mechanisms of stability, protection, and safety, ended up killing opportunity? Does greater opportunity lie in the adoption of risk in managed iterations, where we explore potential future states?
Even notions of ‘belonging’: we ‘join’ Organisations, but are there different mechanisms of belonging, much as there are different levels of subscription?
Will we see tiered jobs, where you can subscribe for digital access, or the full physical offering? Or mixed models.
To explore possible future states does not require us to throw away the present, or imagined, future. But it requires a fluidity of thought, and ultimately will require failure, adaptation, adoption, all before we fully optimise.
The future is almost certainly not a treasure waiting to be discovered, buried out there in the sand, as opposed to a thing that we need to learn, to conceive, to build, together.