The Familiar and the Strange

I was talking with two friends yesterday: one at home, one in the office. One had the bare plaster walls, curtain-less windows, obligatory view of an office block, and poor lighting. The other had bookshelves stacked with mementos and favourite texts, photos of family, but also of teams, photos of pride, the dog barking in the background, and a sense of belonging.

Many of us struggled in the early disruption of the pandemic to create a ‘home office’ space, and to somehow keep that separate from the space that is our home. I wrote a whole chapter in ‘Finding your Campfire’ about the importance of that separation. To have ‘work’ and ‘home’ with some differentiation between them – even if that simply meant no laptops on the sofa.

In those early days i spoke to people working in camper vans on the driveway, from the loft, many kitchen tables, garden sheds, and in one case, the toilet, due to it’s simply superb acoustics.

Somehow the debate about work has collapsed down to two things: a conversation about geography, and a subtext of power. What can i tell you to do, where can i tell you to go?

Perhaps we should be reframing it in terms of belonging, productivity, and effectiveness. All within the broader context of the familiar versus the strange.

We tend to believe that it is important to ‘belong’ somewhere: both conceptually and behaviourally. People make spaces their own, decorating them, arranging them, claiming space and excluding others.

When we ask people why it’s important to belong, they typically describe features of community – that we can control consequence, that we can support each other, that we can find common purpose, that we are safer, that we are more likely to have access to empathy, that it is a foundation for kindness, and so on.

What they say less often, but which is equally true, is that belonging is a foundation of conflict as well: communities within which we belong are equally at home in ally-ship or opposition.

The debate about work fractures along predictable lines, between Organisation and Individual, Leaders and Teams: essentially along the fault lines of power.

We are able to belong in multiple places: i feel at home when i am at home, but also at friends houses, or with certain clients, or in certain coffee shops. Sometimes i feel at home when walking in woodlands, or camping by a lake.

The question of where we work may be less important that who controls the parameters of work – the when of it – and the control of consequence – who holds the power around it.

I suspect that most people, be they managers, leaders, or anyone else, largely want the same type of thing – to belong, to feel safe, to be trusted, to have space, to understand with clarity where the rules lie, to do good work.

Few of us would welcome working in poor conditions at home, nor would we welcome working in a sterile and cold office – but none of us typically want to ‘live’ in an office, nor endlessly ‘work’ at home.

Perhaps the debate is best viewed in terms of the ‘familiar’ and the ‘strange’. We are used to the dichotomy of the ‘home’ and the ‘office’. And the commute that joins the two. We are also now used to ‘virtual working’.

But perhaps the vocabulary is outdated or incorrect. Perhaps we need new language to describe a new thing?

Would we be better off describing work as ‘Learning – Reflecting – Planning – Doing’, or ‘Foundations – Connecting – Productive’. Or something else?

Work defined by the what, not the where.

And then to figure out where we need to be to do it – and whether we need to ‘belong’ – and who controls, validates, or moderates that decision?

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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