I am not alone in saying that train and plane time is valuable, but in two flavours. The train that i am currently on has no WiFi of any use, and no real phone signal, so it’s enforced ‘offline time’. That, in itself, is helpful, if annoying. At other times it’s good email admin time or simply reading time. But i’m lucky: i usually have a seat, and a table, and these days travel is pretty rare anyway. It’s barely a commute.
By contrast i have a good friend who regularly used to work in the design studio of an office: in the morning it would usually take him an hour and twenty minutes to get there, and an hour to get home, if he was lucky. That was driving time, as there was no viable train or bus. Every day, every week. That’s conservatively nearly twelve hours a week of driving, usually in traffic, with the concomitant stress, wear and tear and pollution. Of his soul if nothing else.
At least i am able to ‘work’ on what would count as my commute: he is not (although he does have an encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary music trends.
By any stretch, twelve hours a week is a useful chunk of time. Arguably a whole days worth. But typically unpaid (even if ‘worked’).
Whilst individual employment conditions vary, it’s unusual for people to explicitly be allowed to count travel time towards their core hours (although i know an employed plumber who is – time in the car to get to the leaky tap counts for him).
Today, my friend is working from home: in fact, he works from home pretty much every day, except the odd get together. This has not been as part of a clever ‘hybrid work’ policy, nor even really any matter of discussion. In fact, his employer had always been adamant that he had to be in the office. But it just kind of fell away in the lockdowns. Nobody has ever asked him to come back, and he certainly has not offered. And he looks significantly healthier and happier for it.
If the change in his employment conditions has been driven by anything, it’s been apathy: they can’t be bothered to argue it, and he can’t really face making the effort. Aside from that, nothing much has changed, except the power and place.
Another friend is having a much different experience: he got a job that is office based. Except that nobody else is there. He’s currently residing in a lovely West Coast US office, in a new purpose built building, somewhere up high, surrounded by nothing except furniture, and he’s not having much fun either.
Recently YELP announced that they were shutting a lot of offices, and repurposing other spaces. Reducing and adapting what they have. Other Organisations are playing with things like 3/2 models (or 2/3 models) of occupation, where you mandate minimum office time – with some dictating which days that should be. Others are using inflatable walls, hotel like desk booking services, or simply closing up and paying people to stay at home, pocketing the difference.
It’s all pretty confused, because the legacy of the COVID lockdowns is ambiguity. And ambiguity is something that systems detest. There is no clear answer, because there is no clear answer, and what other people do, and everyone decides to do, will change the context of the debate itself.
Or to put it another way: there is a risk that you solve for the wrong problem.
Or a risk that you correctly solve for the right problem, but then the broader social context changes and your solution becomes wrong. Not because of a change in circumstance, but a change in attitude or belief.
Let’s consider some of the things that are still up in the air:
- Does it really matter where you work – there is a lot of dogma, a spread of hyperbole, and a topping of generalisation around this question. Does it matter where people work? The answer is ‘probably’ yes. And no. Will it kill you? No. Will it give you everything you desire? No. Is it important. Yes. How annoying.
- Can you just tell people what to do? Yes, but it’s unclear why you would do this – people are leaving if they don’t like it, so you may not want to.
- Can you just ask people what do to? Yes, but it’s unclear what to do with this, as it turns out that people want different things and some people don’t know what they want. This leaves you in a position where you treat different people in different ways, which tends to create fractures in fairness.
- Is it possible to do this fairly: probably not, so you need a strategy to deal with this – in one Organisation i work with, they estimate that 40% of roles have to be office based, so there is potential to radically upset almost everyone.
- What is an office – weirdly, this is often an unanswered question – there is a belief that it’s more than just a space and desks, but a reluctance to believe that it can move beyond one physical space. And a tendency to think it holds magic.
- What is work – again, this may sound like a rather obvious question, but it may be more ambiguous than we think: does my friends commute count as work? What if he had to use that time to be able to keep up with the job? What about ideas – do ideas i share count as work? Engagement in a project WhatsApp channel? How about my challenge, is that work, or just disruption? We have a legal framework for this, but typically it is framed around physical space, and time. Between 9-5 in an office, that’s work. Or anything you type on the laptop i give you is work. In general, it’s very unclear.
- Culture – what is it, who owns it, how resilient is it, how many do you have, how does it change, and what does it actually give you? Again, this is less clear than you may think, and hence the ‘back to work’ debate is less clear because we may not know what winning looks like?
- Engagement – aside from bothering to turn up, what is it – and does it matter? And are people more likely to do it in an office? Or for money? Or opportunity? Or something else?
- Control – power is wrapped up in space – one of the biggest changes in lockdown was the fracturing of the relationship between space and power, and hence any return to an office will be negotiated, not imposed, within a new framework of power. We are glimpsing the edges of this, but not the consequences yet.
- Community – socially collaborative and democratised technologies have come to the fore in the context of the pandemic, and against the background of a fractured social contract between Organisation and individual, have become, for many, the primary space of belonging. This shifts us from a two dimensional space – ‘Employer’ and ‘Employee’ to a three dimensional one – ‘Employer’ – ‘Community of Belonging’ and ‘Employee’. Triangulated relationships are harder to navigate, and run the risk of someone feeling unloved.
This is really just an easy and small selection of the challenges and ambiguity faced in trying to navigate the shift into the future.
Some things that were unthinkable may need to be thought: should there be a weighting by geography to renumeration? Or indeed a weighting for home working to reflect cost savings? Should Organisations pay for the commute? Should offices be shared? Or even hosted or owned by Communities? Just how fixed should employment be? How will home and work be divided, and how will we keep people safe as the boundaries move?
All of these questions take place against the established norms, and emergent beliefs. It’s worth remembering the the idea of the ‘office’, indeed, the idea of ‘work’ itself in it’s modern conception, and the notion of the ‘commute’, as well as ‘home working’, are all made up ideas. None of them all that old either.
We make these ideas up and then operate within the space of belief that we have created – but nothing of that belief is truly real. There are other ways of working, if we are willing to find them, earn them, or create them.
I am still of the belief that the best action is as close to inaction as possible: make small decision, in open ways, and assess them regularly. Don’t be afraid to share and learn. It’s unlikely that anyone else has your answer.