June 30, 2020
Take any issue in the modern era and you’ll find a noisy schism. The big-endians and little-endians yelling at each other about the right way to eat a boiled egg, right over the heads of the majority of people who wonder if they’d be better off just having some toast and a nice cup of tea. Not that the toast-eaters can say anything without being accused by both sides of the divide of belonging to the other.
So it is that we are the only alternative to the fixed time and place of work that we know as the office is another fixed time and place of work known as the home. What is interesting about this particular unnecessary binary is that the two factions bickering about it will acknowledge that it isn’t a binary issue at all when pushed. But you’d never know it by taking them at face value or the way they talk to each other.
The little-endians cling to the status quo. They think design can solve cultural issues on its own. They overlook that what most people hate about their job is the fixed time and place of work, and especially commuting. They draw arrows and circles on the floor. They argue that people need the office to collaborate and build relationships, before encasing each person in a perspex bubble and removing the coffee machines.
The descent into order
Meanwhile the big-endians muddle up their language to make their point, commonly and casually conflating remote with flexible. They’ll point to the example of firms in specific locations and sectors while ignoring others. They’ll claim that a firm has declared that people can work from home for ever … before editing out the final part of the policy … if they want. They’ll overlook the way people experience remote work differently.
They’ll brush aside legitimate concerns about wellbeing and security while highlighting how productivity is the same or better. They’ll conclude that how people feel about things right now after a few weeks of a novel working environment in a mild Spring and Summer will be the same in three years. They ignore the growing fears about job security and the way people traditionally respond to that. They’ll highlight the way organisations have adopted new tech such as Zoom and Teams and ignore the way they’ve also adopted tech that measures time spent online, tasks completed and even key strokes and the user’s gaze.
They’ll declare irrelevant the decades of research into proximity, relationships, culture and wellbeing and the millennia of insight into the human condition. They’ll overlook the fact we already have decades of experience of what remote work means in practice. They might have only just discovered these ideas themselves, but it doesn’t mean they invented them.
Theirs is a coldly utilitarian and transactional view of work. They will argue that they are progressive, but they are the opposite, falling back on 19th Century notions of economic man. The negative entropy of a descent into order while claiming it is the opposite.
If only we had more choices than this.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.