Survival, inquiry, sophistication – picking the right workplace battles

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We know, and have for a long time, that the workplace is in a state of near constant flux. The meteor strike of lockdown is an accelerant, not a deviation. It has also laid bare -yet again – the faulty assumption that there is some sort of general evolution towards an idealised version of the office. That is why we see so many people routinely willing to suspend their critical facilities to make extravagant and even absurd predictions about the office of the future or even the death of the office.

However, we can frame a number of workplace related ideas in terms of evolutionary theory, so long as we accept one of the central  precepts about evolution. Mostly, that there is no end point to all of this, just types progressing, some finding a niche and some dying out along the branches of a complex ecosystem.

As a nerdy sort of guy of a certain age, I’ve tended to frame my thoughts on all of this with reference to an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the great Douglas Adams.

The Guide states that the history of every civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival, inquiry and sophistication. The first phase is characterised by the question ‘how can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘where shall we have lunch?’

I think the comparison is pretty clear. At the most basic level, owning an office is largely about survival. You need to have an office because you need somewhere to work. It doesn’t really matter that much what it’s like, so long as it doesn’t cost too much and it provides a basic level of comfort and possibly a rudimentary sense of style. This sort of office is far more common than most people care to admit and its role is certainly underplayed in media coverage.

At the inquiry level, people question what they expect from their offices or even why they need an office at all. This question is not as prevalent as it once was, but even the inquiry stage continues, although it’s probably asking different and more difficult questions.

Then, at the most sophisticated level, we have a group of people who know exactly what they expect, take it for granted, act on it, don’t mind paying for it if necessary and then just get on with the business of whatever it is that they do.

Now, I wouldn’t say that we are all moving towards some end point of workplace sophistication. Nor am I one of those people who claims that we are heading to a period of entropy and the eventual heat death of the workplace. We remain human and until we finally bow the knee to our robot overlords, we’ll still want to be around other people for very humane reasons. This will be the basis on which the office survives, albeit in new forms.


Choose your battles

But the world is changing and there is something amiss with the way many of us think about the office. We can all act like Hiroo Noroda, who sounds like a character from a Douglas Adams book but was in fact the famous Japanese soldier who kept fighting a war that was long over. We need to make sure we are fighting current battles, not old ones.

We must not allow ourselves to be suckered into believing that the world in which we have been successful in the past was built to have us in it.  Nor should we panic ourselves into making bad decisions.

We can all get religious about what we do and the teleological argument that suggests that the world was made to fit us has been used for centuries. It explains our place in the world as well as underpinning the beguiling idea that because we so closely fit the world in which we live, we have been put here for a purpose. It’s all for us. The flawed thinking behind this compelling idea was, in my opinion, best illustrated by Douglas Adams and so he will have the final word:

“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, may have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

This is an edited version of a presentation I first delivered in 2014.