December 8, 2023
This website started in late 2012 as a way for me to explore both a new media format and a new way of thinking about work and workplaces. I’d already been active in various roles in the workplace, design and facilities sector for twenty odd years, but needed a new challenge. And this was it. I was going for a ride with an idea to see where it went.
If I only I had known. Over the past ten years, workplaceinsight.net has published around 7,500 stories on issues related to people, places and technology. That’s about 5 million words from over 600 contributors. Quite a lot of it is worth reading. Even the stuff from before the Spring of 2020.
After processing all this stuff, and the rest of the iceberg, I can’t say I am any more certain on workplace issues than I used to be. If anything, I have more doubts, especially following the challenges of the last three years (and counting).
But here are some things I think I do know. At the very least I think I could have a decent discussion about them. In no particular order:
Nobody knows anything
“Nobody knows anything”. William Goldman’s (in)famous summing up of the essential unknowability of the movie business also has a less quoted second part. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” It is a call for humility. That no matter how much we know about what we do and how good we are at it, we can’t always predict its outcomes. And that is clearly the case with the ongoing Great Workplace Conversation.
It’s probably a more useful dictum than Bertrand Russell’s oft-quoted idea that “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt”, because it is not used so much by people who assume they are the intelligent ones and other people are the dunces. The current conversation about the workplace could certainly do with a great deal more humility. If anybody is very sure about what may or may not happen you can bet they’ll be wrong to a greater or lesser degree. This is a time for doubt, exploration and equivocation, not certainty.
The office has always been with us
There is a standardised, laundered history of the office that begins with the design of Frank Lloyd-Wright’s Larkin building in 1903. This synchronises with the rise of scientific management in the early 20th Century and the enduring notion of the office as a panopticon. In this conflation, the office exists only or primarily to allow managers to supervise people and feel important about themselves. There is something in this. The patholigisation of both work and workplaces starts with the transposition of ideas about factories to administrative and knowledge work. But the office in its generic sense has been with us for thousands of years. It serves a purpose and almost certainly always will. We may yet come to see the conflation of the office with scientific management as a 20th Century blip.
Futurologists are on to something
Anybody can become a futurologist just by saying they are one. And the past three years have seen a proliferation in their numbers. Crucially, nobody keeps tabs on what they say. So long as they don’t say anything too jarring, off-narrative or point out that things are complicated and subject to new events and information, they’re usually fine. That is not to say some forecasters don’t have unique and often accurate insights. They do.
Creativity and innovation are not the same thing
One of the main arguments you’ll see from parts of the office sector about why people should work in the same space is to have ideas. This is palpably untrue. Ideas come unbidden and usually when we’re not trying to have them. If you want to have an idea, go walk the dog. What is true that the raw material for an idea can come from interacting with others. You may also need some other people around to do something with your ideas and it can help if you share time and space with them, as some firms have discovered.
There’ll be a backlash to dog friendly offices
Many more organisations have agreed that their offices should be dog friendly to accommodate people’s new lifestyles and the pets they acquired during lockdown. But as I am informed anecdotally, they are now experiencing the ways in which ten dogs do not behave in the same way as one dog ten times over. If you see what I mean.
Creativity does not take place at desks. But routines are underrated
We may not find ideas come easy sitting at a desk, but the routines involved in getting to it should not be underrated. This doesn’t have to mean a mind-numbing commute into the same place every day. People who have extolled the virtues of routines include Roald Dahl, Steve Jobs and Twyla Tharp. The author Mason Currey has managed to find two books worth of material in the habits of creative and successful people. So if you want to understand why we experienced the phenomenon of the fake commute during the pandemic lockdown, it can be found in the worth of routines.
It is increasingly easy to launder bullshit
The laundering of ideas is the process whereby an oversimplified idea or piece of misinformation is repeated so often that it acquires a patina of legitimacy and ultimately becomes a presupposition. We’ve seen a lot of this over the last three years with questionable and nonsense media driven phenomena such as The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting. We can push back against this stuff but it exists. And for those expressing doubts about AI and its role in flattening out thinking on subjects, this already happens on a routine basis.
Patholigisation is the enemy of understanding
Much as the deodorant manufacturers of the 20th Century built up their business by pathologising the funk of humans, so too have we seen the patholigisation of work. In both cases there are real issues to be addressed, but things can go too far. By pathologising and medicalising real issues like the open plan, commuting, offices and work itself, we drive out nuance. These are complicated issues and not everybody experiences them in bad or the same ways.
We shouldn’t always try to fix things that aren’t about work
People can be unhappy at work for reasons that aren’t about work. It’s great that more and more organisations are focussed on the wellbeing of their staff, but not everything can or should be addressed in the workplace.
Critical thinking should apply in every direction
The tedious, binary home v office debate that has dominated conversations about work for the past three years has been founded on the propensity we have to unquestionably seek out and share those things that support our view, while applying critical thinking to those that do not. This is in spite of the fact that the same criticisms we apply to information and opinions we don’t like, could be applied to the ideas and information of which we approve.
Talking about something can bring it into existence
Recently on Twitter, an American doctor wrote the following: “I am sure this is an unpopular opinion… and many will not understand this: “Focusing on your mental health can be damaging to your mental health.” If you understand this… you are steps ahead”. This is, with all the usual caveats, true in many ways. I remember years ago being told by an HR manager that their firm had seen a massive upsurge in reported stress levels following an initiative to ask people about their stress levels. This does not mean we shouldn’t do these things. Just that we should be aware that the act of observation changes the nature of that which is observed.
Office design is overrated. And so is remote work
Office design and its various elements and models have always been suggested as a solution for a range of workplace issues. But office design does nothing in isolation. People can be happy working in mundane or poor surroundings if they enjoy their work and the company of their colleagues, and vice versa. We also know that the effects of a change in design can wear off after a while, which we can probably attribute to the Hawthorn Effect. This is also true of remote work. The challenge is to create the right working culture in the first place then offer the times and place of work that support it.
People may get more done at home but…
Much has been made of the self-reported increases in productivity that came about during lockdown. These were so consistent and widely reported that we should accept them at face value. But as time has gone on, more information has come to light about what is meant by this and what other factors may be relevant when talking about productivity. It’s complicated, as these things always are.
Changing the time and place of work changes the nature of work
There is an idea that firms can simply switch out one time and place of work for another and things will stay broadly the same. But as with Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly, the shift also alters the DNA of whatever is being moved. This can be a good thing, and indeed should be, the creation of a better creature. But it’s still something we should be aware of when we open the pod’s door. What’s inside may not be hybrid work, but Brundlework.
The Great Workplace Conversation is an apex fallacy
There have been a huge number of headlines about how most people will be working in one way or another in the wake of the pandemic. These always ignore the fact that not only will most people not adopt the life of a remote worker, digital nomad or whatever, they can’t or don’t want to. Their jobs and lives aren’t like that. Similarly, not everybody has the same experience of work even if they are in comparable roles. Many of the statements you see thrown around about work are based on an apex fallacy. Some are luxury beliefs.
Nobody knows what hybrid working is
While not exactly a neologism, nobody much talked about hybrid working before the Spring of 2020. It was a reaction to the opportunity we had been given to rethink work. In some contexts, it appears to be synonymous with flexible working but in most seems to mean three days in the office, two at home, or some other fixed configuration of time and place. Turns out the latter definition is not always applicable and can cause more problems than it solves. Indeed, some people have complained that this definition of hybrid working offers them less flexibility than they used to have. While this resolves itself, flexible working sits in the corner, seethes and smiles.
Nobody brings their whole self to work. And that’s a good thing
Not only do people not bring their whole selves to work, they shouldn’t. I don’t even want to know about the whole selves of my friends and family, never mind colleagues. I’m happy with the bits they show me and the ones I show them. And I salute the man who recently won the right not to be ‘fun at work’ at the behest of his employers. I’ve seen an awful lot of talk of firms organising socials and fun days for remote workers and other staff over the last couple of years as a way of bonding them in the name of company culture. Work has a social role, of course, but it should be almost entirely organic.
Nothing is new. But everything changes
One of the curiosities of the Great Workplace Conversation is that no one element of it is new in isolation. AI might be about to change that, because it has the potential to disrupt things in new ways. But for the most part, each issue we have seen discussed ad nauseum, had been talked about for many years prior to 2020.
But taken as a whole and in a new context, we have had to rethink everything. Part of this is to do with the crossover of workplace thinking into the mainstream and a subsequent great relearning of things we already knew. But it’s not just that. Knowledge and experience mean everything and nothing.
As for the future of work, it doesn’t exist. There is no destination. Only the journey.
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.