The effects of workplace change may not be the ones we expect

There’s a scene in the 1986 horror movie The Fly in which Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) persuades the reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) to try two steaks, one of which Brundle has just sent between two teleportation pods in an effort to work out why the pods can’t process organic matter, including the organic matter that had recently belonged to a very unfortunate baboon.

Quaife spits out the teleported steak, claiming it tastes synthetic. Brundle concludes from this that “the computer is giving us its interpretation of a steak. It’s translating it for us. It’s rethinking rather than reproducing it. And something’s getting lost in the translation.” He decides that the computer must learn “the poetry of the steak”, that idea of what really makes steak steak, before it can communicate it between the teleportation pods.

This scene often comes to mind when I listen in on The Great Workplace Conversation and especially when questions are raised about many of its most commonly asserted, unexplored viewpoints. Many firms seem to be shifting their organisations and people from place to place without learning what their people and organisations are – or were – to begin with.

This notion was there last year when I read an article in the Harvard Business Review which asked a fundamentally interesting question: Do You Know How Your Teams Get Work Done? Perhaps unsurprisingly the researchers found the answer to their own question was largely ‘no’. And in some cases, it was apparent managers had virtually no idea how their own organisation worked.

The notion also arose in response to a Twitter thread I read recently which questioned the origins and rationale of the three days in the office form of hybrid working many firms seem to be adopting, including Google.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What emerges from the cloud of vapour may be better – should be in fact when it comes to flexible working – but it also may not[/perfectpullquote]

And yet we already know that when we change the times and places of work, we don’t create an exact re-manifestation of what went before. How can we know what will come out of Pod B when we don’t really know what was in Pod A? What emerges from the cloud of vapour may be better – should be in fact when it comes to flexible working – but it also may not.

That is why we are starting to see articles describing the mutated outcomes of change. Some of them are set out in this article in Wired which sets out how the nature of work has changed for many people, sometimes in ways that harm them and their employers. Others will be played out in courts, legislatures and tribunals as we learn more about the consequences of change and its legal implications.

The idea that the transposition to remote and hybrid work will be predictable is clearly a nice idea for many managers, but based on a cosy delusion many have about their own knowledge of what makes the company tick, including the very notion of shared values and a well defined and widely shared idea of the culture of the organisation.

The Wired article sums up the challenges of working out what we had and what it has now become.

“[Chris Collins, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University’s ILR School] says there’s no definitive way for companies to build a culture in the remote-work world. There’s ample research on how to design physical office spaces with collaboration and culture in mind, but not for virtual offices. Still, Collins is pretty sure the answer isn’t more virtual happy hours or trivia nights. The early research on the impact of things like Zoom socials finds that, at best, there is “no association between the frequency of virtual social interactions and well-being.” Collins allows that things like Cleary’s digital lobby might improve workplace communication, but says they won’t make people feel connected. He compares the idea to superficial interactions on social media. “It’s like me thumbs-upping someone’s pictures on Facebook,” he says. “We’ve interacted, but have I really connected with them?”

The price of this lost connection is more than just dissatisfied, disengaged, or departing employees. It can also cost companies the innovation that comes from people who know how to work together. Remote workers can be productive—even more so than when they work in offices. But Collins says those productivity gains apply mainly to solo work, the kind that gig workers and freelancers do. Collaborative work, which is linked to innovation, has not fared nearly as well. “Early in the pandemic, companies were shocked by how high productivity stayed,” says Collins. But as the months wore on, employees left, others arrived, and new teams formed. “Then people remembered: There’s a reason we had people coming in.”

Image: From Basket of Fruit (c. 1599), Caravaggio