November 24, 2023
You would not believe the number of firms that ask us to publish a list of workplace trends each week. Or maybe you would, given the number that have appeared – and are appearing -elsewhere. Each firm perhaps convinced they are saying something original, unique or interesting, or maybe simply convinced they stand out in some way, while pushing the same timid, stale narratives about the workplace. They will proliferate over the next month or so at the turn of another year.
It goes without saying that the commercialised messages often do little to shine a light on complex realities. In the words of the Scottish poet and anthropologist Andrew Lang, they use information ‘like a drunk uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination’.
That is not to say that they things they say are necessarily untrue per se. Narratives exist precisely because they almost always contain a kernel of truth and so help us understand what is going on. We look for these patterns to make sense of an increasingly complex world.
We can all recognise it is a helicopter, but we wouldn’t want to build and fly in one
The author (and arguable genius) Ray Kurzweil described pattern recognition as the ‘basic algorithm of the neocortex’ in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind. The neocortex is the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking so his theory is an attempt to get to the foundations of how we perceive things and think about them.
The problem with many of the commonly accepted narratives about the world around us is that they are low resolution. They lack detail, nuance, layers of complexity and expertise. They are like a child’s drawing of a helicopter. We can all recognise it is a helicopter, but we wouldn’t want to build and fly in one.
The problem here is not that workplace trends don’t exist, but the way that ideas that have already become mainstream or have been around for a long time are described as ‘trends’. So, activity-based working, flexible working, the gig economy and even coworking all have been around in one form or another for years, decades or even centuries.
If people are going to claim that these ideas are particularly pertinent to the modern world, they need to concede the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of giants.
Then there’s the whole issue of the future of work. Too often this is a reflection or extrapolation of the current world of work, and the predictions made by authors are nothing more than a realisation of ideas that are already well developed and widely implemented. In the longer term, we really have little idea what the workplace will be like. Only that we will almost certainly be wrong in any detailed predictions we make about it, even when we get the generalised predictions right.
*Salespeople at large multinational corporations. Doesn’t make a good headline though
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.