The great workplace conversation (still) needs to be held with a great deal more humility

great workplace conversation“Nobody knows anything”. William Goldman’s infamous 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.

I’ve complained previously about the strange new orthodoxies that drive the maddening home v office ‘debate’. It plays out daily on social media and in articles by people who can’t separate their own experiences and preferences from the issue. It is driven by two sides absolutely convinced they know the best end to open a boiled egg and the stupidity of those who open it the other end.

There was a perfect example this week as Apple first announced it wanted workers to return to the office for three days a week. Then 80 or so workers responded by writing a letter saying they didn’t want to do that. How representative they are of all Apple workers is unclear, but that isn’t the main issue.

Inevitably the Big Endians and Little Endians seized on the swings of this debate to back their own position and decry that of their opponents. There is a curious, almost religious zeal to the discussion at times. Merely stating that some people prefer to work in an office or might be better off doing so is still treated as blasphemy by some people.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nobody has defined what is being talked about in the first place[/perfectpullquote]

It strikes me that one of the causes of this spat is that nobody has defined what is being talked about in the first place. I’ve raised this before but one of the most obvious problems is that nobody has bothered to define hybrid working in a way accepted by all sides.

The term has been around for a while but not really been used much in a workplace context. In some people’s eyes it is synonymous with flexible work. In other people’s eyes, it refers to specific times and places of work determined by the organisation, in particular that strangely ossified, quasi shift pattern of three days in the office, two at home or whatever.

Flexible working is itself a term that describes a number of ideas about work, although it is generally understood to be an alternative to fixed times and places of work. Hybrid working lacks this clarity so may as well be a neologism and definitely acts as one in the way it is used. The main thrust of the conversation remains about people making a choice between two options, when they have far more, they may change day by day and over time, and there are more choices on the way.


New dawning

We have been warning about these issues since the first wave of hysteria last Spring, but it’s finally dawning on a growing number of people that the core conversation about the future of work and the workplace has evolved into a mutant version of the one many of us have been holding all along. Namely how to create better workplace experiences for people.

Peggie Rothe of Leesman describes this phenomenon in an updated version of her piece about open plan and activity based working design models here. But instead of needlessly demonising a way of designing a space that may or may not be a good idea, attention has now shifted to lauding or demonising homes and offices as though the only determinant of people’s experience of work is where it is done.

“… media sensationalism means that employees who may be moving from enclosed offices pre-pandemic, to more open and flex solutions are being fed a predefined notion of it being ‘the worst thing that could happen’. I’ve been saying this for a while – the biggest challenge of every single open-plan office is not the concept itself, it’s how it’s being talked about in press. ABW met the same fate in recent years and as we can see, concepts around hybrid working models are also now at risk.

Those expressing opinions need to exercise restraint and, frankly, better understand the difference between real research and a Google search. And those consuming those opinions should look beyond the headline and check sample sizes and the circumstances around a project before falling prey to shabby conclusions.”

The home v office ‘debate’ and some of the more vocal, proselytizers at its ends will continue their counter-productive arguments, no doubt. But there are better conversations around and many are better informed than the projections of people who can’t separate their opinions and experiences from facts and who have a vested interest in taking a fixed side in a stupid debate.

As I get very tired of saying, things are complicated. We don’t know everything. We may know less than other people. We have biases. We will often discover we are wrong or less well-informed than we think. Even when we do know a lot, things may play out in unpredictable ways. We should act as if we know little or nothing, because that is a damn sight more likely than us knowing everything.

First published June 2021

Image: From Office in a Small City by Edward Hopper