The perfect storm shouldn’t force us to jump aboard the wrong ship

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For all the millions of words written and gabbed about work and its future over the past 21 months, one of the few things we can say with any certainty is that we still don’t know which parts of it all are short-term responses to events, and which are permanent long-term shifts.

I know some people are very sure about it all, but not many of them are doing the actual job. The workplace managers I’ve listened to may all be developing strategies but they are doing so in the knowledge that things are still very much up in the air. We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat as many have grown fond of saying.

The loudest and most certain voices remain those with a vested interest of one sort or another. That goes for the bufton-tuftons demanding a ‘return to work’; the office sector and its daft fixation with ‘creativity’; the consultants and futurologists; the 50 year old bosses who like working from the office they’ve had built in their garden in Harpenden so assume everybody else must too; the people who say ‘new normal’ unironically; the ten-minute-Google-informed journalists and PRs; and the people in tech declaring how any business that doesn’t buy their products won’t be around long.

One of the few things we do know and can back up is that all of the pieces were in place before the pandemic. All that Covid did was set them out on the table for us to piece together.

The Great Resignation? Every year we have published stories about a similar proportion of people who want to leave their current jobs and find something better. And why not? For too many people, work doesn’t offer them enough personal or financial reward, however much time and toil they devote to it. There has been a disconnect between effort and outcome. For many, they can work full time and still not even pay their bills.

People may be more prepared to act on those dreams of something better now, but the fault-lines between people and what they do are longstanding. All it takes is a provocation and the Crimson Permanent Assurance takes to the Wide Accountant Sea.

 

Hybrid working? Does anybody even know what it is? At best it is indistinguishable from flexible or agile working, and we know an awful lot about those. At worst it represents that strange and increasingly questionable fixation people have with specifying three TWaTtish days in the office, two at home.

The Office itself? Been half empty for the thirty years I’ve been finding out about it. Often offers such a mediocre experience that people feel better off working from home. If you work in the office sector and your primary role is to provide people with a place to work, you should be ashamed of the fact that your product usually offers them a worse experience than a kitchen table, as Leesman data has shown.

The most common argument that you now hear from office providers is that the office facilitates collaboration and creativity, but that seems to rest on assumptions no more sophisticated than a comparison with what happens with peas in a tin. We should all know by now that creativity is far less likely while staring at a screen than it is when walking the dog. There are arguments in favour of the office, but this is thin stuff.

Commuting? People have been saying for years that their biggest hate about work is getting to the office at the same time every day. Most organisations could have transformed the working lives of staff by not setting fixed times and places of work. That may still be the case. Many organisations are set on demanding they still come into the office in the same immiserating way, just not EVERY day. And they’ll keep an even closer eye on them when they are working remotely.

 

A perfect understanding

These issues haven’t been exposed as much as they have been amplified and brought to a wider audience. But in many cases the solutions being offered are just as problematic. For example, switching out personal interactions for digitalised versions of them relies on an assumption that managers have a perfect understanding of the way the organisation works and the interactions between people, including those who don’t really know each other. A growing body of research is highlighting the problems of this idea.

Bring your whole self to relations with people you trust, everyone else needs to earn it

Nor does it seem wise to go down the paternalistic route of set days in a room with specified colleagues, mandatory fun days, struggle sessions with other employees, a database of in-jokes to offer new starters, bringing one’s whole self to work and interviews about people’s private lives shared with the whole organisation.

I’ve also heard it suggested recently that many of the ideas being thrown about at the moment in the name of offering people more control, flexibility and autonomy are having the opposite effect. Some organisations are reverting to seeing people as units of production, monitoring their daily productivity in ways that indicate a reversion to scientific management, while also demanding they open up about their lives in ways that may cause them problems at work, as Bruce Daisley recounts here.

“Advice that is intended for the most senior leaders is being used by the rest of us. It’s like the cabin crew of a flight using the pilot’s manual, and it’s ending messily. My feeling is becoming more vehement: Yes, leaders should create a culture where people can be themselves, but no, if your firm (or boss) hasn’t created this act advisedly…

“If you’re the big boss on the podium, sharing candor about moments of uncertainty is humanising – please do more of it. Get vulnerable. For the rest of us to open up to each other is certainly the way to unlock intimacy, whether with friends or colleagues.

“But the idea that we should open up to everyone no matter who they are like a lamb dressing themselves with a mint leaf neck garland for its first date with a wolf… Bring your whole self to relations with people you trust, everyone else needs to earn it. It’s time for us to all stop parroting lines of trendy conventional wisdom that are actually god-awful advice to the rest of us.”

Bruce’s last point is valid across a wide range of issues. New conventional wisdoms may be no better than the old. And while we are still working out what the hell is going on, we need to be wary of certainty. The time for that may come but it is not now. We may have seen the old faultlines in our working lives exposed like never before, but we’re still finding out how to create something better. Something to bear in mind when told that we must choose between A and B, when there are far more and better options available.

Image by Grégory ROOSE based on a contemporary sketch of Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard