"What if we never get all our staff back in the office again?
My brain is swirling. We’ve been putting off some of these critical things in the assumption that we’ll be able to get back to normal sooner or later, I’m starting to think we never will."
It wasn’t fear or panic that underlay this comment by my friend. It was closer to bemusement, an inquiry. What he got in the conversation with me was that they’ve been holding off on restructures and difficult conversations until they all get back into the office – to how they did it before. There is a growing recognition that we will probably never get all their staff back in the office.
The implications of this are a lot more profound than you might think at first glance.
The very meaning of work is deeply linked to the idea that we go somewhere to work.
Take that piece out and the edifice that is 'work' is changed fundamentally.
We don't see that because the concept of work itself is so entwined with 'going somewhere' to do it that we can't see the pieces of onion we're picking out for the bolognese sauce.
Like so many things we've taken for granted (democracy itself perhaps), the bits that are shifting are SO fundamental we can't see that everything else rests on them until we look... or, if you'd prefer, just wait and see what happens I suppose.
I'd rather feel like I have some agency in the evolution of our future, and I suspect you would too. If so, read on.
Is my friends' expectation that we may never really have those water-cooler conversations, let alone the deeper and more confronting conversations, in the same way again correct?
I reckon the best place to look for those kinds of projections is to ask the people whose businesses are most affected by COVID lockdowns etc. Which business sector has the motivation and resources to do sophisticated analysis like this? Big airlines do.
Airline executives and CEO’s are saying that they are not expecting international flights to really start again until 2023. Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas is hoping to start travel in mid-2021, but he’s still mothballing their big planes until at least 2023.
I think we can safely say their modelling is telling them that anything approaching normal won’t start until 2023.
What does that mean for work?
So, what does that mean for how you work, and most importantly, work together, for the next few years and what do you WANT from 2023?
The first question is important to answer so you can keep creating great stuff and not keep putting it off until ‘normal’ comes back.
The second is critical because I suspect that:
'Normal' will never come back and, more importantly, I don’t think many people really want it to!
All the conceptual infrastructure that underpins how we have organised ourselves to work together has, for over 400 years, been built on the assumption we'll go somewhere and be paid by someone for our time to do it. These concepts are embedded in everything we do, from how we write Pd’s to how we structure teams; communicate and even how we assess value and pay people. When you start pulling this thread, all the others start to untangle.
Why is this? What's the bundle of threads that we call work? To answer that you have to look at where the idea came from...
What is work? The rise of 'corporate effort'.
When I was at university it was pretty common currency to argue that globalisation meant that corporations would end-up governing the planet, that the days of national governance were essentially over. No-one argues that anymore (thank God) but it does show just how massively important this way of organising ourselves to work together has become.
The corporation (both publicly and privately owned) has become the preeminent method through which we organise ourselves to interact with the material world.
The assumptions that underpin the corporation also underpin how we work together. So, what’s the etymology of ‘work’?
Medieval Guilds were the first 'employers'. Chartered by Kings or Cities, they served to exclude and suppress free labour and turn time into the key commodity for sale (rather than products).
Where did Employment come from?
It wasn’t until the late middle ages that ‘employment’ existed at all.
Around the 1400’s, Monarchs realised they were losing control of the emergent (urban) middle classes who were starting to trade with each other without royal supervision. The remedy was to create monopolies (some still exist - those prestigious firms that have “by Appointment of HRH”). With this tool central authorities successfully took control over the economy. If you didn't work for a chartered body you weren't allowed to work. Suddenly, instead of selling your products to a customer, you sold your time to an employer (who then sold your product for a mark-up).
Employment was born.
These Royal Charters formed the genesis of the modern corporation but it took one more step for the modern workplace to be born.
In the 1700’s the extraordinary market value of spices was realised. By weight, a single peppercorn was worth more than gold for over 150 years. The reason for the high price? It was extremely dangerous to get them. Over one ship in three sank on the perilous journey to the spice islands in what is now Indonesia. This means that over one in three investors went bankrupt (not a nice place to be in the 1700’s). By sharing the cost of buying and outfitting ships, and then sharing the profit, this risk could be spread.
The concept of shares was born and the foundations of the modern corporation were in place.
As the number of people working for these corporations grew the managerial function inevitably expanded into the bureaucracy we know today.
Driven by the desire to centralise control of people’s work and their income, the corporation's salient features have been:
- A place to go to work where,
- You sell your time and,
- Risk is shared
There has been increasing push-back on the last of these features as the implications of exploitative practices have come home to roost. We’ve come to realise that while risk can be shared, accountability can’t. As any parent or manager knows, you are either 100% accountable, or you’re not… so no-one is.
Now, with extended lockdowns, we’re starting to see cracks appear in the first of these features. It might not look like much, but this goes to the heart os what work actually means, if for no other reason than it acts as the foundation-stone for the other two!
As I wrote at the beginning of this pandemic, COVID, like all pandemics, is accelerating change not catalysing it (whereas wars do the opposite). COVID is forcing us to re-examine the control and efficiency DNA of corporations from global supply chains to the climate change.
 For example, bureaucracy is the precondition for genocide not only because it takes massive organisational capacity to execute, but because it is essential that no one person feels they are the progenitors. The most famous example of this is Eichmann, commandant of Auschwitz. He explained to Hannah Arendt that, though he personally disagreed with the Nazi policy to exterminate Jewry, his obligation to play his role in the state was more important and policy decisions were made elsewhere
Do you want to have a say?
- Probable and
- Preferable (potentially falling somewhere across all the other two)
The work starts with you
I share the futures cone because, as I have learnt again and again in my work, if you don’t do the work to get clear on your preferred future, then you lose all ability to consciously craft it.
“I want them to want this… I don’t want to force my vision on them, I want them to create their own.”
I see this mistake time and again. Wary of seeming like they are imposing top-down change, people put it onto their teams to collectively create a collective purpose.
It might sound a weird thing for a person who has essentially built their practice on the promise that I can help you create a common vision and bring your people along with you. But you can't start there... the work has to start with you!
By suppressing your passion for what you want, what you think will make the biggest difference, in order to make space for others to create what they want is peddling a lie,. We do it for all the right reasons of course, but if you are suppressing your passion, so will they!
To get others to buy in, the first step is getting really clear on what your preferred future looks like and then asking a very different question – the leader’s question:
Do you want to play?
To be able to ask this question you need to have something you're asking them to play! Pretending you don't have a vision (or worse, not having one) and asking everyone else to create one is the bureaucrat's cop-out – it's pretending you are not accountable.
The risk of creating your preferred vision for the future lies not in blocking theirs. Clarity and inspiration serves only to breed more clarity and inspiration. No, the risk is that you get so excited by yours you stop listening for theirs and the moment of inspiration is crushed.
What is the future of working in your business?
This is the work you need to be doing. The fundamental frameworks of work have shifted in the last few months. What is your preferred future?
Working for time, without accountability and somewhere for someone is a model that has gotten us so far... now what?
Are you willing to re-explore the basic tents of what work means in order to recreate it? for yourself and more importantly, or others??
Almost everything we have designed to facilitate collective action (what we call work) since the 1400’s is now being questioned. This is not a blip, this is a profound shift with profound implications.
Joseph Voros used to say that it was the people who looked for the weak signals from the future who were best prepared. Those who waited until they could see the Tsunami on the horizon waited too long. Those who noticed the water recede a few meters in the hours beforehand got to the hills in time.
Dare I ask which category you want to be in??
If this interests you, there may be a number of ways I can help: