I spent some more time in the office last week. Once again I enjoyed the change of scene and the chance to spend time with my colleagues. But an odd thing happened: a printer wasn’t working, and a number of us spent quite some time talking about how we to get it to work. When that conversation finished, it felt like an anachronism, the most colossal waste of everyone’s time. The novelty of the situation disappeared. I wondered what I was doing there.
Simultaneously, we are told that the future of work is hybrid: part of the time spent in the office and part of the time spent at home. But I’m beginning to think that I might not want to work in either of those places anymore.
My assertion is that we’re asking our questions about the present and future of work in the wrong order. The last question we ask should be where - we need to know everything else about what we need our working lives to be before we can know where to be physically.
(Aside - all conversations about remote working, hybrid working or whatever we’ll end up calling it tend to centre on what we now call information jobs. The pandemic has taught us the true value of our front line services, and that we need to expand the definition of those services to include processes like food supply. The potential to work from various locations is not available to every job, and notions of privilege and responsibility need to be considered here.)
Where we work is the last question we need to ask. The first question is: why? Why does the work we do exist, and how have the last two years changed our personal attitudes to it? If we’re guiding teams through this period of transition, we have to consider the changing motivations of the team and the individuals within it.
Next question (and one we should ask ourselves regularly anyway): what are we doing? As teams and individuals, is the work we’re doing relevant to the world we now find ourselves in, and the world we’re moving into? Are we producing work designed for a life we’ve already left behind? Are we looking to the future, or trying to recreate a past that is already lost?
From there: how are we working? Are we using instant messaging and video calling to recreate the advantages and flaws of the physical office? Are we grasping the opportunity to leave aimless meetings and tortuous email chains behind, or are we doubling down on our greatest frustrations? Are we taking advantage of the clean slate we have to experiment and create new ways for our teams to flourish?
So much has changed for us over the last couple of years, we can be forgiven for a collective, neurotic need for everything to snap back to the status quo. But it won’t. Framing what we’re experiencing as addressable with a working pattern of two days in the office and three at home denies the scale of our challenge. To prepare ourselves for the future of work, we need to take time to understand the present.