Work is changing – because of new technologies, shifting values and priorities, and a global pandemic. COVID-19 made the old routine of "going to work" impossible, then passé.
The new world of work is “hybrid,” according to many. But isn’t the “hybrid” workplace half-stuck in the past? Are we asking the same old questions in a moment that demands new ones? What new thinking might help you widen the conversation and reimagine work more fully?
Here are some early maps of the new world of work that may help you shift the paradigm completely for the rest of us.
There’s something old about the future of work
In his famous introduction to The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith described a pin factory where one job – making pins – had been divided into 18 specialized tasks on a production line. Working alone, a pin-maker “could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin per day.” But in this factory, 10 workers cranked out 48,000 per day.
Smith grasped a fundamental concept, and it launched an Industrial Revolution: one act of craftsmanship can be transformed into many simple tasks. Ever since, the basic problem that organizations design themselves to solve has been the same: how best to organize (1) the division of labor and (2) the integration of effort, in order to produce whatever the organization produces.
The Industrial Revolution also established “the factory” in people’s minds as the place where this problem gets solved. Messy, idiosyncratic workshops might have been sufficient sites for quaint craft manufacturing, but to get industrial-scale work done many human laborers had to be put together around well-oiled machines.
That thinking carried over unchallenged into the 20th century and the advent of the modern office.
Now, that point is stretching into a line. The basic problem remains unchanged – how to divide labor and integrate effort – but the solution space is wider.
The point is now a line
This line feels new for some of us, but not for all of us. Long before the pandemic made “working from home” the new normal, “remote” work had already begun to challenge the basic assumption that you need to put people together to get work done.
Remote work does not only mean working from home. It also means working from cafés and co-working spaces like WeWork (founded in New York’s SoHo district in 2010). A key inflection point in remote work’s adoption was the emergence in the mid-to-late 2000s of web-based tools (like Google Docs) that made it much easier for a team of people to work together on the same project in their own individual space and time. Online collaboration quickly became a whole software industry of its own.
Serial remote entrepreneurs like Sahin Boydas noticed a clear shift in investor attitudes toward remote working arrangements in the years that followed. Before the coming of the collaborative web, would-be investors met the remote-team aspect of his startup pitches with scepticism. Why aren’t your team members committed enough to come work together? Remote-work arrangements were seen as an additional risk.
By 2015, the bias had begun to shift the other way. If you were not working remotely, Why are you putting so much money so soon into office space? Had you gone global to find the best people possible, or had you satisfied yourself with the people close by? (Listen to Sahin tell the story himself.)
We’re all line workers now
Remote work – stretching the spatial dimension of the workplace – is not new for a lot of people. What is new is the scale. The pandemic accelerated and broadened the experiment society-wide. In the USA in 2020, the percentage of people working remotely jumped from about 5% to 50% of the total workforce. (Many of those who did not work remotely could not. They worked in factory jobs and services that can’t be done at a distance.)
Veterans of remote work name three key ingredients to making remote work work: people, processes, and tools. In a very short space of time, necessity drove organizations to find or develop all three. We people have shifted our own attitudes about remote working. We’ve put in place new processes to be a lot more intentional about how we meet, mix and manage expectations. Tech-sector bibles of remote-work process management, like Github's guide to all-remote working, became essential resources to office workers everywhere. The tools are now more familiar, and a lot better. Between January and December 2020, Zoom published almost 10 software updates per month.
The results from this mass experiment are pouring in. For many people, remote working is suddenly familiar, convenient, appreciated – and productive, to a degree that many managers and employees found surprising.
And so the post-pandemic future of work is “hybrid” – a blend of ‘office’ and ‘anywhere’ that hopes to be better than only one or the other. Once we saw a point where work happens. Now we see a line, and it’s hard to unsee its possibilities.
But the line is still one-dimensional
This line busts one basic assumptions about work from the Industrial Age (People work where? At the workplace) and reveals another: namely, that people are units of production. These units can and should be arranged wherever and however makes the most sense from the organization’s perspective, because that’s the level at which the best division of our labors and integration of our efforts can be found.
This is the half of “hybrid” thinking that remains rooted in the past.
To fully explain and explore the new world of work that’s emerging, we need to add more dimensions to this picture. It's probably too soon to discern the one missing dimension that allows you to explain everything, but here are two candidates that might help you explain a lot.
Candidate #1: Power
One dimension we might add to this picture is Power. Power lurks in every decision about where work happens. Making it explicit can help you explain the changes underway and improve the choices being made.
Uneven access. Pre-pandemic, why did remote work arrangements appear in some jobs and industries and not others? Power helps explain when and where work first began to decouple from the single workplace. Remote work began not with random parts of the workforce, but with the most skilled and scarce parts of the workforce – with people who had the most leverage to negotiate their own terms with their employers.
Mass blindness. Why did it take a global pandemic to break the presumption that work happens at the office? There are over 13,000 business schools on earth – many with whole departments dedicated to organizational theory and design. There are over 700,000 management consulting firms. None of it was enough to dislodge assumptions about how to organize work that, in hindsight, needed to be challenged harder.
Then the pandemic happened. Many people started asking: What am I giving up to organize my life around my organization – and why?
Now that people see this question, it’s hard for them to unsee it. And it’s harder for organizations to ignore the consequences of people asking it. People bargain with their organizations for many things, but one of the things that has not been bargained much is the site where work happens. Now it is an explicit term in employment agreements.
Irrational policies. How to explain the variety of post-pandemic workplace arrangements – why some organizations abandoned their offices permanently, while others demanded everyone return to the office full-time? Many valid, organization-specific variables come into play: the nature of the work, the culture of the organization, individuals’ needs and preferences, regulators’ requirements (e.g. for tight financial oversight).
One generic rationale that’s often argued in favor of getting everyone back in the physical office is that co-location promotes collaboration and innovation. This truism might not be true, according to a range of research. The business world is full of anecdotes of watercooler inspiration. Spontaneous, productive encounters do happen. But is that occasional, random benefit outweighed by what many office workers experience regularly: long hours, burnout, discrimination, and/or struggling to get their own work done amidst the many distractions, harassments, tensions and dysfunctions that arise? (especially in open-plan offices)
What’s really behind the return to the office? Adding the power dimension to this picture can help you spark some difficult conversations that yield better outcomes for everyone.
Side note: Power doesn’t have to be zero-sum
Adding the power dimension to the picture could also introduce new blind spots to our thinking. We often think of power as a zero-sum game: home I win, office I lose.
But power is not always a zero-sum game, even in the traditional workplace. I may be perfectly happy to take my orders from you and play my assigned role if it supplies me with things I want and need, like income, security and meaning. Beware of people’s tendency to turn the pros and cons of in-person and remote work into a binary debate.
Non-zero-sum power games paint a very different landscape of work, where organization and person cooperate to generate the things they need from each other.
Candidate #2: Life
Another dimension we might add to the geography of Work is Life.
There is an inkling underway in society that the familiar concept of “work/life balance” is fundamentally flawed. It puts us in the middle of a tug-of-war. Work pulls one way, life pulls the other, and we in the middle struggle not to be pulled apart.
The mass social experience of working from home hinted at the possibility of a better situation, one that’s less about balancing two totally separate spheres and more about blending them in ways that create new opportunities to improve both.
The one-dimensional struggle for work/life balance may become a two-dimensional search for work/life synergy. Instead of fighting to “have a life outside work,” can work become a healthy part of life?
Many more people than before now see this question and ask it.
Is this the new world of work?
In one corner we find the worst factories or offices, with their strict separation of Work and Life. Work happens here; Life happens anywhere but here.
In the opposite corner dwell the loneliest workers-from-home. They can Work from anywhere, but it’s lifeless unless they go back to the office.
The map above helps highlight two of the open spaces for your original thinking:
a) How do we bring more Life into the workplace?
Many large organizations are redesigning their office spaces with a brand-new objective: earning their employees’ attendance. Before, attendance was mandatory. The goal of any redesign was usually to cram more people into the same floorspace and hope they didn’t notice. Now the goal of that floorspace is more about creating space to do things in the office that people can't do at home. Fewer desks for checking email, and more social spaces to check in with each other.
Watch out for more creative experiments along this line of rethinking, like new social sites where human rituals and dramas can unfold. Some office buildings have started up beekeeping programmes on their rooftops. Training and participation is open to any tenants in the building. The idea is to give individuals more diverse and social reasons to go to the office – and help landlords secure more loyal long-term tenants.
b) How do we extend Life out to the people who work from anywhere?
One well-established answer for remote workers is co-working spaces, but again watch out for more creative experiments. In one global marketing agency where most partners work remotely, the company purchased a 40-foot RV in the USA and remodelled it into an office on wheels. Staff can book it and design their own roadtrip-plus-business trip.
Some models at merging Work and Life have succeeded. One example that may be worth learning from is collegiate universities, like Oxford in the UK. The organization (the university) comprises many sites that it controls (department buildings, labs and libraries) standing amidst many sites that it does not control (businesses, residential streets, restaurants – and of course pubs). There is no central gate to pass through to mark your arrival onto company property for the day. Instead, university staff are constantly criss-crossing between Work and Life all day long – between spaces, as one Oxford professor put it, “where everyone most definitely knows my title, and where no one gives a shit.”
Some attempts to merge Work and Life have ended in catastrophe. Companies can get totalitarian in their vision of how life should be. In the 1930s, Ford Motor Company bought land to make rubber from the Brazilian government and ran it as a state-within-a-state. It was called Fordlandia and modelled on the midwestern American town where Henry Ford was born. Alcohol was illegal, square-dancing was taught, only English was spoken, and vegetarianism was imposed. Locals rioted. The town was destroyed. Ford exited.
The lesson is that Life can't be forced. Whether it’s Ford’s utopian town or a company’s mandatory mixer event – if it doesn’t allow space to be organic, it’s empty of what we need to feel alive.
Today’s experiments to find a new synergy between work and life will likewise teach humbling lessons. One day we may look back at the post-pandemic attempts to reconfigure work and see them as short-term mitigation efforts. We tried to graft life back onto a work world that was largely designed to keep work and life separate. But what we needed was a deeper metamorphosis…
Opportunities for Action
The world of work is changing. Now is a chance to shape it. “Hybrid” is a commonly used word, but it does not have a commonly agreed meaning. It is a placeholder for our wish of a better blend that has not yet been found. But a blend of what? Office and home? Your power and my power? Space for work and space for life?
Look at the landscapes above from your own perspective. Share the things you see with the people you work alongside. Widen the conversation beyond “What is our remote-working policy?” and bring these other dimensions into play.
Get to know the fundamental assumptions of organizational design – and challenge them. One way would be to pick up a seminal text from the field and talk about Page 1. Here’s Henry Mintzberg’s The Structuring of Organizations (1979):
“Every organized human activity – from the making of pots to the placing of a man on the moon – gives rise to two fundamental and opposing requirements: the division of labor into various tasks to be performed and the coordination of these tasks to accomplish the activity.”
Now is a good moment to recognize the blind spots in the core logics that built the present world of work. What questions does Mintzberg's definition skip over?
- Where are these tasks performed? (space)
- Who identifies the tasks to be performed? (power, autonomy)
- How organized can human activity be, and still be human? (life)
Explore these neglected dimensions of work. Create space to ask paradoxical questions like “Where should our organization lose control?” Where should you restrain the tendency to centralize, standardize and professionalize – and let organic arrangements rule instead? You may discover new configurations that are less logical – and more productive.
Reimagining work is a vital agenda. “What could it mean to rehumanize work?” Now may be the best moment for you to spark this conversation, to improve the wellbeing of us all.
As an immediate next step, you can add your own observations to the collective Field Notes from this fast-changing world of work:
- What have you newly come to realize about the nature of work?
- What are the new problems and windfalls that you’re finding, as remote work becomes more widespread?
- What innovative approaches have you found to navigate this changing world of work?