The phrase ‘going to work’ is so ingrained in me that I had never really stopped to think about it. I got my first part-time job in 1999 and in the years between then and now I would travel to a building that was anywhere from one mile to 20 miles away. In fact, twice I have ‘worked away from home’ more than 100 miles from my loved ones just to be closer to work.
I rarely had telephone calls. If I wanted to speak to someone who was in a different city I would spend the day going back and forth just to see them in the flesh. Meeting in person seemed the appropriate thing to do once the introductory emails had been exhausted.
Throughout this whole period of my working life the technology has existed to support alternatives. But while technology has developed and the world has changed around us, our work structures have lagged far behind.
The forced experiments of working from home
Cue the COVID-19 pandemic and the forced experiments of nearly half the population working from home throughout 2020. Or at least trying. The speed of office closures everywhere left most people scrambling to find workarounds to the many years of hierarchy and the way things were. People simply tried to bring their old habits online, including the many pointless meetings and this led to video call adoption doubling during lockdown. We hastily called this remote working but proper remote organisations operate quite differently than simply moving to video.
Homelife met worklife head on and it was hard to see any positives at the beginning.
Surviving working from home seemed pretty high on the list of things to do in the backdrop to the actual COVID-19 crisis.
Once the initial shock of working from home wore off, many of us started to question everything about our old ways of doing things because everything seemed to be falling apart. The idea that the office by itself was where work happened turned out to be largely false.
Lots of work was still happening. Working away from your primary place of work could be positive. Thus the idea of hybrid vs remote vs office was a distraction. It turns out that our structures, core processes, our digital, internal and communication skills were struggling pre-pandemic but we simply couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Ask any HR department.
The closest we came to realising some of these many problems was acknowledging we all spent far too much time in meetings that weren’t very effective: but ‘oh well’ at least the biscuits were sometimes nice.
Once the various lockdowns lifted we were left with some people coming into work and others still at home. Our meetings became both in-person and online at the same time. We called this hybrid but once again it didn’t change much except that some were online.
Between January and October 2021 the number of people returning to the office crept back up with over two-third of adults travelling to work at least once in the previous seven days. Whereas the number of people working from home has dropped significantly.
At the root is the question: What is the problem that the office solves?
Coming to work used to be the only way that the doing part of your job could be done and still is for many. Facilities, visitor services, security, caring for collections etc are all roles that largely require in-person work. However, even these roles can have elements that are not dependant on the here and now.
Ask the question why you come into a work space and you’ll get lots of answers that sound like they are about getting work done. Many of those answers fit into two categories of being sociable and avoiding isolation by feeling part of the work tribe. Both are important.
Could there be a better model that is also more suited to our social needs and home lives, rather than home life always working around work life, without losing that jarring term ‘productivity’?
What if, instead of either harking back to the old ways or accepting the current poor hybrid substitute, we really took the time to understand how we can get things done?
We can’t solve the future of work today or tomorrow but we can experiment with the trends. What we should be doing is purposefully deconstructing why we gather in the first place. We should really get under the skin of our organisational culture and understand how we wish to ‘do the doing’ and ‘communicate’ in the pursuit of productivity. We can nudge forward to create a better internal communication culture for starters.
We should accept that technology for communication and productivity is a key part of our future. This involves choosing the communication tools that fit the type of work we’re trying to do and use their strengths. We can use technology for eliminating time through asynchronous means such as email or online messaging tools like Basecamp. This in turns creates transparency.
If an email does the job of a meeting then purposefully use email.
If you want everyone to hear you then record a video and distribute it to everyone.
In support of climate change we can actively avoid the most wasteful of trips but still meet and use renewable energy to power our greater technology consumption.
A short-term real problem is that it turns out coming to work and seeing people in-person was a positive by-product – it met a social need – which helped our well-being. New solutions will emerge to mitigate this serious obstacle.
Recently I overheard my young kid roleplaying and saying triumphantly ‘I’m going to work’ as she proceeded to sit at my office chair at home. By the time she is old enough to work many of today’s threats will have been overcome.
What is left when the communication technology is put to the side could be transformational time spent together to achieve even greater work at a scale and speed we can only imagine today.
About the author – Zak Mensah
Zak Mensah is the co-CEO of Birmingham Museums Trust. Before that role he was Head of Transformation for the Culture & Creative Industries Service at Bristol City Council. Zak likes to help people to make a ruckus and make positive change happen.