At first thought, where you work appears to be as obvious – and closely related to – your answer to that perennial question ‘what do you do?’ Perhaps this is the case for minds still attuned to the factory model of work, the one which says that we show up for fixed hours, are broadly told what to do, undertake a set of fixed tasks, operate to targets, quotas and performance metrics, before clocking out and heading home at 5pm. Perhaps this was my grandfather’s experience working in a factory making bricks in the 1950s. But for those of us working in offices or undertaking knowledge work, it is rarely that straightforward. Consider some of our Olympic athletes. The workplace of a cyclist isn’t simply the velodrome nor the shooting range for the archer. It might also be the gym, the office of their psychologist or nutritionist, their home desk where they review perfromance stats and undertake planning and research, the queue in the supermarket when they scan through emails, and so on.
One of the characteristics of knowledge work is that it is almost impossible to ‘down tools and switch off’ at the end of the day. Cal Newport1, writing in the New Yorker, notes that “the phenomenon of karoshi (death by overwork) spotlights the dangers of a post-industrial economy in which both the work available and our ambitions have become effectively infinite”. The work is usually creative and ongoing, an ongoing inquiry not a set destination; ideas and inspiration don’t wait around, unseen, deep in our minds, only to show up between core hours to be captured and put to good use.
As Robert Pirsig2 describes, when telling of the work of Henri Poincaré, “a later discovery occurred while he was walking by a seaside bluff. It came to him with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty. Another major discovery occurred while he was walking down a street. Others eulogized this process as the mysterious workings of genius, but Poincaré was not content with such a shallow explanation. He tried to fathom more deeply what had happened.” It’s no coincedence that the workday of many of the more productive and well known in society such as Darwin extended to around four or five hours and included time for walks, food and a nap. All of which is of particular and striking relevance when considering the live debate around the ‘return to the office’, perhaps the most obvious manifestation of a desire to ‘bounce back’ to the familiarity of a pre-Covid practice.
This is a debate that runs deeper than it at first seems for it strikes right at the heart of two different world views, two perspectives on the fundamental characteristics of human behaviour. As debates go, it’s an old one, as Rutger Bregman3 notes: “In one corner is Hobbes: the pessimist who would have us believe in the wickedness of human nature. In the other corner, Rousseau: the man who declared that in our heart of hearts we’re all good.”
And it is playing out in workplaces across the globe.
On the one hand are those who believe that people are fundamentally lazy or in some way flawed, and thus they require supervision, oversight, management by directives and numbers, and use of appropriate corporate sticks to punish failing or non-complient behaviours. Generally such a perspective assumes the primacy of the individual as the agent of their own actions, doesn’t account adequately for the impact of context on performance, and believes in hierarchical, carrot-and-stick management. This is Theory X in management theory.
Less often spoken about is the sense that those with this mindset have when they are in power. Because they will generally believe their position of seniority is a rightful manifestation of their own morality and ethics, they will assume they have power over you because you are in some way flawed and they are in some way more moral and deserving, as evidenced by their position in the hierarchy. Everyone reaches the position that their personal qualities deserve, and they are more deserving than you. This gives them the belief that it is ok to treat you in that familiar parent-child, teacher-student dynamic. Bosses subjucating their staff are simply infantilising.
On the other hand are those who believe that given sufficient support and challenge, their staff can maximise their potential and do great work. They realise that by creating space for people to step into and develop, together with being available for support and healthy challenge, the growth, satisfaction and output of their teams is optimised. They are also likely to aim for optimisation over maximisation, as the latter will lead inexhorably towards unhealthy stress and burnout, whereas the former is about a healty balance between what needs to be done, when it is done and how it is done.
Of course, the distinctions are not usually as clear-cut as this. The benefits of the hierarchical model are that some people are motivated by numbers and competition and respond well to hierarchical instruction. The downside of the hands-off supportive manager is a potential loss of focus on what needs to be achieved and inefficiencies as processes and work take too long, with some staff feeling lost and confused as a result. This is the critical fault-line, one that distinguishes between basic philosophies of human nature and strike at the very heart of what we think it means to be human.
While it seems to me that these critical philosphical differences centre around issues of motivation, trust and entitlement, there are other factors at play that we can layer on to this foundational analysis. They are revealed because working from home has been the first real crack in the prevailing paradigm, one that threatens to unravel much of it. The role of our cities and drivers of innovation because of the critical mass of workers and businesses; the service sector set up to support workers with food and drink, entertainment and transport; the time we sacrifice to commuting which we see we could put to more valued use; the investment tied up in real estate; the arbitary notion that we have to work for five days out of every seven, 48 weeks out of 52, and so on.
If the underpinning values about human nature and the role of work in living a good life start to change, all of these will change, too, and often in ways we can’t predict. No wonder it is the debate no-one really wants to have, or one that is closed down quite quickly. There has been so much conversation about ‘building back better’, seeking the opportunity for change, for experimentation, for the new, about avoiding ‘snapping back to 2019’, and yet, when it really comes down to it, so many of our politicians, role models and senior leaders are (and will) bottle it. The path of least resistance slides us right back to where we began, like the childhood game of snakes and ladders.
I have been lucky enough to work with some fighting this anti-risk instinct. A characteristic of their thinking, which reflects my own research, is that they see what people do (the work) as separate from where they do it (the workplace). Of course, there are some industries and functions where work and workplace are contingent; even then, a warehouse operative might occasionally work from home to undertake monthly admin or online training, a pathologist will visit crime scenes, call centre operatives can be set up to field calls from home. When you dig deeper things are usually more complicated than they at first seem.
I think the debate needs to be lifted to a slightly higher level. For me the crucial question is this: what does it mean to enable staff and teams to deliver their best work? What does good work look like, in their context? (These are questions we explored with NSS). It’s two steps removed from the question ‘should we return to the office?’, because it forces us to back up a bit and understand the nature of the work to be done and what it looks like when it is done well. Only then are we in a position to consider the optimum environment for staff to do their best work – the location or workplace as the enabler of good work. Indeed, this almost dispenses with the question entirely, because the answer is certain to be a hybrid one, where the office has a place, but so do home offices, coffee shops, workspaces, ‘walking meetings’, conference halls and the like.
My masters research led me to conclude that where we work matters for the simple reason that the context and environment within which we do anything matters, as it influences us in ways both overt and covert. During the course of a day or a week we do different types of activity, and each activity is likely to benefit from us being in a slightly different environment, one that is conducive to the type of work we are trying to do. Open plan offices destroy concentration and focus and are therefore appropriate only for certain types of work. It is no accident that Adam Grant writes his books by hiding away in a remote cottage, or that when I need to write a report pre-Covid I would work from home to minimise interruptions.
Together with my colleague John Owen we identified4 four broad categories of knowledge work: meeting; organising; creating and thinking (incl reading). The first two can be done in a shared space; creating can be either a team endeavour (eg a design workshop) or a personal one (eg writing); thinking and reading require uninterrupted time and space. Yet our workplaces are set up usually in open plan as the lowest common demoninator, rarely based on an assessment of the requisite environment for people to performa at their best, but usually driven by the cost savings offered by the ability to fit more staff into a smaller space. Few seem to care about the true imact this has on productivity.
Our conclusion was, so far as you are able, to match your work requirements to both your environment, as it is clearly shown to be the biggest determinant on your ability to do good work, but also on your energy levels. Save your admin, for example for the times of day when your energy naturally ebbs; focus on your deep work when concentration is natually at its height. Of course, the interesting thing here is that our energy flows are not constrained by the arbitary hours of 9-5 nor are they common to everyone; I remain admiring of anyone able to summon up a laser like focus at 8am, as I hit that same place nearer 8pm. Just as inspiration and ideas appear at different times, so too our energy and focus as we each experience slightly different circadiam rhythms.
Personal experience and learning as well as our moral view of the world leads us to our natural management proclivities; taken across the organisation they also shape and are shaped by the prevailing culture of our workplace. Does the organisation run on trust and a positive view of human nature or does the opposite prevail, evidenced through a focus on presenteeism, strict performance reviews, management by numbers, and the like. Which leads me to the conversations I have been having with clients when it comes to taking a more nuanced aproach to ‘hybrid working’ – how to combine the best of the workplace with the best of remote working. Culture is key.
If your work is characterised by individualism, competition and targets, as I imagine is the case in many sales and finance sectors, I can understand the desire to get everyone back into the office and get them visibly competing. Perhaps here an open plan office environment is an enabler of peak performance. Hard to imaging our world-class cyclists performing their best without competitions to push and motivate them.
If your work characterised by co-operation and collaboration, where the quality of your relationships is key, where you recognise that you can’t achieve the requisite outcome working on your own, quality environments and workspaces that facilitate collaboration are key. Clearly, face-to-face is often the preference here, although experience over the last 15 months has shown that they can be developed just as effectively online. Indeed, many mechansims of engagement in a virtual workplace are more effective, offering people different means of expressing themselves, sharing thoughts and capturing information.
Finally, I can think of no work that requires a complete absence of thought. Thinking time and space; space to read, to write, to be creative. Usually this has to be interruption free, and as we all know this is pretty hard to find. It’s why so many people work in open plan offices with their headphones on, write in coffee shops or at home, or go for a walk or run when then need to quietly figure something out.
Once more we come to trust and entitlement. If you trust your staff to self-manage their own commitments around their work specifically and life generally, you are more likely to attract staff who respond well in these scenarios – and who will do better work because of it. If you feel that your position in the hierarchy is an entitlement, you’ll reinforce silos and hierarchy and power dynamics that consolidate your status and perpetuate a parent-child dynamic with your staff, whether or not that is a dynamic they respond well to. Unfortunately over the last 20 years I have experienced more managers in the latter category than the former; the damage to personal confidence, motivation and aspiration, and thus the poison spread within our own minds and organisations, can be immesurable if we let it in. Perhaps one benefit of the working from home experiment, when looked at in the rear-view mirror, is the evidence that most staff do their best work when free and enabled to do so.
2 Pirsig, Robert. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: 40th Anniversary Edition (p. 240). Random House. Kindle Edition.
3 Bregman, Rutger. Humankind (pp. 43-44). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
4 Schwartz, Tony ‘The way we’re working isn’t working’