Days of future past

I argued in the post below that the workplace and the nature of work exist in the superstructure, while the infrastructure – the system of management – is the only causal force. Yet within the workplace community we remain pre-occupied with matters of superstructure – most notably the “the future of the office” and its ugly twin “the future of work”.

Why have we become so obsessed? How many hours (and pounds) have we spent in conferences and seminars trying to predict what no-one can – and why? How have so many people made so much money out of commissioned research, published reports and events on the subject? One might say that for many the future of work is getting paid for talking and writing about the future of work.

We usually find that those considering the future of the office and future of work contemplate scenarios drawn from within the domain in which they operate and understand – knowledge work. “If triangles had invented god, they would have made him three sided” as Montesquieu said. Rarely is this study directed at the majority, who remain involved in monitored process activity.

And so to try and call time on the never-ending game of pass-the-parcel, here are ten possible reasons why we might collectively (and I include myself in this) have become so pre-occupied:

  1. It beats spending any time or thought on the poor quality of most offices today, and the unacceptable working environments bestowed on the majority not fortunate enough to be deemed “knowledge workers”
  2. It is risk free – if you were right you can say “I was right” and if you are wrong you can forget about it and no-one will come back and blow you a raspberry because they won’t recall that you said it anyway
  3. It builds mystique – if we talk about the future we are seen to be interested and interesting, visionary, even prophetic
  4. It builds profile – the openings for guff creation, proliferation and procrastination on the subject are plentiful – please take one, get noticed
  5. It does not require facts or data or any substantive or credible research – so basically anyone can do it, and strangely anyone seems to
  6. It provides another opportunity to include a black and white photo of a “Taylorist” office of the 1920’s – well, surprise surprise, plenty of those around today but you might not recognise them because they are now in colour
  7. It is un-commercial – the office of the future, the future of work, all occur in a dreamland where money isn’t relevant or required, and everything is possible – therefore it is far easier than trying to create great working environments today on limited resources
  8. It anaesthetises – it takes us into a pain-free state of mind
  9. It is consequence-free – it doesn’t affect anyone’s life or working conditions – well, of course, other than the shiny happy people we see occupying the office of the future
  10. It protects us from considering the tougher and more fundamental problem – management – by broadly assuming that it will “all be sorted” by then. Actually, it won’t and so the future of work and the workplace remain fundamentally dependent on the future of the system of management, and the organisational culture it supports and is supported by

There is a constructive point to this. My plea is for the energy and commitment of the workplace community to be directed at what we face now – a widening gulf between the freedom and inspirational enjoyed by the minority “knowledge worker” community and the majority – and to focus energy on resolving it. Lets call time on the debate, and do some work.

2 thoughts on “Days of future past

  1. Your infrastructure / superstructure comment really resonates with me.

    My interest over the years has been predominantly on the invisible but crucial infrastructure stuff. Did a PhD exploring organisational systems that supported quality, lean and continuous improvement philosophies and practice.

    There’s more overlooked ignored research on engagement and high-performance work systems than you could shake a stick at, both at national and EU levels. Just one exhibit among many: the ESCR (http://www.esrc.ac.uk/) funded a 6 year research programme, involving 22 UK universities, into the Future of Work about 10 years ago.

    http://www.leeds.ac.uk/esrcfutureofwork/ You never heard of the research programme? I bet very few have.

    It is the overlooking of all this knowledge and institutes like the CIPD (who ought to know better, in my view) proclaiming smart working as a “new paradigm” that prompted me to write Smart Working: Creating the Next Wave. We need to discover and experiment with the stuff we already know works.

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