But it didn’t really work out, did it?
We thought we needed more data and research in an attempt to reinforce the unsubstantiated statements we oft repeat, to give at least a sliver of solidity to the myths we create or (all too frequently) to reinforce the need for a product or service.
But rather than automatically presupposing a level of complexity beyond our current understanding. all that is necessary is to open our eyes a little wider. We need to consider a starting proposition that things may actually be as simple as they appear, or simpler.
We thought we needed a new model – a replacement for the buckling columns of hierarchy, unsustainable in a networked, enlightened world of bits, something for the nodes to make sense of. So amid the clamour for more democracy we were gifted ideas like holacracy. As the peasant soldier in Dr Zhivago asks a Bolshevik trooper after the revolution “So will this Lenin be the new Tsar, then?”
But all we want is to be treated like an adult, spoken to in a plain language we understand, reasoned with, and accepting of our human vulnerabilities. The attempt to contain and constrain our behaviours through the imposition of any form of model is the root of the disconnect. What organisational structures ever works the way its drawn?
We thought millennials would change everything because they were different to the rest of us, they involuntarily deploy technology with the unconscious ease of a vital bodily organ, and their warm hearts beat to the pagan rhythm of the planet while ours have been petrified by years of submission to authority and the relentless pursuit of lumpen personal gain. All as if younger generations had never entered the workforce with a challenge to their elders before.
But its only ever been about us. In creating and attempting to rationalise the myth, we feel better about ourselves, grow more confident with one another, explore technology and social media with liberated ease, set the value of time against the accumulation of wealth, and put relationships over results. The story helped us weave a different story.
We thought there was a war for talent, that organisations were doing everything within their collective humanly power to mirror the brilliance, commitment, creativity and inspiration of their targets to create a proposition impossible to refuse, always looking over their shoulder at their competitors, always looking for the marginal advantage.
But instead there is a war on talent. The mass evictions of the recession led many to declared UDI when the consequence-free pursuit of gain transpired to have consequences after all- and in doing so, accepting all the risk in the relationship as the price of independence. Meanwhile organisations continue to struggle incessantly with engaging and developing their people, mapping career pathways and creating an authentic sense of common purpose. When humans are no longer seen as resources or capital, then we might have a better appreciation of what talent might bring.
We thought the office was dead, that technology had evolved sufficiently to condemn the archaic institution of daily gatherance under a common payslip, that we were a short step away from a holographic mimicry of the metaphor in any chosen corner of the coffee-serving cosmopolis, that we could leave the archaic institution to the fossil-finders of the far future.
But in reality we just want a better office. The chemicals between us just don’t work over digital. Even for those shunning the corporate cask, the metaphor survives in the shape of co-working centres increasing in design integrity, sophistication and expense. We change a little of the reason, but we’re safe in the motherlode. In whatever form, the common parts of the office reassemble, because it kind of works.
We thought people wanted to work from home (the awful dial-up idea “telework”) all day every day because we could seamlessly connect, set out our own space, get three loads of washing done and a casserole in the slow-cooker and still be more productive than being pestered by annoying colleagues wanting to ask us stuff all day. Surveys piled up (from telco’s) showing what a “win-win” it was. Even though we were often the annoying colleague.
But what we actually want is the other way around – not work from home, but a bit of home at work – warmth, comfort and influence to offset repetitive, soulless, buffed and refrigerated corporate design and its accompanying portcullis of policies and rules governing how we are to behave. That and a little more freedom to manage the demands of domestic life when faced with the prospect of a nine-hour lock-out, and the occasional commute out of rush hour – to be treated like responsible adults, able to make our own decisions.
We thought that we needed to hide work – that we didn’t want anyone seeing the “back of house” – paperwork, the daily deluge of the detritus of administration. So the only vistas on offer were in the direction of where the money was spent, the plush meeting rooms, catered client lounges, the painted staff, the whole “front of house” illusion. It fooled no-one, for all the years it prevailed.
But just as restaurants opened their kitchens to show diners how it was done and who was doing it, so we realised that work doesn’t need to be hidden, that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Just as “Brand” needs to be transparent, so does what goes into creating and sustaining it. We are all “back of house” now. Which means organisations need to create a workplace that works and can be seen from all angles.
We thought everything was changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up, that the voracious future of our fascination and nightmares might even consume the present while we were still contemplating it. A future without organisations, employees or even physical presence, where we are woven into our tech, our cars drive themselves and we argue with our own hologram. It’s all about what lies ahead.
But insight and wisdom has survived thousands of years. It is incredible that ideas borne in ages so different to modernity in every respect are as applicable now as they were in their own time, and in consideration of which relations of production, technology and social norms are but distractions. The past will make sense of our future yet.
We thought. It might be worth us thinking again.