Enough of the recent experimental writing.
The workplace sector took a knock last week. It has been met with a tidal wave of hand-wringing and collective prophecy of doom for the consequences. It’s still going on. If you haven’t read much of the comment, you haven’t missed much.
Telework – and by that I mean working at home close to 100% of the time – has had it all its own way for too long, maybe because no-one has been especially bothered about it. It hasn’t changed work out of all recognition, or delivered on any of the ridiculous promises made about it several decades ago. In short, it has been a target not worth slinging a loose sod at since history first records discussion of it, during the Guild System of the mid 1500’s. While having grown a little with the increased speed of connectivity, it has remained self-contained and continues to account for only a small part of the workforce (4.9% in 2010 according to the Telework Association. And before the lynch mob are summoned, let’s be clear – telework is not flexible working. The latter balances the workplace with other spaces (of which home may be one).
Anyway, here is the rub. Trends and movements need to take a knock occasionally. It is more than Nietzsche’s oft-quoted phrase: “From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger” (from Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophise with a Hammer – which incidentally he wrote in the space of a week while on holiday in 1888 – work life mesh, Freddie).
In general terms, here are ten reasons why a setback is good for us:
- A strong, ballsy counter-opinion expressed with conviction makes us reconsider whether we are right, it makes us think harder
- It forces us to strive for greater accuracy and validity in the evidence that supports our position, avoiding reliance upon unfounded statements repeated so often they assume the mantle of truth (the workplace sector all over, then)
- It raises the profile of the debate, drawing out other evidence and experience, and bringing in new entrants – albeit most of the new entrants on this occasion may as well free up some disc space
- It allows time for a pause, humour, irony and general release, alleviating the seriousness of it all for a moment
- It reminds us that we are human, that we are not part of an argument that is simply a ratcheting mechanical process that churns on regardless
- It helps us with our definitions, our building blocks, the recent example being fraught with misunderstanding – it would have been refreshing this time around were everyone at least actually whining over the same thing, and not their misunderstanding of it
- It helps identify the partially committed, the bandwagoners – those without the will to see it through – and helps us to avoid them
- It draws out the masters of retrospect, the “told you so’s”, with their thin film of conviction, the worms that surface on the lawn because they think it’s raining – and helps us to ignore them
- Sometimes ground won is tenuously held – it helps to consolidate the argument in order to take it forward with greater conviction in future
- It allows a chance to exit the game if we wish – a free pass out – if we have had enough, lost our faith, or just don’t have the energy or interest any more
For the record, for over two decades I have been committed to, and campaigned for, the principle of flexible working – trusting employees to work when, where and how they choose in order to deliver – and of the organisation providing a relevant, accessible and exceptional workplace able to compete with the best of any other space available (carrot, not stick). I also recognise that people need their own space, in particular for creativity and reflection, and need to be trusted to use it wisely. As for pure telework – I am ambivalent, unable personally to cope with any more than two consecutive days working at home without exhibiting the early signs of clinical insanity. Without doubt it has its place, and benefits many. But as a panacea, I remain to be convinced but am happy to listen.
For the committed teleworkistas, you never deserved to have it all your own way. For the love of, stop the hand-wringing and take the setback – refine and update the relevance of your arguments, improve the quality and credibility of your underlying research, and make sure you still believe.
I quite like this hammer.