Work – do you know what it is yet?

So London is finishing up the largest enforced flexible working experiment any capital city has ever seen, thanks to Homer’s legacy. The ghostliness of many a train and station has testified to the seizing of the opportunity to avoid the insanity of the daily simultaneous commute, and the senseless requirement to be present for a full working day simply to be seen. Holidays aside, many will now go back to the way they worked before. So where does that leave us? Have we learned anything about ourselves, our lives and our work?

Fortunately the term work-life balance has been comprehensively debunked – recognising the increasing intrusion of one into the other, we have arrived at terms including work-life fit and work-life weave. Which means that we are likely to struggle even more with the notion of what – in many respects – work actually is.

It is likely that we all draw the line in different places. So here is a test. Which of the below would you class as “working”? For a YES score 2 points, and none for a NO:

  • Reading Procrastination Today on the beach on holiday, folding the corner over “for later” where you find a useful article (unlikely, but go with it for now)
  • Watching early evening TV with the kids, while e-mailing a colleague (taking care not to call him Daddy Pig)
  • Enjoying a working lunch with a supplier, debating the miserable decline of British football – so quite a long lunch
  • Selecting guavas in the supermarket at lunchtime, while taking a call from a client and offering some free advice (on guavas)
  • In the office, searching online for a birthday present
  • Having dinner with you partner, and seeking some guidance as to how to avoid a needless backstabbing in the office
  • On the bus on the way home, drafting notes for a talk you are giving at a conference later in the month (and wondering why you ever agreed to do it)
  • Following a Ken Hom recipe in the kitchen on a Monday evening (your turn to cook), thanking your stars you installed a splashback, breaking off to write notes for a slide presentation that’s needed for the end of the week – sometimes using a chopstick

Add up your score. It’s actually not relevant. “Working” is no longer an absolute term. Much of the time we don’t know whether we are working or not, the only valid test is subjective. If we don’t know, then our managers or organisations can’t know either, even if they think they do. Which is why for all but the most process-oriented tasks, it no longer matters –outcomes do.

So if we have learned anything while the medal-racking has been going on, it’s probably that we know less about “work” than we did before. And hopefully we have learned that it doesn’t matter.


9 thoughts on “Work – do you know what it is yet?

  1. Neil, this is just brilliant. You’ve done a “Danny Boyle” here. The fact that I was in your mind on this makes me feel really good but taking that aside, and thinking about this as a pure thought piece with zing – you’ve just set a whole new level to excellence. Love the style, content, the calling, the point of it. IMPACT – that’s what it is.

  2. Completely agree…it’s a seven day week and we work and play as we need to….over the week and during each day. I am better for it as well as I am sure anyone does it…..the lucky generation who are not slaves to a false work ethic defined by our bosses

  3. Nice one. One of the reasons I became an architect is I wanted a profession that was integral to my life, not something separate to be endured for 8 hours a day. I also wanted to be able to wear comfortable clothes. However, the fact remains there are loads of people who don’t particularly like what they do to get paid, and need to keep it in a different compartment from the rest of their life. The job as a means to an end and not much more is still the norm. Those of us knowledge-worky types who are engaged with our profession are an exception and actually pretty lucky at that. I suspect that for most people,work is just that, a daily travail.

  4. I agree that working becomes more and more relative and I’ve also heard people contest the term work-life-balance, because it seems outdated to separate your work from your life and balance the two separately. So, now: work anywhere, anytime?
    I think this approach may work for those of us who love their work and thus (to a degree) are their work.
    On the other hand there is a negative side to it, when you find yourself checking emails on your smartphone just before you go to bed and read this annoying message that keeps you awake half of the night. A friend of mine recently told me her husband checked his emails on his blackberry in the middle of the night, as he had to go to the loo. Isn’t that a bit insane? Sometimes I feel it’s very creepy how work creeps in everywhere around the clock and peoples’ expectations are growing, too. I constantly have to remind my students that I won’t reply to emails over the weekend. And oh my, do you need discipline for that!
    What we also shouldn’t forget is all the lovely people making our cafe lattes, foaming our milk, serving our dinner in restaurants, and selling our clothes and groceries to us. For them, work has not left the building, so maybe there is a greater divide between the knowledge-workers and the rest, meaning that work is even more diverse than the set of activities described above.
    Great post though – I love how you make us all think.

  5. Yes, and…

    I think the combination of two weeks “working from home” combined with coming down after the excitement of watching the home team do so well is going to be really hard for those people who will have to go back to -9-5+ in the office.

    I tasted this freedom for the first time ten years ago. I thought I’d probably go back after a few months away. It never happened, it changed me and the way I thought about work and my life and everything forever.

    It seems to me that for lots of people it will still be easier to hand in your notice next week than to negotiate more time working in modes and locations of your choice.

  6. Great train of thought Neil. The lines have been blurred in our favour for some time now (thanks to technology). However in the same way that presenteeism defined commitment and identity to the last generation, accessibility is simply a different manifestation for ours. If we can draw a line under the nonsense of being recognised for hanging around in the office, we must be able to break pavlov’s response to the vibrating inbox. Damned if I can find out how.

  7. What work actually is in the modern workplace has puzzled me for some time now. How can we design spaces to facilitate work without a true understanding of it? I pondered on this a little while ago at, I think we are on the same wavelength but alas many of my clients aren’t.

  8. Nleil – great summation of what many people now experience in their daily ‘working lives’.. I love the way you descibe the Olympics as the largest flexible working epriment ever; but sadly, I suspect the reality of tomorrow morning’s commute will kick in – and we won’t have the welcome distraction of a home team medal-fest to sustain us. Which makes me wonder how the likes of Ennis, Farah, Hoy, Wiggo et al would define ‘work’ in their world. These guys are highly focussed and detail-oriented in their work anand what would consititue a ‘bad day in the office’ for them? We’ve just seen what a ‘good day’ looks like!!
    ‘Work’ is now a relative term…..but ‘The Office’ will still be wwith us for some time yet!

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