What form the workplace of the future will take is still hotly contested, but we can draw at least one conclusion from the current debate: it's unlikely to involve attending a fixed office in a branded bricks-and-mortar building for much of the working week.
That the central office model reigned right up to the pandemic — and might actually survive the great change wrought by it in some corners of the market — shows how hard it is to migrate away from legacy thinking, even when it does not represent the best way forward.
'Live Like the Jetsons at Home and the Flintstones at Work'
The concept of office-based work was already on the ropes in late 2018 when IBM’s then CIO, Fletcher Previn, famously asked, “When did it become OK to live like the Jetsons at home and the Flintstones at work?”
Previn’s frustration was that workers often had better equipment at home than what they used in the office. He was right in the sense that many traditional office environments asked people to be productive on inferior computers. In Previn's eyes, the way to encourage productivity was to give staff devices they wanted to use and probably already owned in a personal capacity.
Employee satisfaction is clearly a bit more complicated than having the latest Apple device at work, but employers need to start somewhere. In this context, I would argue that a half measure in the right direction is better than no measure at all.
A half measure may be an incomplete but positive step in the right direction, one that demonstrates a desire for progress and a willingness to — at minimum — meet employees halfway on what might make their time at work more productive.
It also acknowledges the employer's learning curve. It may be preferable for an employer to create a baseline of change — minimum viable ways of working, to adapt a common agile terminology — and use that as a foundation upon which to build, iterate and layer improvements.
An organization in this position may rightly describe itself as tackling the challenge of new ways of working head-on, learning what is needed before moving to implement and optimize what they have put in place.
Half measures also may be more achievable and more easily integrated into a workplace culture within a specified time constraint. It may simply be unfeasible to apply full-scale change in the time available.
There may also be a law of diminishing returns present. That is, whether the gains from going all-in on a new working model on day one are sufficiently high enough to justify the upfront cost or complexity, as opposed to pursuing only a partial implementation of a model and building from there.
Related Article: The Myth of the Hybrid Office
Voice of Employee Helps Guide Workplace Decisions
More risk-averse employers may take comfort from the fact that they do not have to design the future workplace or its processes and practices in isolation from the people those practices impact.
Over the past two years, employees have found their voice on workplace issues. The pandemic gave many a chance to reevaluate the circumstances, environment and conditions under which they work. Many are now more forthcoming in sharing what they like and don’t like, and in suggesting or seeking more flexible and agile practices and arrangements.
The fact that more people across organizations have found their — collective — voice is a net positive for employers. It gives employers an advantage, because their workforce is much more highly engaged. It also de-risks any measures taken to improve the work situation, since leaders have access to a much more comprehensive and representative voice-of-employee cohort.
Listening to the workforce has a tangible benefit for employers. These frontline people know the ins-and-outs of processes, and live the challenges of working in fully remote or hybrid work setups. They may have had some great ideas in the past but not felt empowered enough to share those ideas until now.
We have seen a significant number of examples of this among our clients over the past six months. This cultural trait should be encouraged.
Related Article: A Hybrid Workplace Plan That Includes Every Employee
The Metaverse as Endgame?
A more futuristic possibility to consider is if we redefine the endgame as work existing entirely within the realms of the metaverse. This may yet be a number of years away — or might not happen at all — but if the vision of Meta Platforms and others in Silicon Valley comes to fruition, our ‘workplaces’ may become entirely virtual, and our interactions through them with other professionals, business partners and customers may be conducted in a digital or augmented reality-like world.
All of this is to say that with an uncertain end-game, it is possible to overthink and over-complicate the current redefinition of work. Employers may be better served defining and then taking practical, prudent and process-oriented half measures while the future is still being worked out.