I first started writing about the future of work in 2014. I wasn’t an advocate of working from home full time back then, and after a year of lock-down, I’m even less so. People need to be with other people.
On the other hand, I’m also not an advocate of asking everyone to come back to the office full time unless the job requires it. It’s hard to find the middle ground because there are pros and cons on each side.
Pros of going to the office:
- New employees have a chance to gain significant tacit knowledge from existing employees
- Never having to worry about “out of sight, out of mind”
- Having the opportunity to work with senior management simply by being in the right place at the right time
- Not having to dedicate extra space to an office in an already crowded home
Pros of working from home:
- You have more control of your workday (where you work, what you wear, even when you work)
- You don’t need to commute, which saves money (one website claimed it will save $4K a year), which should offset most of the additional working from home costs
- You spend more time with your family
In either case, for the employee and the company to thrive, there still must be a way to assign or facilitate the assignment of non-standard work. For the average up-and-coming employee, part of what contributes to their later career success are the various opportunities to work with other teams and to do small projects for senior and, in some cases, executive management.
Serendipity requires proximity
In the predigital era — when most companies wanted the best, most multi-talented employee they could have — management was chartered with ensuring that non-standard assignments and opportunities happened.
Now, for most employees, these deliberate management practices have generally fallen by the wayside, lost in a world where the average employee changes jobs every 4 ½ years. Of course, they still happen serendipitously, but only if an employee is physically present to take advantage of the opportunity.
In a post-covid-19 world, companies are realizing that it isn’t the perks, no matter how nice, that are most important to employees. It’s interesting and fulfilling jobs. Unfortunately, fulfilling jobs generally have a non-standard component that is more personally tuned to the individual employee. I believe that serendipitous opportunities, which require in-person contact, were always at the root of personalization.
The question then is how much time does an employee need to spend in the office to have the opportunities to become a truly known and trusted employee?
Moving to a culture of dynamic teaming supports both in-office-work and WFH
One solution lies in the evolution of work. In his book The Landmarks of Tomorrow, Peter Drucker suggested that in the 21st century, routine work will be replaced by problem-solving tasks that require thinking. We aren’t there yet, but with the increasing use of business-oriented software to make jobs easier and the automation of robotic processes to eliminate the tedious and boring parts of a job, my guess is most of us will see his prognostication come to pass.
Problem-solving work takes skills, knowledge, and a significant dose of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking. It’s 100% guaranteed we have these people not only on our payroll today but also ready, willing, and able to do the work that needs to be done. In the near future, our challenge will be connecting people to that work rather than just their assigned positions.
If the nature of work and the people we partner with to do this work becomes more dynamic, the discussion of how much time a person needs to spend in the office will also change. It’s the team that will dictate how much time people need to spend together in person, not policies.
Of course, these are all “right brain” solutions. There are also highly appropriate “left brain” solutions that organizations can choose to adopt.
Using a resource management system to know the whole person
What we need is a way to document and make freely available people’s skills. Any company over 500 people is probably too large for a single human to become known based on personal interactions, which means we need another solution. Software solutions have theoretically been available for decades, but they’ve been expensive and hard to use.
Today, neither of these conditions apply. A third possible objection is still left, and that’s a deep-seated belief that employees can’t be trusted to behave appropriately. Sometimes, it takes common knowledge a while to catch up with reality.
LinkedIn has already shown the way forward by capturing the whole person’s skills, abilities, and knowledge. If people will freely share this information with the whole world, why would they not share it appropriately with their employer?
Once a company gets searchable skills and experience into the resource management system, the next step will be to let a certain amount of “self-organization” begin to replace some of the serendipity that was previously possible with people in the office. I believe that encouraging the problem finders to search our employee resource database to identify the problem solvers will lead to improvements across all areas of the world of work. Once the team is built, the scheduling capability of the RM system will show management the plan that the team is committing to.
Of course, management is free to veto solving a problem, and the employee(s) will still have to ensure that they have the time to take on the work. But if it’s a right problem — and if the right people are involved in solving it — then the solution will pay for itself.
If there is one thing the latter half of the 20th century proved, it’s that software changes everything. While I might have my reservations about people returning to the cottages they left during the first industrial revolution (WFH), I’m confident that we can make the future work for everyone if we are smart and creative.