To quote from a recent article by Lee Bryant, “What and where is the fabric of your organisation? How would you describe it? When the buildings are empty and the conference rooms are silent, what actually *is* the organisation? Some might argue it is the sum of conversations, or processes, value chains or organisational structures. But where is it and how is it manifested?”. He goes on to say:-
“In the digital era, the digital workplace should be that fabric. But it isn’t. At least, not yet. It has largely been co-opted and wrapped around the existing organisational structure and hierarchies – team spaces here, open “comms” space there and executive discussion spaces we know not where. The digital workplace has been a useful place of communication – mostly talking about work rather than doing work – and collaboration, but it is not yet a place of distributed, self-managed work and value creation.“
But if its development has been slow and incremental thus far, could the current crisis lead to a sudden change in how work gets done?
This is a good starter for thinking about how the current pandemic has disrupted just about every aspect of both business and personal life. There is a talk about the “new normal”, where we must start to accept that maybe life and the way we live it cannot return to the way it was. Every encounter with people outside of our “bubble” is a potential risk. Queues for shopping have to be tolerated. Eating or drinking out is going to be socially distanced for the foreseeable future. Economies and businesses that have relied on the footfall from city workers may no longer be viable.
Since the Industrial Revolution, a largely compliant workforce has accepted the corporate mantra that the only way that work can be done is by centralising people in one place at one time. For manufactured goods, this is probably still the case, but why should it apply to office work?
We’ve had the digital tools to enable remote collaborative working for the past 20 years or more, so why haven’t they been the catalyst for wholesale change to the way that work is done? At least part of the answer is the unshakeable belief in hierarchies and centralised control. This is particularly evident in the public sector, but also remains prevalent in in most large corporates.
The effect of a 3-hour daily commute to and from work has no appreciable economic effect on a business because they don’t pay for that time. However, the effect on the worker has started to be recognised, particularly on those entering the workplace now, who are more concerned about the work-life balance. Credit to some employers who have recognised this and have implemented far more flexible working conditions, enabling staff to work from home more frequently.
So, coming back to the preamble to this piece, could the current crisis lead to a sudden change in how work gets done? I believe the answer is “yes”. There is now the incentive for government and business to reflect on the inherent inefficiencies of the past, and to actively explore new ways of working.
However, access to digital technologies and more flexible working are only part of the solution. The biggest challenge will be how to fully integrate these tools and methods into business processes. This will entail a change in behaviours, where there must be far more emphasis on communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing within and across the organisation. There will be no place for decision-making hierarchies, departmental fiefdoms or inter-departmental rivalries. Most importantly, there must be trust.
Trust by managers that their staff can work independently and make decisions, trust between staff that are working towards a shared goal, and trust that managers are working in the interests of their staff. In my opinion, work and how work is done is going to change for the better, but everyone has a responsibility to make this happen.