The Shifting Future of What Office Work Looks Like

Jeffrey Keefer

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Does Office Work Have a Future?

I have been thinking a lot about what future office work looks like. If and when COVID finally ends, countless office towers will be standing empty, awaiting the vast workforce evacuated to work from home during the pandemic to return. It will be as if nothing changed, literally frozen in time.

We will be summoned to resettle into cramped workspaces with limited privacy, caught in a pecking order between cube farms and open floor plans. That is unless you are one of the chosen who has some privacy in an office, away from the warm-bodied doers who take orders and execute them, one day moving seamlessly into the next.

Now, wait a moment. Isn't repetitive work, day after day, knowing our place within a hierarchy that takes comfort in offering employee surveys and nominal diversity, equity, and inclusion plans to sell staff on how much they care, precisely what offices were like before 2020 derailed everything?

Is it possible to willingly go back into that situation, as if the year or two of COVID were only a blip on a screen we will prefer to ignore in the future, like a piece of undigested food that hearkens to a Dickensian ghost who would rather not be seen?

An article in this week's The New Yorker demonstrated to what lengths some organizations are doing to rethink what work looks like and how it can be done within knowledge-intensive firms. In many ways, it can be a model for how others may want to explore it--what is working when we work remotely from home and what is lacking.

Mind you, this is not about what a few senior leaders think, generalizing as if they know the vast majority of staff's wants or needs. Having worked my career in organizational functions within training, organizational development, quality improvement, research, and strategic management, I know a smokescreen when I see one, and imaging you do as well. It is dehumanizing at best and manipulatively pathetic at worst when so-called organizational leaders pontificate about what I want, or what you want, or how we should all work.

Remember when they thought cube farms would be great for us as an opportunity to increase collaboration? They then brought us to open offices, further encouraging us to bump into one another all day and generate new ideas with each encounter? Yeah, neither of them worked, as all we felt were a distraction and lack of privacy with its related exposed workplace design.

Workplace politics and workplace design can be really problematic, yet many employers put old problems into new skins by considering hybrid workplaces. These are those supposed solutions where some come into the office while others work remotely. That is, until off days when everybody switches! I see more problems and waste in the future, even without consulting my Tarot or crystal ball! Why? Well, two reasons.

Future Challenge 1

Firstly, you cannot know what I want or need if you do not ask me, engage me in conversation, or seriously want to uncover how I am experiencing my workplace and position within the organization. Look, I am an experienced qualitative methodologist. I learned years ago, even before doing my doctoral work in educational research, that you could not assume you know how people make sense of their experiences. What it may appear to me on the outside has little relation to what is happening internally. For example, I recall being in a meeting once, earlier in my career, when we were planning for Fall deliverables. I led a discussion about preparing for a training update project due to a software patch that would change numerous internal processes. I was defining the project plan for our department, yet what I could not share was that very afternoon, I had an interview at another organization for a new job (one I took shortly after).

Externally, I was focused on the work, and to be fair, I did my job to a high level of professionalism because it was my job, and I was committed to it. However, internally I was unhappy with my title and salary due to new responsibilities I was assigned. I had more work and more responsibility, including managing my first direct report, without any training, without any title change (yes, we both had the same title at the time, for several months at that point), and without any plan for when things would change, beyond "We are working on it."

How many times have "we are working on it" meant it is a concern, yet on the bottom of the list of things we are doing anything about? Yeah, that one.

I did my work, but internally I was miserable. I felt taken advantage of, unsupported, and only a cog in a machine. Externally, professional and focused. Internally, I must get out of here!

This is what happens when so-called organizational leadership pontificates for what it knows its staff want and need in a workplace post-COVID.

Future Challenge 2

The second reason is even more insidious. Organizational leadership gets rewarded when staff work productively and efficiently. Yet, beyond sales staff situated outside the larger office spaces to more readily reach their clients, most people are not trusted to work outside of where they can be watched, as if the adage, "the boss is watching" were something true within knowledge-intensive work areas. We can have all sorts of metrics and dashboards to track our actual time on the phone, as if people make personal calls from work phones, or to track productivity as if knowledge work has clearly-defined processes and measurable steps across it that can be easily articulated and measured weekly or even monthly at times. However, could the boss know I was working if he or she cannot see me working? This is the second problem, namely perception of work.

Perception of work is what organizational leadership wants to see, a perception that we are working and getting our jobs done. How else in a hierarchical workplace can we demonstrate control, especially when we cannot physically monitor staff throughout the day?

Let me give an example of a current project I am working on. Right now, I am leading a strategic planning effort at a small, two-year public college. I am keenly aware of the date the plan needs to be completed. As this is not the primary job I was hired to do, I know I have to fit it in amongst the institutional research and compliance reporting that must happen, must in the sense of avoiding real penalties and fines that will clearly make my boss unhappy (and isn't that an understatement?!). I have been very intentional in this process, so it will be as transparent as possible, including having my committee colleagues communicate and seek input to the process throughout, in part because nobody wants to be surprised by being presented a strategic plan that we cannot rally behind or believe in.

The result is I do not need to be watched daily, as the trust in my ability and commitment to the process and its end-date need not be watched day-after-day. While my leadership may not precisely know how I am moving this project forward, they know it is moving, and people genuinely seem to be happy with being involved in it. In other words, there is a perception the work is getting done, and while I am not sitting at my workplace desk doing it, I waste less time between meetings now than I ever did while in the office. Nevertheless, the perception remains the same: the perception the work is getting done based on internal indicators of progress. I believe they would prefer I stay this productive once the pandemic ends, and they expect the workplace will go back to the pre-2020 normal, yet we can never go back.

What Will the Future Bring?

COVID, and its ongoing shifts and changes to how we work, collaborate, and ultimately live our lives will leave an impact in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Sure, I like to collaborate with colleagues. Yet, nothing wastes more time than walking to meetings in adjoining buildings or floors, with the stopping to get coffee, and informal conversations, all of which contribute to the two main perceptions of the workplace, organizational leadership believing they know what we are doing and want to be doing without asking us while also the perception they have to watch us for us to be able to get work done.

COVID has shown us that both of these notions, literally ones of power and control, are not going away any time soon. Yet, somehow when knowledge workers work remotely, there is a perception that power is somehow slipping from their fingers.

This is a time of great opportunity to have these conversations, yet the notion of power in itself often precludes them from happening. Isn't it just easier to make token commitments to what a post-COVID workplace will look like when we have few expectations these power and trust dynamics will really shift in meaningful ways? I am not sure a hybrid workplace will work, as those who are seen, even when they are not productive, are often the only ones who are considered as part of the team? Considered for actually working, when metrics and truly communicated goals and progress are not measured in any other meaningful way beyond out of sight is out of mind.

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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