THE ILLUSION OF BINARY CHOICES
Our world appears to be full of binary choices. Some real, some manufactured.
No matter the topic, we tend to distil our most complex challenges into a set of simplistic alternatives. Once our choices have been made, we stick with them unwaveringly and resolutely.
Changing your mind is, after all, an unforgivable weakness.
Tribalism is rife. We’re experiencing the footballification of the everyday: Partisan politics, manufactured cultural conflicts. The need to be seen to ‘have an opinion’ and wholeheartedly agree or disagree on any given topic, however ill-informed or half-baked it may be.
And now, this way of thinking has seeped into the debate around how we work. Rival camps are jostling for position, eager to extol the virtues of their approach and deride the ideas of those holding contrary views. Sometimes, it has to be said, having a discussion about a contentious topic can be exhausting.
The certainty with which many are approaching the remote versus office-based debate is bemusing. We’re all formulating thoughts, setting out a hypothesis. Yet to confidently state precisely how work will be designed and experienced in the future feels premature. Culturally, we aren’t yet ready to commit to a definitive answer.
18TH CENTURY PATIENCE
Before launching into the merits of either side of the debate, it would be wise to take some advice from a German philosopher who recognised the messy, non-linear nature of world history. Just shy of 200 years ago, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proposed that history moves forward in what he termed a ‘dialectical way’. This refers to an argument made up of 3 distinct parts.
A thesis. An antithesis. And a synthesis.
Hegel maintained that both the thesis and antithesis contain parts of the truth, but are exaggerations and distortions of it. They need to clash and interact until their best elements find resolution in a synthesis. Getting to the point of synthesis takes time, an acceptance of uncertainty and a devotion to the long-view.
With this in mind, Hegelian theory can be used to aid our current debate around work.
THE THESIS - REMOTE WORKING IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE FUTURE.
Companies that do not embrace this new mode of working will fail. The businesses that attempt to reinstate old working patterns will experience a talent exodus. Forward-thinking employees will embrace flexibility and technology to access new job markets, share ideas across borders and break free from the constraints that physical presenteeism used to place on us. Untethered to one location, the possibilities and connections are endless. Successful businesses will be the ones that embrace remote working, enabling them to attract global talent irrespective of location.
Essentially, the labour market will dictate how and where we work in the future. Leadership diktats demanding that employees are physically present are symptomatic of outdated thinking. Companies with this mind-set are on the fast-track to extinction.
Key businesses that have adopted this position include Twitter, Nationwide, Spotify and Reach.
It’s obvious for all to see...work is better this way.
THE ANTITHESIS - REMOTE WORKING HAS BEEN AN ABERRATION.
We will all return to the office and a traditional working week. The impact of the pandemic on the way we work will be negligible in the long term. This enforced period of remote work has been survival mode, not an optimal way to operate. Personal development has stalled as knowledge has transferred more slowly amongst team members. Social bonds have been eroded. There is a natural human need to return to the way we were. Once we reopen our offices, businesses will thrive, and so will the people who make them tick.
Key businesses advocating this position include Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs.
It’s obvious for all to see...work is better this way.
Both compelling cases. Both have merit.
COMFORT IN UNCERTAINTY
Like most of the prominent issues of our time, we are urged to adopt a binary position and stick to it with total assurance and frothing passion, deriding the opposing view as archaic (from the remote evangelists) or unpragmatic (from the traditionalists).
Like it or not, this is now a period of experimentation and overreactions. Of thesis and antithesis. Hegelian theory appreciates that big overreactions and opposing views are utterly compatible with events moving forward in broadly the right direction.
There is comfort in this thought.
A little bit of ambiguity isn’t a weakness right now. To think that we’ll reach national consensus about our working methods is naïve. However, it's not an issue we should rush to resolve. Not just yet. Across all sectors, there will surely be room for businesses who provide a physical location, others can promote fully remote working, and others can experiment with hybrid blends. Each of these scenarios will appeal to different employees.
From my own perspective, there are days when the appeal of being in an office, away from the responsibilities of drop-off, pick-up, dog-feeding and lawn-mowing sounds utterly idyllic. Not to mention the social opportunities that come from serendipitously connecting with people and taking advantage of the city for spontaneous and unpredictable evenings.
On the other hand, remote working has provided some of the greatest and most productive professional opportunities of my working life. Autonomy over my day, one hour sessions actually lasting for one hour without the need to devote an entire day to travel, home improvements, daytime family connections, high quality technology and the delivery of work across geographies and time-zones has been eye-opening and liberating.
THE SYNTHESIS - WE’RE NOT THERE YET!
We can accept that the synthesis is yet to come. Right now is a time for challenge, debate and the acceptance of complexity.
Recent news from Apple and Google is particularly fascinating. These are companies whose products have facilitated and supercharged our ability to work remotely on a global scale. Yet management teams from both companies have mandated a 3-day in-office working week. Unsurprisingly, their employees have rallied against these plans, with Apple’s staff specifically demanding greater levels of flexibility.
Where does the power lie in this debate? With the leadership? With the workers?
Or does the real power lie in the ability of these two parties to have an effective, non-confrontational debate? One in which the thesis and the antithesis are considered without preconceptions, with the aim of ending up somewhere better than they were in 2019?
We don’t arrive at the synthesis through a collective shrugging of the shoulders and hoping the right solution presents itself. To arrive at the best possible point for our own businesses, we have to be prepared to debate smart questions, ask the uncomfortable stuff and give ground where necessary.
Rather than mandating an immovable company-wide policy effective from 21st June...19th July...or at some shifting, discretionary date in the future...we’d argue that it is more important to ask and explore the answers to some provocative and interesting questions. Once this has been achieved, you can start to build a policy around the thoughtful, considered opinions of the people within your business. The following examples could lead your business in an interesting direction:
What is the office for?
What is the valuable work we complete? How can this be achieved?
Is the balance between in-person and remote a productive one for us?
What is the impact on our people and our team cohesion as a result of hybrid working?
What are the home conditions of our employees?
It’s a precarious time. We’re in a state of flux. We will swerve between thesis and antithesis as we strive to compromise and develop some rules of engagement for our own businesses. Even when we’ve done that, we may have to accept that our outputs might differ fundamentally from those developed by our peers and competitors.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
As Hegel maintained, history does not move forward in a linear path. Our path to resolution is not straightforward. We lurch from one extreme to the next in pursuit of something better.
We don’t have to take sides yet.
However, we should explore what’s possible. To neglect asking smart questions would be the worst of all available options.
Perhaps that’s a point upon which we can all agree.
4and20Million help businesses tackle these difficult questions and develop new ways of working via Designing Work. A blend of idea sessions, team workshops and longer-term projects to help businesses create a way of working to get the best out of their teams.