Do the work, not the time.
I decided to experiment with a bit of time travel.
It seems everyone works from home nowadays. Just under a year ago trying to prise permission to work from home out of the nineteenth-century mill owners who seemed to run many businesses was a major challenge that required concerted lobbying from its advocates, targeted programmes to get reluctant managers to agree to it and active communication programmes to promote and support it.
I thought it would be fun to see what obstacles existed before it became the socially accepted norm and see how much they have changed now everyone is doing it. I went back through a few old articles that were posted in the pre-Covid era to see how people thought in those far-off times. Back in those crazy days of late 2019 the major issues to confront were:
The changes brought about by Covid-19
Obviously, the privations of a global pandemic have turned all that on its head. Being compelled, rather than choosing to work from home, has taught us that the only real issues are actually points 1 – 8, namely, the difficulties of making home more like work.
In a funny way I imagine this feels like when people started accepting that the world was round, or that the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than the other way round - nothing has changed except attitudes. The people who once thought you could sail over the edge of the world on your sofa are now accepting that circumnavigation in a domestic setting is no easier but is at least possible.
Perhaps, rather than lament all the challenges that exist in balancing your work-time with your getting-another-snack-from-the-fridge, loading-the-washing-machine or missing-your-wate- cooler-moment times we should flip things around. What would happen if, rather than trying to square the circle of making home more like work, we tried to make work more like home?
I mentioned nineteenth-century mill owners at the start of this article. The notion of the working day and the divisions pertaining thereto have their roots in universal, readily available and synchronised timepieces that helped people know their place and what was expected of them, when. Throughout most of human history the tasks, needs and deadlines of day-to-day existence existed in a constantly changing dance that wasn’t broken down into stretches of 30 or 60 minutes. Introduce a clock and suddenly every task or conversation between 9am and 5pm has to begin or end at the top of the hour. Attention, duration and focus is broken down into nice chronocentric blocks.
This behaviour is so ingrained – even when people are forced to work from their homes – that many people are choosing to get up earlier so they can leave their house to simulate their commute by walking in a big circle to get them in “a work frame of mind”. That has to be the absolute definition of the hamster-on-a-wheel attitude to work that inspired the wild idea of letting people break the conventions of work by working from home in the first place.
Now I know that the counter argument is that the world is bound by conventions. I don’t want to be unable to get hold of a lawyer at 2.37pm on a weekday and bathroom fitters who offer to fit your new shower at 3am are unlikely to be popular, but we have also created a global, always-on society. I can call my bank in the middle of the night; I can usually find a 24-hour supermarket too if I want to. Flexibility is possible. It just takes a shift in attitude.
Tips for making work more human
One of our favourite ways of helping everybody express their views and contribute to a topic under consideration is enshrined in the principles of Open Space Technology, outlined by Harrison Owen. We recommend checking it out if you haven’t come across it, but two of the central rules are “whenever it starts is the right time” and “whenever it’s over, it’s over”.
Rather than try to make your home like work by accepting all the constraints implicit in the concept of “work”, perhaps we should all take the experience of the past few months and endeavour to humanise the employment we have by bringing more of our humanity and the flexibility that you have when you operate from home into whichever nineteenth-century mill pays your salary.
If you would like more thoughts on how we have become ruled by the clock, check out this BBC article here...but I have to go now. I have a 12.30pm appointment with the dishwasher that will take me up to my 1pm meeting with the laundry.
“We have built a robust system.”
“We have to increase our resilience in the face of global challenges.”
“Contents are fragile. Please do not drop.”
How many times have you heard variations on these three statements? They are all declarations or instructions to take the worst that the world can throw at you squarely on the chin and be unharmed.
They are effectively saying:
“The best-case scenario is that after everything that happens we stay the same.”
Conversely Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson and Jake Bugg may have been inspired enough to take that onboard and share the sentiment, but sadly the world of business is just happy with the less ambitious wish to be at best unharmed by economic tides, global pandemics or clumsy delivery drivers.
In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb makes one of those observations that stop you in your tracks and think “you’re right… why didn’t I think of that?”
There is no opposite to fragile.
“Robust” and “resilient” come close, but they still imply that staying the same is the best you can hope for. In the realm of medicine Wolff’s Law states that bones grow stronger when placed under an external load, but businesses and people sending fine china through the post seem to be happy with weathering, rather than benefitting from the knocks that life delivers.
Taleb’s contention is that while “fragile” – in this context anything you are currently seeking to protect – suggests that you’ve got more to lose than to gain; “antifragile” implies you’ve got more to gain than to lose. While this flies in the face of well-documented work on heuristics and biases such as the “loss aversion” bias (people would usually prefer to not lose £20 that they have rather than find £20 they didn’t have) it does raise questions about how organisations see how they will come out of the other side of the challenges we have all faced in the past year.
Life is random. It’s also chaotic, unpredictable and frequently fast moving. By suppressing this randomness, by being selective with the input sources you use, by sticking with what (you think) you know and increasing the noise by using ever more complex streams of data to inform your decision-making – by fetishising being “robust” and “resilient” - you are wrapping all your goods in bubble wrap, writing “please do not drop” on the outside and trusting the universe that, having taken all the necessary precautions no one is going to fling it across the warehouse into the back of a van underneath the kettlebells that someone bought off eBay to get them through the lockdown.
By all means take precautions. I’m not advocating mindless risk-taking, but always look for opportunities to refresh your view of the world, see potential and take positive steps in the face of adversity so you can create something better than what you had.
I’ll leave you with the thinking that explains why we are driven by the biases that are drawn from previous experience.
1. There’s too much information. It needs to be filtered. Noise becomes signal.
2. The signal has gaps that we need to fill in, which we fill in with stories.
3. Life comes at you fast, so we use the stories we tell ourselves to make decisions.
4. These decisions create our mental models of the world. Repeat at Step One.
What would happen if you looked again into the random and the unpredictable and instead of looking for patterns to help you stay the same sought out the opportunities to come back better and more… antifragile?