We need to completely reimagine work

The pressure to act is rising. Now is the time to reimagine the work and office world, and create a plan that works for all.

Edmund Josef von Horváth, better known by his nom de guerre Ödön von Horváth, was an Austro-Hungarian writer who wrote in German. He once said: „Ich bin nämlich eigentlich ganz anders, aber ich komme nur so selten dazu.“ (“Actually I’m quite different. But I so rarely have time to show it.”) It’s possible that many, if not most office workers today share the same sentiment: they want to work differently, but are rarely able to. To bridge this gap, companies need to completely reimagine how their employees work.

For years, possibly decades, work models have not reflected the status quo of the time. In May 2020, under the fresh expression of drastic Covid measures, we wrote:

Despite countless studies having proven that open-plan offices dramatically lower productivity and collaboration, they’re still in widespread use. This world is quickly crumbling now, with companies swiftly moving away from the old model and urban centres emptying. The jury is still out on whether this change will stick or not.

But there is now a sweet spot with three vectors intersecting at the same point: a lot of workers demand more work from home, a lot of companies need to save cash and recognise the opportunity to shrink their office space footprint, and new hygiene standards make the office less attractive for everyone involved.

The same is true for physical meetings: you need to leave the safety of your home for meetings which are expensive and a potential health risk. But even if we can’t do meaningful work at the office, we can at least meet our co-workers. The complexity of modern work life has led to countless meetings, and with their inflation came their devaluation.

The current crisis has dramatically accelerated this trend. Rather than helping, technology is making things even worse. The virtualisation of meetings made it possible to fill the entire workday with meetings without ever leaving the work desk. Meetings turned into video calls, the number of participants exploded and the average value of the meeting declined even further.

After three pandemic years, the sanitation aspect has almost faded away. But the rest of the madness continues unabated. Even worse, people now commute to the office, only to sit in vast open-plan spaces and shout into their devices all day long, annoying their co-workers. Even those that do make it into the office are greeted by fewer colleagues because the rush to work remotely has permanently reduced office occupancy.

Reinventing work and the office

Here’s more from 2020:

The call for new work is a cry for help in view of old work getting increasingly outdated. With regard to health risks, energy consumption, traffic, digitalisation and virtualisation of our working lives, the current system of work doesn’t look sustainable. The global crisis of 2020 might well be the final nail in the coffin for work as we know it.

We need to rethink and reinvent work and the office.

Three years later, it hasn’t happened. We can only speculate why not, but the need to reimagine work is still clearly there. The pre-Covid world won’t return, as this year’s Accenture Life Trends report made clear:

We’ve raised some of these issues before, but they haven’t been fixed and the consequences are becoming clearer. It comes down to the hard-to-measure, intangible benefits of office life that have gone missing—and this is intimately tied to the post-pandemic evolution of cities and their entire value proposition. Many continue to resist a return to pre-Covid work rituals, while others crave the rewards of being together. It’s time leaders went back to the drawing board to make a logical, mutually beneficial plan.

Part of the old package was what the report calls “intangible benefits” like, for instance, “the unscheduled conversations and chance encounters that often yield ideas worth exploring and help develop career-defining connections.” We’ve written about topics like mentoring since the early days of the pandemic. Those were the days when your boss moved into the cloud and turned into a face on a screen, becoming someone you rarely meet.

The pressure is rising

None of this has been solved so far. An astonishing 48% of employees and 53% of managers now say they’re burned out. Thus, the pressure to act is rising. The permacrisis only adds to that. The title of a recently published book by Sara Weber sums this up aptly: Die Welt geht unter, und ich muss trotzdem arbeiten? (The world is ending, yet I still have to work?). Here’s an extract, translated:

I remember waking up on the morning of 24 February 2022. That was the moment when I really consciously felt how broken everything was. I looked at my mobile phone. During the night, Russia had attacked Ukraine. The war in Europe that we had all hoped could still be averted: it was there. Tanks and explosions could be seen on TV, desperate people hiding in underground shafts trying to flee the country. I was shaken and sad and angry. I wanted to help and felt powerless. Then I reflexively sat down at my desk to prepare a workshop. And thought to myself: What am I actually doing here? Everything around us seems to be breaking down, and we just keep working. Work ourselves to death. But work as it looks today no longer works for us. It makes us tired and burns us out.

What’s really at stake here is a bundle of different issues that are superficially unrelated. They have kept us busy for years:

  • the burning questions of purpose
  • the changing world of work and the office
  • the digitisation and virtualisation
  • the slew of crises that surround us
  • the systemic paradox that seemingly forces us to keep working

People want to work differently, but the constant flow of emails, calls, and other distractions hinders them:

It’s not that knowledge workers lack ability but, instead, that the relentless, mind-warping distraction that defines the modern office makes it difficult to apply these abilities in a satisfying manner. The talented marketing executive wants to focus her energy on writing a brilliant campaign, and would find great fulfillment in doing so, but finds herself instead thwarted by the constant ping of her in-box and demands of her calendar.

The deeper issue is an anthropological one: humans are built to work, but in a different way. Of course, workers need to adapt to work. But the opposite is also true: work needs to adapt to workers.

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash