How To Make Work Work

black and white image through a window at night of an artist sitting on the floor of a room painting a canvas, overlaid with the words "looking in at shadows that are lowly growing thin through windows that are slowly filling in"

After thinking a little a couple of weeks ago about what shared work spaces after Covid might look like, I wanted to make some notes about what our individual work within organisations might be like. All of these thoughts ultimately feed my vision for Rogue Interrobang, and for my own work. But this is also about the much wider future of work, and whether our organisations and companies are able to take the steps they need to in order to enable everyone to flourish.

What might keyboard work that truly works look like? And how do we ensure that whatever new practices come next are actually better than what went before – rather than more expedient or more in the interests of those who rely on the labour of those workers.

There has been a lot of talk during the pandemic about the difference between working at an office and working form home. For many this might have seemed remarkably progressive. And the thought that we might carry these new ways of working into life beyond Covid might seem like a big step. But even within the theme of WHERE we work, this misses so much. Many of us who work “at a keyboard” or equivalent might be unsuited to working in an office yet unable to work at home. This may be because of personal circumstances or simply because not everyone has privacy, space, or peace at home – many, especially those of us whose work requires us to be in more expensive parts of the country live in flats or rooms, surrounded on all sides and unable to control our environments. For us, work might be best “from anywhere”. Figuring out what that means, and ensuring it is accessible, is the key task for ensuring the post Covid workforce flourishes.

When we think about flexibility, it has become natural to think of geographical flexibility. But there are so many more axes on which the ways people flourish are situated.

When we work. We are used to ideas like the compressed week, where people do 5 days of work in 4, or 10 days in 9. And we’re used to sabbaticals and side project time. We are also used to thinking about core versus flexible hours. We are even hearing more about the 4 day week campaign (worth a book on its own – as is the resistance of employers to what is, for most workers, irrefutably a more efficient and productive way of working – that resistance speaks to a desire for control that goes beyond wanting what is best for business). But while each is an improvement upon the lack of flexibility so often displayed pre pandemic by so many employers, each of these shares a huge flaw. They assume that a certain kind of working week is a default. And that flexibility means deviating from that norm.

It may have made sense at one time to think of a default working week, but for many forms of work it no longer does. and where there is no reason for it, the question becomes much more, “what works for the people doing the work?” And there may be as many answers to that as there are people who work for you. I might add that running a 24 hour work culture has interesting side effects. Two f those are safety and environmental impact. Environments in which there are always people on site, doing day to day things, have the potential to extend the time for which those spaces are safe to navigate for people who might not be safe to do so alone – this in turn increases the opportunities for people to work in a way that suits them. And a common worry of 24 hour sites – energy costs – could have the opposite effect from that imagined, of pushing us into creative ways of reducing our carbon.

If we get rid of the assumption there’s a default working week, we can look from first principles at how to work best. And one thing we might look really closely at is what I call “golden hours”, a concept you find when thinking about training and deep practice. It seems most of us have a very limited time in the day – around 4 hours – when we are at our most effective. We would do best if we are able to do our most stretching, important, enriching work at the time when we are at our very best. The problem is those golden hours are not the same for everyone, and for the same people they can differ day to day. If we really do want the opportunity to dedicate the best time to the best work (any of us won’t, we would rather spend them on things that matter to us even more – that’s another post but we still require flexibility), we need suitable flexibility to check in and out accordingly.

There are other flexibilities of course, that would make work work better. The how of our work – whether that’s the freedom to meet or communicate in a multiplicity of ways or making our hierarchies flat. Or, even more flexibly, abandoning job titles altogether and having people move in and out of tasks as their skills not their title or qualifications or even experience suggest is best.

And there is the what, as we might increasingly automate. This, and not “when” is where I would file side project or sabbatical time. Because such use of our time should not be considered deviations from a default but an enhancement to our core ways of working.

But the one I really want to come back to again is when. A fixed working day or week works best for many people – for carers or those whose medications control their daily pattern. And it should continue to be offered as a mater of course. But that is very different from making it a default. If there is one thing I would like to see in our new ways of working it is an end to the notion of a default working pattern.

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