Work Futures Update | In The Fog

| Mark Lilla | Is Office Life Dead? | Workboards | Truckers’ Fears | Less Teamwork Is More |

Photo by Wayne de Klerk on Unsplash

2020–05–22 Beacon NY | Mark Lilla is just one of the many writers focused on uncertainty, these days (see Quote of the Moment, below). I recently wrote this, in The Postnormal Future of Work:

Adopting a new mindset is the most essential response to the time we find ourselves in, the postnormal. A mindset that is based on Caron’s formulation: patience, sense-making, and engagement of uncertainty. Wise leaders will steer their companies by using a compass, and not the maps from olden days. We need to accept, first, that we don’t know what is coming, or even what we will need to do when it does come.


Quote of the Moment

Human beings want to feel that they are on a power walk into the future, when in fact we are always just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog.

| Mark Lilla


WFH

Will Coronavirus Kill Office Life? | Jennifer Senior is going through office withdrawal, and she’s fraying. I disagree with much of what she says, perhaps because I am an ‘integrator’ and she is a ‘segmented’, to use Nancy Rothbard’s terms:

Working from home rather than the office is sort of like shopping on Amazon rather than in a proper bookstore. In a bookstore, you never know what you might find. You can’t even know what you don’t know until you wander down the wrong aisle and stumble across it.

But to me, the best arguments for the office have always been psychological — and never have they felt more urgent than at this moment. I’ll start with a subtle thing: Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact — particularly of the casual variety — and with fewer people.

And what do we humans do in the absence of interaction? We invent stories about what that silence means. They are often negative ones. It’s a formula for anxiety, misunderstanding, all-around messiness.

“You need time to develop informal patterns with colleagues, especially if you don’t know them well,” Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at Wharton, told me. She added that power differences also complicate things, and not in a way I found reassuring. The literature suggests that if a boss delays in replying to an email, we underlings assume he or she is off doing important things. But if we’re late in replying, the boss assumes we’re indolent or don’t have much to say. Great.

More broadly speaking, even without an office, there will still be office politics. They’re much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues — and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done, and who the kind people are.

But perhaps the most profound effect of working in an office has to do with our very sense of self. We live in an age where our identities aren’t merely assigned to us; they are realized and achieved, and places are powerful triggers of them. How much do I feel like a columnist if I’m wearing a 21-year-old Austin Powers T-shirt (“It’s Cannes, baby!”) and picking at my kid’s leftovers as I type? I mean, somewhat, sure. But I suspect I’d feel more like one if I got dolled up and walked into the Times building each morning.

Rothbard, who’s made a study of the borders between our professional and domestic selves, told me she sees this confusion all the time. There are “integrators,” she said, who don’t mind the dissolution of those borders, and “segmenters,” who don’t care for it. (“The pandemic,” she said, “is a segmenter’s hell.”) It’s hardly uncommon to have multiple identities across multiple contexts, each of them authentic. But remote work makes it awfully hard for segmenters to give full expression to their professional selves, and when they do, it often rattles those around them. “Your kids may see you talking to your employees in a different way and be like, ‘Who is this person?’” she told me.

Senior might do herself a favor by dressing for success before sitting down to write a column. But for an integrator like me, flip flops and an unshaven head make no difference.

Silicon Valley’s Next Big Office Idea: Work From Anywhere | Katherine Bindley lays out the now-conventional wisdom about the future of the workplace: that a lot of people are going to want to go back, like Jennifer Senior in the previous story. My sense is that structural economic shifts — like how much workers and companies can save by remote working — will be the guiding principles going forward, not how much people supposedly like schmoozing face to face. And this comment about whiteboards is silly since collaborative whiteboards (what I am now calling workboards) are so much better than the dumb ones in most conference rooms:

Brent Hyder, Salesforce’s chief people officer, anticipates many employees at the business-software giant will be eager to return to the office once it’s possible. They just might not come in every day.

“People are still going to want to be social,” he said. “People are still going to want a whiteboard to brainstorm together to solve problems.”

More functionally: if the highest employee productivity and engagement is realized from those that work away from the office 60%-80% of the time, and now that companies know that WFH is more than possible, then everyone — individuals, managers, and companies — has a huge incentive to do that. So, even the folks that yearn to be in the office will find that those people they want to mingle with just won’t be there, generally.

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Driverless

‘He lied on national television’: Trump falsely claims truckers protesting industry problems are honking to support him | Daniel Dale and Holmes Lybrand draw attention to Trump’s lying about truckers’ protests being a rally in favor of his policies. But the part I found most interesting is what their protest is actually about:

The truckers’ grievances are numerous and varied. They include what they say are unfairly low freight rates during the coronavirus pandemic, price-gouging by the brokers, ill-conceived safety regulations and permissive federal attitudes toward the autonomous vehicles that threaten their occupation.

Greg Anderson, who said he has been in the trucking business for 33 years, told CNN earlier on Friday that Trump had “lied on national television” with his remark to Bartiromo about how the protesters are not protesters at all.

“This is a protest,” Anderson said. “Mr. Trump elaborated that we were here to support him. Our message to him would be this is a protest against bad regulation, broker transparency, truck insurance, so on and so forth. This is not here to support Trump. We’re here to get resolution and bring awareness to our problem and fix our problems.”

Note the concerns about autonomous trucks.

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Teamwork

Don’t Let Teamwork Get in the Way of Agility | Elaine Pulakos and Rob Kaiser put the kibosh on the knee-jerk response to everything being collaboration and teamwork:

Instead of maximizing teamwork, our research on what distinguishes agile organizations suggests that we need to rightsize it. This means considering what form and how much teamwork is needed at each stage of a project to get it done efficiently and effectively. Rightsizing teamwork requires judiciously selecting the right people to contribute, at the right time.

While this approach may initially seem in conflict with goals of inclusivity, consideration, and respect — when done right, it can improve those things. Involving others when they are needed, as opposed to by default, is actually more considerate and respectful of the many people who are suffering from project overload and burnout. Rightsizing is not about minimizing inclusion. It’s about changing “teamwork” from a buzzword to an optimized practice that creates seamless companywide connections.

The authors offer three evidence-based practices:

  1. Define what kind of teamwork needs to take place. Think of teamwork as having ‘four broad categories’: is a hand-off all that’s needed? Does this project require synchronized work, like members of a sales team who work in parallel but contribute equally to the team’s quarterly results? Is coordinated work required, like critical care teams in the COVID-19 crisis, who work in concert applying their specialized skills to the shared outcome? Does the project require interdependent work, the most complex form of teamwork, where people have to shift roles and responsibilities because the team is confronted with a novel situation and no playbook exists? Note that teams may have to shift from one modality to another over time.

  2. Simplify and then simplify some more. Minimize the number of team members: just those that are vital, and no more. Decide before starting the project what those who may join will do, and how it drives the project forward. Be willing to change modality (see 1, above), as needed.

  3. Give people permission to say ‘no’. Give people explicit right to opt to not team up when they think is counterproductive, by ‘adding unnecessary complexity, confusion, or inefficiency’.

Smart, smart advice on keeping organizations fast and loose.


Elsewhere

A Prospectus | Workboards | When you can’t pull people into a conference room and scribble on a whiteboard

Yes, I changed the term from ‘collaborative whiteboards’ to ‘workboards.

The Postnormal Future of Work | Peter Drucker inspired me with ‘Every organization must be prepared to abandon everything it does to survive in the future’

We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.

| Ziauddin Sardar

Work Futures Update | Maturity of Mind | The end of the Open Office Plan? | Nobl Advice | qdo | Militancy at Work | 10 More Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings |

Today’s business organization is an oligarchy, and that needs to change | We need to move to hyperdemocratic cooperative work, and drop oligarchic management.

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