Updated: Jan 15
Why the constant hand-wringing eulogies for the modern workplace as we know it are a little bit silly.
My spam folder fills constantly at the moment with emails from “experts” selling me their top 5 for remotely managing teams. LinkedIn, industry journals and the webpages of every HR industry body is awash with articles and pulse reports of how the workplace has changed forever.
I’m sure it has, we’ll have more options now. More ways to find fit between humans and organisations…but I believe that we will undoubtedly have a snap back to a new normal at some point. I think that the constant hand-wringing eulogies for commercial centres and the modern office space as we know it are unnecessary, premature and a little bit silly.
Jerry Seinfield summed my feelings up pretty well in a letter to the editor of the NY times in August:
Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place. You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? I have always wondered, why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why. Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together.
I was never much of a fan of The Seinfeld Show but I could come around.
I was talking to a family member this week who works in a large office adjacent several other large regional corporate headquarters in Newcastle. He proclaimed that “it’s worked, nobody is going back, why would we when office space is so expensive”. In my mind I quietly wondered to myself at what point somebody will look at the P&L and happen on the realisation that rent wasn’t ever even close to their biggest expense, it was people.
Our investment in humans is leveraged at the intersections. Innovation happens face to face. The human resource is the only resource that is truly able to meet the old adage of “the sum being worth more than the parts”. This isn’t just my opinion, its broadly recognised and accepted with human capital being overwhelmingly identified by C-suite executives as the most important factor in their ongoing success in consecutive state of the industry reports over a decade. It seems to me fairly myopic and plain bad business that, once we have options (and at a point in the future we will), those same C-suites would continue to select for a scenario where their most important success factor is drastically devalued.
I don't mean to suggest that nothing has changed, as I said earlier there will be a new normal. We will have more options and more flexibility but we will also have the option and flexibility to move towards our optimal scenario which I think will look a lot more familiar. The remote workplace will undoubtedly cling for a while after the smoke clears, bolstered by the anchoring and confirmation bias of all the experts currently making the most of the unprecedented opportunity to get something published, but at some point there will undoubtedly be a huge gravitation back towards scenarios that optimise our ability to leverage human capital.
As a consideration to finish on, I'd ask the question why were we able to implement this remote working environment so fast? When we hit lock down people were working remotely almost over-night, we barely missed a beat. I'll tell you why, because the technology and capacity to manage this has been around for years. There was no earth shattering paradigm shifts or pivotal technological advancement that facilitated this. It was off-the-shelf stuff. So given this fact the real question is, if the capability was there all along, why haven't we done this before? The simple answer is that its sub-optimal, its a band-aid that we need right now but when the smoke clears, it will be sub-optimal again.