We didn’t just move the office desk

The forced experiment in 2020 and 2021 of working at home for many gave us a glimpse of the future. Less so where we work but fundamentally resetting how we operate. We could attempt to undo the shift or we can set about designing with intent a different path. If history does repeat itself then fighting the future seems a waste of time. The “Where you work” part of office life has been disrupted but is really only the beginning of the opportunity to meet the future halfway. 

First, a bit of back story. 

Remembering back to March 2020, within the space of a week most of us were sent home to work for a few weeks until Covid-19 died down. The exception being critical service workers.  Except it didn’t and we were in a global forced experiment of learning how to get things done remotely. We had to learn how to communicate through a screen or phone and also get things done without our usual working tools. In short, our whole working practice was thrown out the window on top of the difficulty of living through a pandemic which for me included severe anxiety and homeschooling. 

At the start of the pandemic I was working in Bristol in a leadership role and had responsibility for approx 100 staff and assets that included museum buildings.  

Fortunately I was one of the few with a work connected laptop so I could at least access the bulk of my work tools. I had a laptop by chance because when the previous director left I kept hold of it and hadn’t got around to returning it to ICT. Our service was still 95% using work desktops so sadly many of my colleagues didn’t have supported devices when sent home. The Council was slowly rolling out laptops from 2019 but hadn’t got to us. Quite rightly when the pandemic began the Council focused on deploying devices to critical services like social care and those directly supporting the pandemic relief effort. The knock-on impact however meant that the vast majority of culture staff didn’t have access to key work digital tools like our intranet, HR systems  for the whole time I was at Bristol, I left in November  so that was seven months and counting. A fair chunk of staff were able to do some work from their own personal devices which I was always grateful for, even though official IT policy prohibits non-work issued devices. 

My first hurdle was that our home internet wasn’t fast enough when the whole street was also at home. I haven’t looked into this but my understanding is that the infrastructure wasn’t really set-up to have multiple devices in every home all using their connections at the same time. Hence my average connection was fine pre-pandemic but rarely worked at advertised speed that wouldn’t normally been noticeable. I knew that having a faster broadband speed would be essential. At this point I discovered I was the average lazy person who hadn’t checked for the best deal in a few years. In upgrading not only did my speed increase 4x but it was £3 a month cheaper too at £27 per month.

From April 2020 I was working at home full-time. My wife split her time between her place of work and working from once per week. The kids were either doing homeschooling via iPad or streaming YouTube..ok mostly streaming Youtube. A lifesaver was having two Google Chromecast devices which let us send most audio/video to our two TVs. Perfect for the kids and for joining online zoom calls on the sofa.

The only time I stepped foot in an office was for my interview for my current job as Co-CEO at Birmingham Museums Trust in the summer of 2020. Writing this reminds me that I never went to collect my personal belongings from my desk.

My wife is a key worker so she kept going into work throughout the whole of 2020/2021. In fact only around 37% of the UK workforce was able to do some/fully remote working.  

Trying to homeschool, share devices and share desk space was a challenge worthy of multiple blog posts. My actual work though was totally fine working “remote”. I chalk this up to the fact that in my 15 years of working since finishing university I can’t recall working at the same desk for an entire week. I have always worked on the go and in different environments and designed working practices that work well regardless of where I am. In fact I purposefully use tools that work on any device and have offline workarounds for those times when i dont have internet, like on a train. I have long been saying that when you work for an organisation like Bristol or Birmingham that has staff in at least seven locations then it is already a distributed organisation that has the appearance of being co-located if you don’t move like I move. We have just never purposely designed our organisations around this fact and it may be one of the root causes of negatively when people don’t “feel” part of your organisation. 

Looking ahead into the fog

On the 19th July 2021, in England, most of the legal restrictions related to the pandemic were removed. This included the Government instructing people to work from home. In theory everyone could have returned to the office but we mostly haven’t. It turns out that in the 18 months of the forced experiment many of us discovered that the office wasn’t the only effective place to physically work. It wasn’t all rosy as the social aspect of being together in an office was invisible until the pandemic. Isolation caused by the lack of social interaction in particular has become a key issue for us to overcome whatever the future holds. 

What we learned about working from home is that it can work at scale. For many this appears to be the disruption and case closed. Except only people who wish we could go back to the old ways think this. 

In a very good thread on home v hybrid v HQ, which you really should read in full, is this nugget ‘Disruption is never one variable, but a wholesale revisiting of all the variables.’ says Steven Sinofsky , In short, yes working from home is disruptive but really we are only just getting started on the future of how an organisation will run in say 30 years time. Like a fish that doesnt know its in water, we can’t see the future of work even though we are in it. 

An immediate change even to 2020 for example is that from the 19th July 2021 we can move from just working from home to the more traditional remote working, that could include co-working spaces or a neighbour/friend to help reduce social isolation. However with the pandemic still being far from over I don’t expect a swift take-up just yet.     

What I’m noticing co-leading an organisation of approx 150 people is that the organisation blueprint has been shaken up across far more than using a computer at a different location. Staff are questioning what they want out of work, how it fits into their life  and how we get things done at organisation level. I’ve spent countless hours improving my personal productivity using tools like David Allen’s GTD but whilst useful doesn’t scale. 

As we try to work through the pandemic now feels as good a time as any to start to experiment by choice on the classic organisational blueprint. 

What that could mean for our organisational blueprint: 

  1. Strategic direction – society has no doubt been altered in ways we still don’t fully understand. Therefore we must be both proactive and reactive to change. We’ve all taken the time to reassess what is our purpose and how we can change our structural problems rather than ignore them yet once again. In our specific case, ‘how can we become a place of social trust and belonging?’ ‘how can we be more useful for more people?’ and ‘how can we support others to improve contribute to an improved equitable society?’
  2. Structure – The traditional command and control wasn’t perfect and has been the root of many issues. if the office/HQ is limiting us, how should we operate if we no longer meet regularly face to face or work the industrial age  monday to friday 9-to-5? If people are wanting more flexible work/life balance what does that look like? How do we measure any of this? 92% of our workforce support hybrid working but are we all clear on what we really mean? How can we foster a positive culture in a time of acute uncertainty? What other flexibility can we offer to a workforce who cannot work remotely? Employers must ensure employees have a safe place to work but how can we do this if we don’t know where they are?
  3. Core processes – What communication approaches, systems and tools are needed to allow us to experiment in a non-traditional way? What are the opportunities, pitfalls and risks? Will desk/room booking tools be good thing or a hindrance to creativity? Is it really the end of the office?
  4. Skills base – Do we have the skills to wrestle the disruption and what are those skills anyway? Can we improve our digital skills quick enough in a supported way? Can we diversify now that location and physical barriers aren’t the limiting factor?  Will Gen Z even want to work for us if we don’t change fast enough?

Oh and writing this piece reminds of the film Office Space and  the guy who kept getting moved around the building until eventually he ended up in the basement. 

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