Why the Future of Work Won’t Come Without Work

This was because the classic texts, whatever their intrinsic worth, supplied the higher strata of the ruling class with a system of references for the forms of their own idealized behaviour…

…They did not need to stimulate the imagination. If they had, they would have served their purpose less well. Their purpose was not to transport their spectator-owners into new experiences, but to embellish such experience as they already possessed.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (speaking of the value of the study of classics)
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Undiscussable Gap

I have many management books. My desire to learn means that I am always tempted by the latest contributions to the literature. Throughout the year management books often pile up unread. Once or twice a year, I reduce the height of the pile in a burst of reading.

Quite depressingly, all too often I find I can read faster and faster as I work my way through the pile. The insights shared are pedestrian. The examples used are often routinely quoted or misleading as an ex-post interpretation of a theory or practice. It is little surprise I often get greater insights in other areas of literature to inspire my work. Beyond management literature the reward is for challenging the paradigm, not making people comfortable with received wisdom.

Far too much of management literature exists not to challenge the experience of managers but to reinforce their comfort in their positions. We can all cite the comfortable phrases that are mantras of the grace and wisdom of management. Their practice is much less consistent and uniform:

  • Our people are our greatest asset
  • Start with the customer need
  • Align people with shared purpose
  • Encourage creativity, autonomy and continuous learning
  • Look beyond the bottom line and consider wider stakeholder interests
  • and many more

Whether or not these are falsifiable, these platitudes are the bread and butter of thought leaders, the jesters of modern management, entertaining the powerful but not challenging their world. How else would they consistently receive consistent invitations to the stages of global conferences and private boardrooms? These platitudes form the right answers to the right questions in interviews and across the work context, leaving only the gap between ideal and action. In that gap, lies the undiscussable in the workplace, the power that flows from status, wealth and privilege.

The Eternal Future of Work

The gap between what publicity actually offers and the future it promises corresponds with the gap between what the spectator-buyer feels himself to be and what he would like to be. The two gaps become one; and instead of the single gap being bridged by action or lived experience, it is filled with glamorous day-dreams.

The process is also reinforced by working conditions.

The interminable present of meaning working hours is ‘balanced’ by a dreamt future in which imaginary activity replaces the passivity of the moment.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

I have contributed a great deal of literature to the ‘future of work’ discussions and even once between rated as an influencer in that domain. Of course, by ‘influencer’ that survey meant my work was shared, more than read and much more than acted upon. I wonder some times how much all the time sharing that work has just been another contribution to the ‘passivity of the moment’ by contributing to the distractions and appeal of a better future that is coming.

Real sustainable change comes not from trite phrases, pretty writing, or influencer lists. Change comes when the circumstances are so uncomfortable and that discomfort is sustained long enough to overcome our natural inertia.

The dynamics of workplaces have changed through the enforced hybrid working of Covid times. The pressures of a pandemic were serious and sustained enough to overcome decades of resistance to change. Those same pressures now flow on into reconsideration of the goals, benefits and manner of work for many employees. The so called Great Resignation is not a mark of the unreasonableness of employees granted a little leeway. Employees have realised that a better future is in their grasp if they make decisions to change now. The question for managers is whether they want to start to live in that gap between ideal and action and address employee frustrations.

A better future for all in our workplaces will remain a distant wish if all we do is daydream in comfortable home offices, letting the undiscussable become doubly difficult by becoming invisible as well. If we want to make a better future of work we will need to actively engage all our organisations in discussions of issues of power and make real difficult changes to the patterns of our work. All learning and growth demands some discomfort. Be wary of the advice that slides easily into your working world.

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