Whenever I hear the future of work, I reach for my pistol

There is no future of work, just the journey

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For years it has been evident that there is no ‘future of work’. There is only a journey with no destination and no single way of not getting to it. That hasn’t stopped people talking about it all endlessly. And each time they have, I’ve reached for my pistol.

This used to be primarily about the office. This was always a snark, based on a faulty idea that all things were converging on a single point, the elusive office of the future with its juvenilia, sun-dappled campuses, millennial workforce and sleep pods. There were all sorts of issues with this idea, not least that it’s easy to overplay the role of office design in shaping work and people’s experience of it. Important but not the only thing and not as important as culture in any case.

As I wrote in the book Creating the Productive Workplace back in 2017:

What we must also be wary of is an idea that seems to inform the endlessly rolling debate about the ‘office of the future’. This supposes that just around the corner there is an idealised end point for office design which will resolve all of the issues we have with work and the workplace. What this fails to account for is that the office is always out of date and always in a state of transition.

We make the same mistake when we consider our own place in the world. We humans assume that we are somehow at the apex of the evolutionary tree when the truth is that we are transitional forms in exactly the same way as all other creatures. We don’t need to seek the missing link, because we are it, and always have been.

Now the mythical work singularity is mostly based around the idea of remote work. I don’t need to link to any of them but it’s not hard to find proclamations about this imaginary point in time that bear more than a passing resemblance to those about the office of the future, except with a more apocalyptic edge.

Firms are being told by one prominent individual that if they don’t close their offices as soon as possible and switch to the sort of app supplied by this individual’s firm, they’ll be out of business within a few years. This kind of stuff gets lots of likes right now.

 

Throw enough around…

It’s transparent, apocalyptic and at the further edge of the argument, but we once again face the challenge of coping with laundered ideas that can lead to faulty decisions. Throw around enough bullshit like this, and it will stick.

The problem with many of the loudest analyses about the future of work is not that they are wrong on their own terms, but that they lead to proclamations about how they will apply to everybody. Sometimes this is the fault of headlines that don’t reflect content. Sometimes it’s about attention seeking on social media. Sometimes about marketing. Sometimes just about the limited perspective of the person making the claim.

It’s mundane but demonstrably true to say that what the past year has really given us is a chance to promulgate a range of ideas that have been around a long time and have the potential to improve people’s working lives, reshape society and the economy in positive ways and offer organisations more choice about their working cultures.

It has taken the pandemic to bring all of this to greater attention. But as Tim Oldman argues here, if organisations, the office sector and designers are really interested in the opportunities presented to them in the current moment, they need to get on with it.

There is also an onus on those making the loudest noises to address some of the problems that will arise from the world they are proclaiming, should it ever come to pass. We already know how technology can atomise societies. We also know that not everybody is in the same boat when it comes to this stuff. We already know that people on the whole do not like gig work, and with good reason. It is not enough for them to brush aside such concerns as problems for the government or solvable by UBI. They too need to have better arguments about the future of work.

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