When I look out of the window, I am working

By Studio
21 September 2023
8 min read
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The workplace of the future should meet a new need for closer collaboration and proximity, which comes from the knowledge that some things might not be possible to do while people are shut up in their own private task assembly line.

Is it smart to work in pyjamas?

In an episode of the podcast Diary of a CEO, Malcolm Gladwell said: “I know it's a hassle to come into the office, but if you're just sitting in your pyjamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?'”

For Gladwell hybrid working is a form of “innovation from necessity”, and a bug that is transformed into an opportunity: we can’t do without it but that is why it is even more important to think about it and try to organise it in a more meaningful manner, instead of just “putting up with it”.

Work, as we all know, has irreversibly changed. New forms of smart, remote, hybrid, and flexible working have exploded, and not only because they were a good answer to the emergency of the pandemic, but because they also met a deep need in people. Suddenly, offices seemed old fashioned and unable to meet the needs of those who worked in them, as can be seen in the  collapse in commercial value of office buildings.

We have all taken an active part in this movement, both as individuals who changed the way they work, and as organisations (I MILLE has had a full smart working policy in place for three years now) as well as partners in new initiatives: Cosmico, a brand we have followed since it was established, is a start-up with the mission of radically changing the relationship between talents and business, and to free work from its traditional forms of organisation.

I work from home, I work from wherever I want, I work from my holiday, I work independently: we thought we were faced with a quantum shift, that we had found a new model to improve our lives and support our physical and mental health. Was it really like that?

We have analysed lots of the benefits that this transformation brought about to people and to organisations, but perhaps we have not thought as much about the effect of remote working on social and relational dynamics. That sense of dissatisfaction: a gradual physical and above all mental feeling of distance from places, when we all get on together, we can all work well together.

Tasks as prison

Until a few years ago, the work scenario we have today would have been simply inconceivable. There was only one way of working: in a factory, the office, or a store.

Before it was an activity, work was a place.

Management from the industrial age needed to concentrate people, all in the same place, to organise their productivity and to be able to control and measure it. That’s how the work spaces as we know them - large factories and huge buildings full of offices - were born.

In his latest book, The Song of Significance, Seth Godin describes the passage from the industrial organisation model of work to that which we call “significant” work. On one hand, there are hierarchies, control, exasperation of performance, measurements taken with stopwatch in hand. On the other hand, we have collaboration, responsibility, trust, and the alliances that are created around a project or a shared purpose. 

The idea of significant work, free and flexible work, where people are involved in and let in on decision making, and for this reason, they commit their talent and passion, making it available to the organisations, tells us something about how working remotely should be.

Because many people are realising that remote work, when not accompanied by constant reflection on the importance of what one is doing risks becoming an even more “productivist” routine than work in the last century. All crushed by performance, without leaving any room for thought.

The long line of calls and meetings traps us inside a maze of deadlines and contingencies that end up by limiting our creativity. We find ourselves inside days that are always the same, bouncing from one meeting to the next, besieged by notifications and emails that we read, and “mark off”, while trying not to drown.

This regime of productivity at a distance still has to pack in all those activities that need focus, lateral thinking, immersion in the moment and even sharing and proximity to colleagues.

What this does is compress the time we manage to dedicate to strategic and creative thinking: the essentials not only of our work but of work in general.

This happens because strategy and creativity are not a task, not a duty to fulfil: they are exactly what happens when we are able to look up from the tasks and sub-tasks of a project. They are the time for imagination: the invisible connective tissue that gives a shape and context to tasks.

Strategy and creativity are what happens when we are not exactly working, when we aren’t doing a task.

Strategy and creativity are what happens when we are not exactly working, when we aren’t doing a task.

Strategy, like culture, is a kind of lubricant liquid that flows between tasks, relating them to one another and giving them meaning. Therefore, it needs to be generated outside of the framework regulating execution.

With remote working, however, we risk becoming trapped within an infinite cycle of meetings and communications with the sole aim of solving tasks. And the time when we are doing nothing specific, and therefore, we leave room for strategies and creativity to form dwindles to become almost nothing.

Lessons in the park

Of course, going back, recreating the office environment, restoring the set formulas and rigid patterns of being present, is not a solution. 

The solution, the future of work, should include intelligent systems able to boost exchanges of stimuli, dialogue, allowing people to reconnect and make quality use of time.

The workplace of the future should meet a new need for closer collaboration and proximity, which comes from the knowledge that some things might not be possible to do while people are shut up in their own private task assembly line. Above all, the invisible things, the things that are more difficult to touch and measure, the job that goes beyond the task and productivity.

At middle school, one day, the teacher - inspired or perhaps, simply bored - took us out to do our lessons in the park: years later, everyone who was in class with me still has a vivid memory of that day and the things we learned thanks to that exceptional setting.

The workplace of the future needs to be similar to lessons in the park. It should succeed in creating a similar uniqueness, the same sense of transgressing the rules and of increased experience.

Open, public, and asynchronous

Luca Sartoni told us about a similar experience during the last Cosmico Club in Taormina.

Luca worked for nearly 9 years at Automattic, the company that develops and maintains WordPress, and which for years, has been held up as an example of a large company able to work in full remote mode. Luca explained to us how work is done at Automattic and he stressed three essential points for working well even when we are physically far away:

  1. Work must be open: all company documents must be shared, since this means the whole team can collaborate and it is easier to bring new people on board for a project.

  2. Work must be public: communication must be written and always accessible to all. It is necessary to avoid private messages; questions need to be asked and the different steps in a project need to be shared in public spaces, so everyone can reply and that the questions solved can become a knowledge base for new colleagues.

  3. Work must be able to be asynchronous. If working openly and publicly, this make asynchronous work possible, which is the true goal of smart working. Today, what we tend to call smart working is actually just working in places other than the office. But employees are still required to be available for the typical eight hours in the working day, during which there can be countless calls. In fact, we are working exactly as we did before, it is just that we have replaced the office with our home, and meetings with calls. What this means is we have focused too much on the where and not enough on the why and the how. Work is truly smart when not only can we decide where to work but also when.

Then, one week a year, the people at Automattic meet up together. To get to know one another, work together, talk, connect and share strategic ideas and long-term vision

The office of the future

Therefore, we should create processes that allow tasks to be performed openly, publicly and above all, asynchronously. We freely associate flexible and remote forms of work to this part of the process.

Then however, we imagine the office of the future that we could meet up in regularly: once a week, three days every quarter, one week a year, according to the needs of the organisation. In this space, we do all the work that is not a task, we meet up at times when we need to deal with creative and above all, strategic issues, in a context that helps those who work together to get to know each other better.

The office of the future will be somewhere away from people’s homes, from their private space, as well as from the classical office: a space where people meet up when they need to focus on a type of work that requires distance from routine.

It will be a kind of gym designed to do only one type of exercise, and to prevent people from falling into the rabbit hole of calls: a place for non working, where people can cultivate the quality of their relationships, their harmony. Because this harmony is often the way to establish an aptitude for thinking together, that leads to strategy and creativity.

Relationship quality is not just an element of individual well-being: it is a dynamic that increases work quality and therefore, which benefits the organisation..

Relationship quality is not just an element of individual well-being: it is a dynamic that increases work quality and therefore, which benefits the organisation.

A famous quote attributed to writer, Joseph Conrad more or less says that it is not easy to explain to people that “when I look out the window I’m working”. Future work, therefore, will depend on our ability to explain more or less the same thing to leaders and managers.

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