No going back to the office: Death of kings of industrial age knowledge work being hastened by pandemic

Lifestyle changes take about four to six months to become established habits. For organizations, the time scale is considerably longer. And years for society as a whole. The principle is new habits and ways of doing things must be repeated over sufficiently long durations in order to become firmly rooted. Once they have, a break with the past has been achieved and change has occurred.

The social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rapid virtualization of knowledge work as working in crowded cube farms and centralized commuter office (CCO) spaces was not conducive to controlling the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The course of the pandemic in much of the industrialized world will likely play out over roughly an 18-month-long timespan.

That’s long enough for organizations to grow accustomed to working virtually, especially since some were already doing so well before the pandemic’s public health restrictions hit in spring 2020. Knowledge work has been undergoing a fundamental shift for years, disintermediated by information and communications technology (ICT) that no longer requires a set time and place for performing it.

In his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work, author Dave Rolston identified four rulers of knowledge work in the industrial age: set job duties performed under a single manager at one place (the office) and the same time (8-5, Monday-Friday). The pandemic has hastened the death of at least two of those monarchs: time and place. By the time it ends around the middle of 2021, it’s likely few knowledge organizations will use their office real estate as they did before the pandemic. Working virtually without co-locating staff in office space during set business hours will have become an ingrained habit by forced adjustment. There will be no going back to the daily commute to the office habit. Knowledge organizations will look to downsize their office real estate footprint and more rationally utilize it.

For many, elements of existing office space offer smart conference rooms to better enable complex presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing. But sprawling square footage of offices and cubicles will no longer be needed. The space could end up being converted to residential living space placed on the housing market or to house staff and guests attending those presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing sessions when spread over multiple days. Other possibilities include recreational and fitness facilities, theaters and food services.

Knowledge workers can do without the daily commutes or the office furniture, observed Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab, at the CNBC Workforce Executive Council virtual event. But as social beings in an organization, they require camaraderie, he adds. That can be had virtually as well as face to face in other brick and mortar settings such as eateries and conference centers, both of which have been severely adversely impacted by public health restrictions and will be looking for a post-pandemic bounce. Organizations and work teams can convene in them on a less than daily or weekly basis and carry less office space costs on their books.

Survey shows shift away from traditional employment “larger than previously recognized.”

Overall, we estimate that the independent workforce is larger than previously recognized: some 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States and the EU-15 countries are engaged in some form of independent earning today. More than half of them use independent work to supplement their income rather than earning their primary living from it. The majority of independent workers, both supplemental and primary earners, pursue this path out of preference rather than necessity—and they report being highly satisfied with their work lives.

This from the executive summary of a just issued survey by McKinsey Global Research illustrates the erosion of the traditional concept of employment, anchored by what author Dave Rolston described in his 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work as the crumbling pillars of the traditional notion of working for a living: holding one job, located at one place, being there at the same time every day and reporting to a single manager.

As I wrote in my own eBook Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty-First Century, a driving factor is the decentralization of knowledge work due to the proliferation and maturation of information and communications technology. Before, knowledge workers had to work in a single location – a commute-in office – because that’s where the tools they needed to do their work – typewriters, telephones, photocopiers, in-house central computer systems – were. Even though obsoleted, this outdated model remains in place and continues to define employment. If you don’t commute to an office to work 8-5, Monday through Friday, you’re not in the traditional employment arrangement. Or “trapped in a cubicle” as the McKinsey Global Research report put it in the introduction.

We’re currently in a transition between this Industrial Age model of knowledge work that pays for time worked to one based on work projects and milestones completed. Time worked is fundamental to the legal definition of employment in the United States that keeps the Industrial Age model largely in place. It’s one of Rolston’s dying kings: one timeframe (8 hours a day, 40 hours a week) along with working in set office location for a single manager. But it won’t go away quickly as the tension between the old and the emerging models plays out.

ICT, declining role of CCO forcing redefinition of knowledge work

The maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is upending the concept of knowledge work. During the late Industrial Age, knowledge work meant working Monday through Friday 8-5 in a commute-in office. If a knowledge worker made the commute and showed up every workday, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week — ipso facto they were performing knowledge work. As Dave Rolston wrote in his 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work, these strictures of time and place are breaking down.

In the process, that collapse is forcing a redefinition of knowledge work to mean, well, work and specifically the work product — and not a daily trip to appear at a centralized commuter office (CCO). After all, that daily commute adds no intrinsic value and in fact extracts significant personal cost from knowledge workers that can reduce their morale and interest in what really counts – their work projects.

The current time is one of transition away from Rolston’s dying kings of the traditional workplace. Take, for example, the growing buzz on workplace flexibility and telework or virtual/remote work. It represents a shift away from the CCO and illustrates the tension between the traditional CCO and new, emerging ways of performing knowledge work beyond the CCO.

The CCO took many decades to be established and knowledge organizations have invested enormous sums in them. So even though ICT has effectively obsoleted them by distributing knowledge work outside the CCO, they won’t disappear overnight. But their role will fade as time goes on. In the meantime, a new definition of knowledge work will be formed that is independent of the CCO.