Hybrid, Dean told Fortune in an interview, isn’t actually an even split between remote and in-office work, despite bosses who insist it’s a huge step forward. Plus, she adds, the office is never going to be a solution to existing problems of productivity, innovation, or creativity. “Those are all how to work problems, not where to work problems,” she says. “The office won’t solve these problems. New ways of working will. This is a watershed moment of innovation of how work gets done, but we’re still talking about the f–king watercooler.”
That’s Annie Dean, VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, a distributed work policy at the software firm that encourages asynchronous, flexible work.
In 2011, author Dave Rolston announced the death of four “kings” of knowledge work and specifically how it’s performed: 1/ In a single, dedicated job role; 2/ Managed by a single manager; 3 /At one time (8-5, M-F). And finally, 4/ At a single location: the centralized, commute in office (CCO).
That fourth king is going through violent death throes as seen in the context of the hot debate over working from home vs. working in the CCO. It was about to climb onto its death bed prior to the public health restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s now laying upon it and drawing its last breaths.
While those in Rolston’s school of thought are proclaiming that king is dead, many organizations insist it isn’t, essentially shouting “Long live the king!” As noted in the Fortune article, those exclamations are driven in large part by the cognitive bias of sunk cost investment, with organizational leaders believing they must somehow recover the cost of CCO purchases and leases even if the CCO is no longer necessary to fulfilling the mission. We need that king to stay alive at least until that significant investment is recouped.
Dean is correct describing hybrid work in CCOs part of the work week as office-centric since the CCO remains as the primary workplace. (Similarly, the term “remote” work keeps the CCO at the relative center). Dean is also correct in framing the debate over hybrid working in the larger context, more than simply where knowledge work gets done as Rolston wrote more than a decade ago. As Dean notes, it’s how it’s done with modern day tools including microcomputers, the Internet and various communication and collaboration platforms. Those tools have disrupted, decentralized and transformed knowledge work as well as our traditional notions of it. It’s natural to want to return to the familiarity of co-located working rather than make a committed effort to adapt to something new.
Disruptive change is understandably uncomfortable for many knowledge organizations. Knowledge organizations themselves will be transformed. Like the traditional location of where knowledge work is done (the CCO), in the near-term knowledge organizations will no longer define themselves by their metro location, campus or high-rise headquarters.
Dean touches upon a major adaption knowledge organizations must surmount. It’s also one of Rolston’s four dead kings: doing knowledge work at the same time. With its decentralization out of CCOs comes working more asynchronously. This has been a big challenge for many knowledge organizations that have a spoken communication culture primarily dependent on real time discussions as the usual way of assessing information and making decisions. That has led to widespread complaints of back to back video meetings and “Zoom fatigue.” To work more asynchronously, knowledge organizations will have to shift their communications culture to rely more on written communication and reflection rather than frenetic jumping from one meeting to another. Knowledge work doesn’t have to be crazy and it’s not the emergency room as the authors of this book advise. Good knowledge work benefits from calm thought.