Personal computing and communication devices and the Internet have decentralized knowledge work and made the daily trip to centralized commuter offices (CCOs) obsolete. Knowledge workers discovered its irrelevance and enjoyed recovering personal time spent commuting during the public health social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now as some organizations demand they return to the office (RTO) on a set number or designated days of the week, many are understandably rebelling.
But the real debate isn’t about showing up in person at the CCO on a prescribed number of specific weekdays. It’s about redefining knowledge work and specifically how it’s done and managed.
In his 2013 book 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work: The Decentralization and Blending of Work in the 21st Century, author Dave Rolston predicted the imminent death of the four primary tenets or kings of knowledge work in the Industrial Age:
- Set job duties;
- Managed by a single manager;
- Performed at one place (the CCO);
- At the same time (8-5, Monday-Friday).
This definition worked well before 1990 when the tools for knowledge work were at the workplace and not portable like today’s personal devices, online databases, collaboration platforms and more recently, AI chatbots.
Now, organizations and knowledge workers must adjust to the post-Industrial Age environment. That entails determining when co-located work is beneficial and when it isn’t. It also requires assessing the communications culture.
When knowledge workers were regularly in the CCO, meetings — both scheduled and ad hoc — were frequent. Even too frequent for many knowledge workers. They express a real time, speaking-based communication culture.
To fully utilize today’s communication and collaboration tools, knowledge organizations must adopt a more written, asynchronous communication culture. They also must find the right balance between this and spoken communication and when knowledge workers must be assembled to discuss and sort through complex and difficult issues that benefit from synchronous, in person discussion. That is driven more by business needs to complete reports and projects and reach decisions rather than the daily calendar.
It’s also critical that knowledge organizations keep their missions clearly communicated to staff so they can see how their work makes a meaningful contribution as this article in today’s Wall Street Journal implies.