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The future of work design

Opinion editorial written by nib Managing Director, Mark Fitzgibbon, for the Newcastle Herald on 11 June 2020.

In a cobbler’s shop 150 years ago, someone cut the leather, someone stitched, someone polished and someone sold the final product (i.e. the shoe). In this small and self-contained workplace, coordinating and managing output and performance was fairly simple. Very importantly, everyone got to see how their own efforts contributed towards a final product – a need known in psychology as “closure”. 

A large part of this work design ended with the industrial revolution, mass production and “scientific management”. Suddenly, labour was grouped by specialisation and divided across production lines. And like battery hens, workers were placed in large workplaces with strict rules and close supervision. The “machine bureaucracy” was born mimicking the hierarchy and command and control practice of what was, at the time, the only other big organisations; the military. 

The idea that we need collocation under strict control and “line of sight” supervision has been a great survivor. It’s mostly seen out previous pandemics, world wars, depressions, technological advancements and plenty of contradictory evidence on people’s behaviour and motivation. Apart from our natural affection for the status quo, its longevity can probably be best explained by the absence of viable work design alternatives. 

While nobody celebrates the misery and disruption of COVID-19, the encounter presents an unprecedented opportunity to totally reconsider how work design might better serve fundamental business objectives and the needs of workers. 

What’s very different this time is digital technology and perhaps like never before, a society looking for every possible means to promote flexibility, diversity and inclusion at work. In a way not even imaginable just 10 years ago, today’s digital age and remarkable tools for communication and collaboration now give us options. And our real life experience of COVID-19 has overcome so much inertia, suspicion and risk. 

Beyond COVID-19 there should be no return to past work design. Importantly, it’s not just a question of where we work but when and how (i.e. management philosophy and style, tools, etc). We don’t want a new world in which we’re simply doing the same old things except now by videoconferencing. 

But where to start in configuring future work design? For mine the first step is building a simple framework and criteria for considering what kind of work design might best suit the various functions of our business such as what:  

  • Serves the needs and expectations of our customers?  

  • Fosters innovation and creativity?  

  • Allows business activity to be optimally planned and coordinated?  

  • Gives people a sense of purpose and “closure”?  

  • Allows us to measure and ensure high productivity and accountability?  

  • Protects health, safety and wellbeing?

  • Provides a level of cooperation, cohesion and teamwork?  

  • Supports flexibility and choice? 

  • Encourages diversity and inclusion?

  • Attracts and retains talent? 

With a “clean slate”, we can then apply the criteria across every single business function and decide a design based upon each’s circumstances. Here, there has to be a serious shift in onus away from why I shouldn’t be in the office and doing stuff the old way, to why I should be. And that of course, is not to suggest some work shouldn’t be in the office. 

As I’ve already observed, making deep changes is rarely easy. No doubt an affinity with close “line of sight” management will for many be difficult to shake. Yet other than monitoring kinders, it’s hard to establish today under what conditions direct supervision is necessary. Probably the most obvious example of its limitations is the risk of “presenteeism” – the circumstance in which people despite being sighted, are not productive. And I do think it’s rather odd that while most companies readily accept paying third party providers such as lawyers and accountants based upon output, they are often less keen to trust that same approach for their own people. 

Yet that’s just one of many hurdles. There are complex issues lurking underneath all the criteria that need exploration and consultation with those effected. For example, how do we ensure occupational health and safety (including psycho-social risk) at home and how do we promote teamwork and esprit d’corp when the workforce is so scattered. And what exactly should company real estate look like? Does it simply become a place for meetings when physical contact is deemed important, workshops, mindfulness and recreation? 

Finally, it’s evident a number of workers currently feel the need to return to previous office arrangements ASAP because of psycho-social risk, disruptive home circumstances or inadequate technology. These immediate issues should figure in any plan and pathway for a new work design.

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