Harry Starren

I don’t have an office, I am an office

Advocating a new approach to work: no predefined office or preassigned workstation, but higher net working hours and more job satisfaction.

In the advertising world, the word ‘new’ is one of the easiest ways to grab people’s attention. No one is eager to have the ‘old’. New can be a label tacked on to make people want to buy the old again – but ‘new’ only has a real, sustainable chance if it is authentic. It has to actually be new.
There are many facets to this concept. The new approach to work – flexibility in terms of time and place – is similar in some ways to the old approach to work, which predated the Industrial Age. Industrial labor was very dependent on specific places and times. Farm work was primarily seasonal, with various forms of migrant labor (the oldest form of temp work), skilled crafts that were frequently tied to a workshop, and the traveling salesmen and merchants. All those forms of work still exist, although they have frequently changed shape and color.
Knowledge-intensive work has been around for a while, but only took off recently. Thirty percent of the Dutch workforce is well educated (i.e. has attended higher education or college). In essence, a great deal of knowledge-intensive work is not dependent on time or place. Modern information and communication technology makes ‘going to work’ a trivial affair. Work can be done anywhere.
All I need for my work is a computer, a connection to the outside world, and a good mood. That third requirement is not a mere luxury – it’s an absolute necessity. The more creative the work is, the more important it becomes for me to enjoy what I’m doing. Instead of leaving for work, I get down to work… anywhere and anytime I want. Time is relative. I postpone my messages until early morning, or send them right away when I know that the recipients are in a different time zone. I access information wherever I want to; whenever it’s convenient for me. I don’t have an office; I am an office. Day and night are relative notions to the cosmopolitan man of the world that I see myself as being: the world has become my village. These days, most conversations on my cellphone start with ‘Where are you?’ and ‘What time is it over there?’.
This new approach to work, which deviates from the long-accepted norm, will elicit three types of responses. The early adopters (people with an iPad, for instance) see it as a new opportunity, an important innovation. The ‘careful consumers’ are waiting to see what happens before they respond. And then you have the skeptics, who don’t think that the new approach to work is new under the sun; they believe that people are just waiting to be fooled again and again. There are good reasons for all three responses. One position does not exclude the other. In geometry, triangulation is the best way to determine the location of an object.
Standard views of social change offer angles of analysis in order to map out precisely the phenomenon of the new approach to work. They can be grouped into three categories: enthusiasm, rational consideration (there’s a downside to everything), and skepticism and suspicion.
Enthusiasm. The new approach to work can offer workers a more balanced lifestyle, distribute childcare tasks in ways that are fairer and more satisfying, increase productivity, boost worker autonomy, protect the environment and reduce office expenses. The traditional office job ignores personal biorhythms and evens everything out to the lowest common denominator. As long as the machine determines the movements, it’s not all that bad; one person’s downtime is another’s most passionate hour. It doesn’t affect the results much.
If business performance is dependent on individual people, it suddenly has much more significance. When a morning person has to answer questions in the evening, the answers will not meet the same high standards of quality – and it would be most unwise to wake up a night person early in the morning to ask work-related questions. Balance and performance are closely related if you’re seeking sustainable business performance. The new approach to work makes sense in terms of human physiology and social structures. Caring for children is often difficult to combine with a 9-to-5 job. More flexible jobs twine around family obligations like ivy climbing a tree. Net working hours are higher in this new approach to work, in part because it’s the results that count rather than the number of hours spent. Anyone who manages to get that job done within the standard hours is a lucky professional. Others consider the additional effort to be ‘the price of freedom’. In experiments, the increase in productivity runs into the double digits, nearing 20% in extreme examples.
And it costs less. Those words make any employer’s heart beat faster. Fewer square feet of office floor, shorter commutes, and much lower environmental taxes – and increased autonomy, which leads to lower stress once the adaptation period is over. That last aspect is questionable. Where freedom feels liberating to some, the procrastinator will always be working. Work that still needs to be done is one of the biggest stress factors, lagging only slightly behind the boss and the demanding client. Even so, it’s easy to wonder why we waited so long.
Rational consideration. Let’s qualify this. The new approach to work will not (completely) supplant the old; it will make management even more complex, make cohesion even harder to achieve, increase alienation, raise the risk of burn-out due to all that high-intensity work, and create new workplace casualties. The old approach to work has become a habit, and habits are profitable routines that have proven their worth time and again. They impose discipline and increase predictability. We are accustomed to the work and to each other. The old approach to work is a relatively efficient culture that has proven profitable; regardless of your opinions, it’s clear that it works.
The challenges (read: problems) inherent in the new approach to work are daunting. How do you lead people who you hardly ever see? How do you inspire loyalty and build teams that assume everyone will be present? How do you create discipline when time, location and other landmarks fade away? How do you avoid unlimited working practices that effortlessly gobble up all free time? Is it a coincidence that writers go rent a cottage and construct a routine for themselves when they’re writing a book? The workers who thrive in these new circumstances seem to build a lot of habits from the ‘old approach’ into their new approach. There is a time and a place for everything: a corner of the house, a spot at the Coffee Company, the cigarette break, the grocery run, happy hour. The flip side of the new approach to work clearly shows that we are not stepping into paradise here.
Skepticism and suspicion. Skeptics drag the realists (who reveal the bare bones behind the pretty face of this new phenomenon) one step farther and present conclusions that don’t pull any punches. There are two types of skeptics: people who view the new approach to work as just one more trick from the employer’s arsenal, and people who see the new approach as a thin disguise for the old approach. After an initial period in which the worker celebrates freedom, new routines frequently replace the old. When the cafés in Utrecht were released from the required closing time, it was party time for a while – but if you venture out into the city at night these days, you’ll notice that they’re closing around 2 am again, just like they used to. Much ado about nothing, really.
These three views of the new approach to work create a rich and complex impression of reality. As the Asian proverb has it: it is what it is. The new approach to work isn’t on its way; it has already arrived.
And soon it will be everywhere. Following the farm, the factory and the office, the free and open spaces are now ready to be explored. Yesterday’s factory farms are giving way to free-range business practices. We are part of history, even this era of history.
I’m ordering a glass of wine here at the foot of the Acropolis. It’s an hour later here than it is in the Netherlands, so it’s allowed.

Harry Starren is the head of De Baak training institute. With all due thanks to Marco Oostdijk and Jan van der Veer.

Ode.nl – September 2010
p. 20-21

This entry was posted in Reflections.

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