This week, as we Irish and our friends celebrate St Patrick’s Day, I was reminded of a character in ‘Juno and the Paycock’, the famous play by Sean O’Casey. Set in the 1920’s, the feckless old timer Captain Boyle’s final line in the play “The whole world is in terrible state of chassis,” seems apt in summing up the huge amount of uncertainty facing us today
This also seems particularly apposite regarding the world of work and the office and we are now facing another tsunami of uncertainty, after having witnessed some unprecedent upheaval owing to the lockdowns. Covid brought about many challenges with one of the more notable being the global experience of office workers having to do without their offices. During this most unusual of times, I published my first book “Where Is My Office?” in October 2020 and I had big misgivings about how I might promote it and it was fortuitous that the widespread acceptance of webinars came to my rescue. I believe my experience echoes those of many office workers who found that they could work differently. Such an awakening of new possibilities will be seen as one of the big changes in how we work and use the workplace. Now that Covid is in retreat we were anticipating a return to normal, alas it things have taken an unexpected turn. With the horrors of war in Ukraine looming large, the level of uncertainty has gone through the roof. It will be interesting to observe how the workplace sector copes with these unforeseen developments.
Having advocated over the years for a greater focus on People and Place and for operating across a range of work settings, it is interesting to see the various narratives doing the rounds. In my view forecasting what things will look like is fraught with difficulty, as we are living during a time of great uncertainty made even more complicated by recent events in Ukraine.
The tectonic plates have shifted
To support my contention about the depth and scale of the change we are seeing, developing in front of our eyes, the shifting tectonic plates metaphor is useful. Whilst many of us hanker after a return to normal, the laws of physics state that once the plates start moving, they cannot be stopped. Typically, tectonic plates shift slowly but Covid has shaken them further, generating greater upheaval.
We need to pay attention to this and accept that not only is the game changing but the stadium itself has changed. This is especially relevant to the workplace sector; we are part of the wider commercial real estate industry which is notoriously introspective and slow to change. We need to ask ourselves, are we prepared to deal with these unprecedented paradigm shifts?
An explosion of uncertainty
Coping with Covid forced us to consider options and scenarios which are complex, complicated, and novel. They pose real dilemmas of a type we never had to face before. As workplace practitioners we naturally focus on the future of the office and the arrival of hybrid. We need to sit up and smell the coffee to a much wider and more complex debate concerning how we live, learn work and play. We are now seeing leaders realise that the ‘one size fits all’ model is no longer dependable, and we need to innovate. The amount of uncertainly brought about by the pandemic and exacerbated by the dreadful events unfolding in Ukraine is a completely new dimension for all of us to contend with – in my view we are living in a period of ‘uncertain’ uncertainty.
As we obsess on what happens next, it is clear to me that the greatest emphasis will fall on reconvening the workforce in some form of hybrid model. But will this suffice? This type of solution is constrained by a narrow frame of reference and fails to take account of emerging options. The time has come to consider a move away from our fixation on the physical to encompass a wider range of options, especially now with the onset of cyber working. New models in the work landscape are now shifting from fixed to fluid, ones that call for a different organisational response and innovative practices.
Coping with Uncertainty
As we witness the demise of the ‘one size fits-all’ way of thinking; one can also see the need to consign the mountain of playbooks and precedents to the scrap heap. One cannot use 20th century thinking to solve 21st century problems. In the absence of proven approaches and benchmarks we are left in a sea of ambiguity. Which is not a good place to be in, especially as enterprises both large and small find it difficult to cope with a lack of clarity. With the growing need for fresh thinking on how to understand the uncertainty of work and the workplace; the marketplace is awash with opinions and recommendations on how to solve these challenges. Honestly, I don’t think anyone really knows what the future holds. All the more reason to convene all the stakeholders interested in work and the workplace in an independent forum to explore the situation, to go beyond the tired old norms based on 20th century thinking. Furthermore, to be bold in discussing new topics, to acquire fresh perspectives, additionally not to be constrained by siloed thinking and to acquire actionable ways of coping with our life of uncertainty. If this piques your curiosity, please join us on our inaugural crowdsourced journey into understanding the uncertainty of work and the workplace. See link for further details – https://tinyurl.com/3jr76299.