Culture eats technology for breakfast (to adapt the more common version, that culture eats strategy for breakfast – but culture is omnivorous, so no problem there). The critical question which follows from that statement gets much less attention: where are we going to have breakfast. That question is the focus of this post.

Not long ago, culture could only eat technology in the workplace, because that’s the only place where there was enough technology to form a nutritious (but not very varied) diet. Culture still often does have breakfast in the office canteen. But sometimes it has breakfast at home. And increasingly these days, it can be sometimes be seen having breakfast in a café. The technology gets eaten either way.

The occasion for this thought is a splendid new book, Remote: Office not required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the founders of 37 Signals (and many thanks to Matt Jukes for his post, which is how I found out about it). It is striking in format as well as content, written in short, sharp, almost self-contained sections, more like an uncannily well structured blog than a normal business book (and to achieve innovation in book structure is itself quite an achievement).

The book’s core proposition is that offices are largely – but not completely – redundant. They are a solution to problems of work organisation and management which now no longer exist, and are not very effective as a solution at all. Part polemic, part manifesto, part how-to, the book makes the case for change, counters the resisters and suggests what to do.

The starting point is that offices are ill suited to getting stuff done:

The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. That’s because offices have become interruption factories.

Take that thought, put it together with technology which makes working at a distance entirely practical, many people spending time and money commuting, and the cost and inflexibility of city centre office space – and the answer seems obvious: forget the office and let everybody work wherever they want to.

A lot of the book is about what to do with that answer, how to ensure that distributed working is productive, how to ensure that human relationships are sustained with much reduced face to face contact, and how to overcome concerns that this approach can’t work in theory however well it can be shown to work in practice. Interestingly, much of the advice on offer is just as relevant for those who are still expected to turn up somewhere to work: if trusting your team is more effective than physical oversight for people working at a distance, why would it not be for people working in the same building?

What the book is not about – or not much about – is the technology which makes it all work, for the fairly simple reason that technology isn’t much of a constraint. Of course it needs to be there, it needs to work, the tools necessary to work most effectively in this environment need to be available, but none of that is intrinsically difficult or expensive.

The hard bit, particularly for established organisations, is culture, and particularly trust. If being present is no longer a job requirement, being present can no longer be a virtue. People have to be managed not on whether they turn up and look keen and energetic, but on what they achieve. How, when and where they do that becomes much more a choice for individual workers (and teams) and much less a matter of management standardisation.

As with any culture change, the starting point is imaging that it can be different:

Past generations have been bred on the idea that good work happens from 9am to 5pm, in offices and cubicles in tall buildings around the city. It’s no wonder that most who are employed inside that model haven’t considered other options, or resist the idea that it could be any different. But it can.

But then the message that comes across time and time again is that remote working has to be based on trust. Again though, remote working does not create the need for trust, it makes the need explicit and shows where it is missing. For what are we doing with untrusted people in the organisation to start with?

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t hire people you don’t trust, or work for bosses who don’t trust you. If you’re not trusted to work remotely, why are you trusted to do anything at all? If you’re held in such low regard, why are you able to talk to customers, write copy for an ad, design the next product, assess insurance claims, or do tax returns?

But although few like to admit it explicitly, many managers do not have that trust or, more generously, have not needed to develop a management style which is based on trust:

It’s rarely spelled out directly, but a lot of the arguments against working remotely are based on the fear of losing control. There’s something primal about being able to see your army, about having them close enough that you can shout “Now!!” like Mel Gibson did in Braveheart, and watch them pick up their spears in unison. To a lot of people, being the big boss is about achieving such control. It’s woven into their identity. To such alpha males and females, having someone under “direct supervision” means having them in their line of sight—literally. The thinking goes, If I can see them, I can control them.

There is much more to the book than that, including a lot of thoughtful material about getting the balance of remote working right – which doesn’t mean that offices don’t have their uses or that face to face contact is never beneficial. It recognises problems, but sometimes seems a little to wish them away, for example assuming that everybody can find a suitable working environment at home or close by. Camping out in Starbucks might work for some, but will never be a solution for all.

The strengths though far outweigh the weaknesses and I strongly recommend Remote to anybody thinking about organising work differently, whether or not remote working is explicitly part of the plan.

Given all of that, it’s pretty clear that if a large office-based organisation with a long established culture wants to change how it does things, it needs to go into it with its eyes open, to understand the challenges, and to demonstrate, embody and support the change process it entails. Some of what needs to happen might of course be about IT: the wrong devices supporting the wrong tools, communicating through inefficient networks, hobbled by security inappropriately trumping usability will go a long way to stopping change dead. Conversely, seeing an IT update project as an opportunity for getting all that right creates a critical enabler for the wider change.

So I am nervous about the concept of a technology transformation programme not because it will do the wrong thing, but as part of the much broader argument that there is no such thing as IT:

It is not possible to make change management work better in government as long as the challenge is expressed as being about fixing IT or about distinguishing IT and non-IT projects.

The current set of organisational technology available to me doesn’t stop me working remotely, and in some ways it already supports it. The standard computing device, for example, is a lightweight laptop which is highly portable. I can easily think of ways it could be improved, but the dynamics of my personal working patterns are driven much more by culture and habit than they are by technology availability or bureaucratic oversight. We need to see those as linked issues, not to bring about paralysing complexity, but to make sure we are clear about the outcome we want to achieve. There is no point in new technology if it is only to serve as breakfast food for culture.

The need though is real, for both culture change and for the technology to support it. As Remote concludes:

A tipping point for remote work is coming. It may not be that the office completely ceases to exist, but its importance has peaked.

Comments

  1. The office is more of a level playing field than the home. With an office comes minimium environmental standards and the absence of family members whose immediate needs may be or appear to be more pressing than those of work. Working 9 to 5 at least gives people a demarcation between the pressures of work and the pressures of home – and if management can’t ensure that staff have uninterrupted time it’s their fault, not that of the office environment per se.

    That said, I’ve gone from commuting Brighton-London, to working at home, to having an office twenty five minutes walk away. I have enough trouble separating life and work – an office is at the very least a useful luxury. It also means I get nearly an hour’s almost guaranteed thinking time each day.

    I was probably most productive in the brief period when laptops were available but mobile phones were not yet ubiquitous. I could head to a library or work on the train. Of course, I benefited hugely from having a job with a great deal of personal autonomy – and I wonder whether most people pontificating about these matters are in a similar position.

    Attention to cultural change may tend to evaporate as service reconfiguration moves from design towards implementation, because it doesn’t always sit easily (ie quantifiably) within the language of budgets, contracts and staging points (no matter how may away days your organization stumps up for). Of course, it’s also much easier to fudge the claim that a cultural change has been achieved, in part because of the human muddiness of cultural language, but also because a cultural change will shift the parameters that shape it.

    Ultimately, I wonder if there’s something of a paradox here. Does an office create the cohesiveness that makes it possible for people to work at home?

    1. I think these are excellent questions to raise, which I avoided in the post in order to stop it getting unmanageably long, but probably should have said just a bit more about. I think the book does skate over the ease with which some people’s home and personal circumstances would allow them to create these kinds of arrangements, though it does acknowledge that some kinds of work lend themselves to much greater flexibiliy than others.

      Your final paradox may be the key to some of this, and may not be a paradox at all – arguably that’s how some organisations, for example the big consultancy firms, operate already. Perhaps the future role of the office is to maximise the cultural cohesiveness which then allows greater flexibility in work organisation.

  2. If cultural cohesiveness encompasses the importance of real synchronous conversation, in glorious 3D technicolor, and learning in its various guises, and the smell of coffee… then I have little to add. I enjoy talking to you like this, but it’s hardly strategic pizza.

  3. Fabulous article Stefan, and a subject very close to my heart. 3 years after leaving the public sector I felt so liberated from the shackles of the office that I started to blog about it at Kindredhq.com and over the past 18 months our merry band of ‘independents’ has grown and grown – testament to the fact that people simply won’t put up with having to wind up their pcs every morning and not being able to use the apps that make them not only efficient, but simply able to do their jobs.

    And when I returned to an office for a contract at the BBC recently I aired my frustrations in http://www.kindredhq.com/dont-office-space/
    and more recently in http://www.kindredhq.com/work-place/.

    I also love this book, and the one before it – Rework.

    Thanks for getting the debate going!

    1. Alex – thanks for those links, both very interesting.

      I was struck by list of examples of coworking spaces, partly because it still sounds quite heavily geared to the tech community. Are you picking up any signs of that becoming a more widespread approach – and if so, who is providing those workspace services?

      1. Funny you should say that. The tech community probably led the charge a few years back, but that’s changed. In fact, we try and avoid those spaces that only cater for one type. We have freelance web people, osteopaths, accountants, lawyers, internal comms specialists, artists, product developers, thinkers, doers and every type in between in our community.
        What we look for are places that embrace what we call engineered serendipity – simply providing a place where people make their own magic happen without having to deal with the constraints of a more formal office set up.

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