Much ink has been spilled over the past couple of years on the topic of working arrangements. The discussion is often framed in terms of culture, teamwork, productivity, collaboration or autonomy, but things really boil down to something much simpler: the needs and preferences of employers, pitted against the needs and preferences of employees, and the willingness on either side to compromise – or not.
So it’s about power dynamics, and how those have been shifting in ways that have caught many employers off guard.
Power dynamics are interesting because they can’t be simply reduced to “A is stronger than B, therefore A will impose on B whatever it wants”. Sure, things can (and often do) go that way, but sentiments such as love, friendship, loyalty, benevolence, a sense of duty, can alter this equation in very meaningful ways. You could refer to those sentiments, generically, as “mutual good will” – what we know in Judo as Jita Kyoei (自他共栄), one of our fundamental principles, usually translated to English as “mutual benefit for self and others” (Judo’s other fundamental principle is Seiryoku Zenyo, the principle of Maximum Efficiency – but more on that later).
Getting back to the debate about working arrangements, I won’t even attempt to make predictions as to where things are going, or to lay out recommendations as to the best way to handle such decisions. Instead, I would like to offer a way to think about all this in much broader terms.
Put aside for now the last few years. Working arrangements have undergone a stupendous amount of change over the past few decades, in ways that have often proved detrimental to employees’ preferences and wellbeing. For many people, the so-called “good old ways” that employers would like them to go back to left much to be desired.
Like many people, I remember when going to the office meant sitting in my very own cubicle, surrounded by my books, trinkets, family pictures and other personal effects. Nineties era cubicles were nothing to write home about, but my space was my space and there was something to be said about that. To many people, it still matters.
Back then, pretty much 100% of the people I interacted with sat within a few meters of me; usually within speaking range, and always within the same building. Going to the office meant being surrounded by members of my team or department and having lunch or coffee with them pretty much every single day. Turnover was low, and you could usually count on working with people for many years. Working arrangements supported a kind of human experience that would seem very foreign to many office workers of 2022.
In the three decades that I’ve been in the workforce, I experienced, at various companies I was working for at the time, a number of memorable firsts: first major restructuring, with entire layers of management being taken out (including people I really liked); first outsourcing of entire swaths of technology services; first offshoring of various functions, and more.
I remember the first time a building I worked in was “re-stacked” to make way for (much) smaller offices and workstations; the first time people were told that they would no longer have their own space or be allowed to keep personal effects in the workplace; the first time I became part of an entirely remote work team that I only got to be with at the occasional offsite; and the first time my workdays started bursting regularly out of so-called “regular business hours” to accommodate multiple time zones and other workload requirements.
Over the years and decades, changes have kept accumulating. Each change was the result of a business decision which, at the moment it was made and taken in isolation, surely seemed eminently reasonable (and necessary?) to the people making it, and perhaps didn’t seem to impose too much of a burden on the people being impacted (or those that were left): “We’d like you to carry a Blackberry so that you can take your emails when you’re not in the office (i.e. at home).” “You won’t have your own workspace, but you’ll see, it’ll be just like working from a trendy coffee shop all the time!” “No, you won’t be physically located with any members of your work team, but teleconferencing technology has really improved!” “Yes, I do need you on that call at 8:00 PM every week, but feel free to take some time for yourself during the day.”
The default working arrangements of today – those very arrangements that evidently don’t work for a meaningful segment of the workforce – can’t be laid at the feet of any one person at any single point in time. They are the result, more than anything else, of a certain philosophy of business management. Over time, those working arrangements have just crept up on people and here we are now.
The various changes that I’ve outlined – and there have been many more – were likely justified, at the time they were made, in terms of efficiencies. And on that front, they certainly delivered. By that same measure, employers everywhere should be absolutely thrilled with remote work: it does, after all, require much less office space, and has been proved to work spectacularly well during the lockdowns. But whereas efficiency measures of the past were perceived as presenting few downsides for employers, there’s a nagging suspicion – a sincere belief and conviction, in many cases – that something important is about to get lost if employees never come back to the office.
This appears to be one efficiency too far — one that many employers are just not willing to take a chance on. Like I said earlier, the case is often articulated in terms of the importance of in-person work in preserving things like culture, teamwork, collaboration — the kind of soft, hard to quantify stuff that didn’t weigh that much on the scales of past decisions, when what was being lost was being borne mostly by other stakeholders.
Fast-forward to the present day. The pandemic is receding, and your employer would like you to come back to the office. Your personal workspace is long gone – perhaps you never even had one; your work team is scattered across multiple locations – perhaps you’ve never even met any of them in person; you spend your days in virtual meetings and those days tend to be long. You don’t like the long commute. You really like working from home and you’ve proven without a doubt that you’re highly productive when you do so. You don’t really question that a strong culture with a strong sense of belonging is ultimately in the best interest of organizations, but we’re talking about your needs and preferences, not your employer’s, and you don’t really know how long you’ll be working there anyway.
Over the years, you’ve internalized the idea that business decisions are based on things such as costs, benefits, and efficiencies, without much consideration for the ways in which they impact individuals like you. “Why should I go back to the office, at a high personal cost or great inconvenience to myself and my family, rather than look at this as a pure cost-benefit, as my employer does? Why should I look at this with consideration to anything other than my own productivity and wellbeing?”
Like I said earlier, Judo is based on the principle of Maximum Efficiency – Seiryoku Zenyo – something that anyone in business would be very familiar with. But the true wisdom of Judo lies in the insight that the pursuit of efficiency must always be tempered by a sincere concern for the welfare of others – Jita Kyoei. They go hand in hand, as collective success requires something more than everyone maximizing their own narrow interests. The pursuit of efficiency only works if the results are truly beneficial to all parties involved. It is the virtue that lies in a balanced approach.
The way people look at working arrangements cannot but be influenced by their experience of work and, beyond that, by the prevailing business context – and philosophy of management – in which they are immersed. Perhaps, to them, it doesn’t always look very balanced.
How do we take all that and make work an experience that really works for people?