How a 20th Mindset kills 21st Century companies

Here's the introduction of THE MBA final thesis:


“I can’t go back there. It’s like a cage!” 

These are Ana’s first words to me, spoken as though having just been released from prison or escaped a hard labor camp. However, this is just our weekly managerial catch-up over Skype. The situation isn’t nearly as dire, but the emotions just as raw. 

Rewind three months. Up to this point, Ana has spent her career of 5 years in a traditional office environment in Dnipro, Ukraine. Suddenly her company, Leef, launches a new customer service initiative where working remotely for Ana and the rest of her team becomes a possibility. They jump at the chance, even volunteering to work a 24-hour schedule in trade. 

The personal change is noticeable immediately, as expressed in an interview with Ana six weeks later: 

“Working from home means I don’t have to go anywhere. It’s perfect! I can work from a cafe or from a foreign country. It gives me the freedom to do what I want and work still. This is the perfect job for me because the office is boring. In the 21st century you don’t have to be around people to communicate with them. You can use Skype; you can use Hangouts; you can use anything. You have a lot of opportunities!” 

Ana’s expression as she talks is one of rapture, as though she’s just met the love of her life. She’s radiant, glowing even, as she talks about her work. Three months later, with the initiative coming to a close due to poor performance, her words are calculated; her tone skeptical: “I can’t go back to the way things were,” she exclaims, exasperation thick, “...not after having experienced this way of working.”  

Contrast Ana’s perspective with that of Leef’s founder, Dave Field Smurthwaite, who recently expressed very strong opinions when it comes to remote workers like Ana: 

“Remote working and ‘quality of life’ is lipstick on a pig when the company is losing money and people are not executing... Quality of life and work life balance are important ONLY AFTER a person successfully has shelter and puts food on the table... It is dangerous for office culture, for this level of job and with Ukrainian culture - remote means un-managed.” 

Perfection and rapture on the one hand; dangerous pig lipstick on the other. The striking differences in viewpoints are well representative of a growing debate on how productive, meaningful work happens in the 21st century? 

A cursory search online reveals how many of the debates around creating and managing remote workforces have narrowed in on these polar ends of the pig lipstick spectrum. Innovators and advocates of remote working, like Jason Fried of Basecamp, take a compelling call-to-arms approach, evangelizing the notion that our best work will never again happen in a 9 AM to 5 PM office. Academic studies like “Does Working from Home Work?” conducted and promoted by Nicholas Bloom from Stanford and James Liang of Harvard prove positive organizational impacts of moving remote. At the same time, however, pioneers and former advocates of remote working, like IBM, are pulling away from remote, placing people back into the office after years of championing the practice. Other giants, like Google, Apple, and Facebook have never adopted it. 

So here stands remote working, muddied and rattled in the front-line trenches, because it represents to the 20th-century manager a radical way of thinking about the people and motives that make our economies run. It is the tip of a Titanic-sinking iceberg that extends far below the surface of where work gets done, waiting to drown centuries-old prejudices against the worker. 

Since the beginning of the industrial age, factory owners sought ways to optimize organizational output, which continued into the modern 20th-century workplace. Where and how we work in 2017 is defined by practices and traditions inherited from a time when workers were treated as an extension of machinery and, as such, the individual was intended to perform or be easily replaced. It developed in our culture a mindset, professionally and personally, where we became defined by our output. 

A shift to remote working has spurred an awakening of the worker and an undercurrent backlash against the hierarchical traditions of past centuries. The workplace, instead of representing the cultural core of an organization as in times past, now often symbolizes oppression, inefficiency, and waste in the minds of those occupying its desks. As remote working continues to grow in popularity, so too the notion that it’s the individuals that make up a business and not vice versa. 

So what does the 21st-century workplace resemble, given this new workforce awakening? What happens as businesses move towards machine automation of mindless, group functions that defined workers of the 19th and 20th century and we become more dependent on the individual for creativity and collaboration? Where, how, and what tools will the 21st-century business leverage today to help shape tomorrow and will remote working be seen as an accelerant or deterrent? 

Having experienced personally the transition three years ago from actively building and promoting an in-office culture to living a remote work life, I’m cognizant of what remote working does and doesn’t do for both the individual and the organization. As businesses begin putting individuals first through remote working and other flexible initiatives, it creates a messy middle ground necessary for any major cultural shift. This shift represents a new way of thinking about how businesses operate and what energizes a workforce and will require reevaluating how and why we manage time. It means adopting, revising, and removing inherited workplace habits to maximize collaboration and communication. Above all, it will require removing antiquated terms like “remote” or “office” and instead defining a new vernacular, representative of a better more beautiful way of making - with individual freedoms at the heart of the equation. 

History, as always, provides a poignant backdrop for the evolutionary problems we’re facing today. In the pages that follow, we’ll address the rise of the 21st-century workplace and the differing viewpoints of what that could be moving forward. We’ll also look into the 21st-century employee, their mindset and the drivers that make them so different from their 20th-century managers. Finally, we’ll see how innovative companies are addressing a 21st-century approach and what implications that could have for businesses looking to adapt. 

The only other alternative is for executives to do nothing and wait for the next workers’ revolution. 

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Dave SmurthwaiteComment