This week we look forward to the looming battle between office and “remote” working and ask what we can learn from Reddit and gamers about collaboration.
Ronald Coase Reversed
Earlier this week, I completed the content planning phase for an extensive leadership development programme involving 66 “virtual” learning sessions across 6 topical modules for 3 different cohort levels, which will be delivered by 16 faculty members located in 6 time zones. We achieved this using a simple online collaboration platform (Notion) and Slack for communications, with a handful of Zoom calls where needed.
I couldn’t imagine even trying to achieve this using email and Word files – what a nightmare! But perhaps the most daring indictment of what most managers assume to be conventional practice is that this would have been 10x harder, slower and more costly if we had tried to do this from within a traditional office-based organisation using project management, meetings and assistants to find diary slots. In a way, it makes me think that Ronald Coase’s thesis on ‘the nature of the firm’ has flipped – the transaction costs of co-ordinating work are now higher within a conventional office-based firm than without, in many cases.
More and more senior leaders are now trying to entice or coerce employees back to the office and the pushback from employees will be interesting to watch – even at Apple, who have one of the coolest looking offices around. In a post called Minimum Viable Office, Stowe Boyd recently quoted a respondent in a recent research report on this trend as saying:
“They feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us,” she said. “It’s a boomer power-play.”
Hopefully, at least some imaginative organisations will consider the W.F.N.H. model that Cal Newport described in the New Yorker recently and perhaps take advantage of a weak commercial property market to create local co-working hubs where people want or need to get together in third spaces, without the horror of big city commuting. I can’t wait until I get to meet some of our team members for the first time at our first team ‘on-site’ (*shakes fist at COVID travel rules*) and I am jealous of the Post*Shift group who will co-lo in a London hotel on Monday to work and meet up with new delivery partners.
Not office vs home, but collaboration vs meetings
But once again, I am surprised this debate is so often presented as a binary choice between locations, rather than really being about the nature of work and how we co-ordinate it within the firm. Dion Hinchliffe covered some of the employee experience issues and why improvement in this area is so important in a post for Citrix: Building a new, better, and more collaborative future of work post-pandemic. But for me, the biggest problem – and in many ways the easiest to fix – is how managers manage: meetings, emails and disconnected documentary artefacts. Returning to the learning project example I started with, if we had tried to do this the old way, not only would the experience have been worse in every sense, but all of the interaction, learning and iteration along the way would have been lost to the wind, whereas online collaboration has left us with an extensive content repository that others can join later to see the history and thinking behind the programme. We have created retained value from the work we did together that we can build on. Once upon a time, we might have called this knowledge management. Microsoft now calls it Organisational Intelligence. Whatever name we use, it is vitally important in an increasingly networked and complex work environment.
The real fabric of the org is links, not bricks
When discussing peer-to-peer learning, I often cite the example of the gaming world as a kind of gold standard in the rapid development of high-quality learning communities in response to new events such as new releases, DLCs, etc. Within 48 hours, a new game will have guides, tutorials, walkthroughs and tips produced for free (or increasingly for likes and subscribes) resulting from an efficiency of distributed collaboration that most companies cannot even imagine is possible. Chris Beiser speculated this week that Reddit groups have been responsible for a greater improvement in quality of life for certain health conditions than pharmaceutical firms over the past decade, and he put this down to its ‘knowledge accretive’ nature compared to oral platforms like Twitter:
Notion, Roam, note-taking methods like Zettelkasten and good old-fashioned wikis are all enjoying a resurgence outside the walls of the firm, but mainstream management seems to remain stubbornly attached to workplace theatre rather than value-creating and value-sharing work. It is perhaps this lack of digital confidence and knowledge that means they want us all back inside the building where their C19th management orthodoxy of meetings, KPIs and presenteeism still seems relevant.