Work Theater

My colleagues and I have written on occasion about innovation theater. But I had a different thought this morning. Here’s what happened:

Like many people, I now work from home almost exclusively. I have occasional in-person meetings with colleagues and customers, but they’re rare and usually considered special events. Even before the pandemic, I was working a flexible schedule, through which I worked in the office most of the time and at home some of the time. The flexible schedule allowed me to be available for personal and family commitments while maintaining work responsibilities.

I still have an office outside of my home. I’ve been there a handful of times over the last few years. I’ve gone there to gather some things I’ve needed to work from home more effectively: a few files, an extra computer monitor, etc. When I go to the office now, it feels like a museum or a time capsule representing the way in which work was done a just few years ago. There’s been a universal shift. Work will never be the same. Virtual meetings have become the norm, with good reason. Traveling to the office and to see customers was time-consuming. It’s no longer valuable.

Coming Clean

This morning, I took a shower, which is unusual. Showering is not unusual but doing it in the morning is. I usually shower later in the day or in the evening after a workout. Back in my office-work days, I used to get up early, shower, dress for work, and grab a quick bite and a cup of coffee before going into the office. My shower this morning reminded me of how manic I used to be about my morning routine. Sadly, much of the motivation for my behavior was appearances. I didn’t really question it at the time. It was just how work was done.

It was important to me to get into the office early, before most people and to work late, leaving after most of my colleagues. I lived this behavior for much of my career. As I was working up through the ranks, it was important that my bosses saw me consistently in the office early and late. As I became the boss, it was important to me that others saw I was consistently in the office early and late.

The Work’s the Thing

Hamlet famously said, “The play’s the thing.” That’s not true in the COVID-transformed world of work. Now, the work’s the thing.

Being in an office daily with coworkers has benefits. You can get to know your colleagues and how they work and how they manage themselves. Spontaneous collaboration can occur, and work can be done. But when I compare my office experience to the way I work now, it seems hugely inefficient. Lots of travel, grooming, business attire shopping … and for what? Appearances. It turns out I was a performer of office theater. I was there and I expected my colleagues to be there, but that didn’t necessarily mean work was being done. Some theater was being produced, for sure. And work was almost secondary.

Now that everybody is remote and ubiquitously available electronically, actual work output is the measure of commitment and contribution. Since there’s little social protocol like bringing doughnuts and coffee to a videoconference, for example, people schedule and attend virtual meetings because they’re necessary. Don’t misunderstand me: I like to socialize with people, but I’m enjoying having work meetings about work and mingling with friends when I’m not working.

Let’s not lament about how things used to be. Let’s embrace the way things are.

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