It’s Not About the Office

On May 22, 2000, Lance Armstrong published the book, It’s Not About the Bike. He was right, of course. But it’s unlikely he’s developed a sense of irony since then.

Similarly, on July 6, 2022, a gentleman named Ian Bogost published an article in The Atlantic. He apparently shares Lance’s lack of irony because he titled the article, “Hybrid Work Is Doomed“. He should have titled it, “It’s Not About the Office”.

The article says this, in part:

Return-to-office plans … serve as affirmations of a superseding value … the policy has less to do with one specific firm than with the whole firmament of office life: the Office, as an institution. The Office must endure! To the office we must go. This should be obvious, but somehow it is not: The existence of an office is the central premise of office work, and nothing—not even a pandemic—will make it go away … The office is the structure that makes work possible, a kind of mothership for productivity, centuries in the making; a place to construct and preserve a way of life.

Close. But no cigar.

In reality, the office is a place to construct and — most important — to perpetuate the existence and to expand the size, scope, and reach of bureaucracy. And bureacracies exist to control. At the highest levels, bureucracies are petri dishes for power, entitlement, and corruption. At the lowest levels, they’re breeding grounds for frustration, stultification, invisibility, anonymity, and impotence.

End of story.

We’re Only Human

While Ian seems to have missed the memo, espousing humanity at work seems to be all the rage these days. Self-appointed self-help gurus and would-be coaches and consultants are encouraging people to be their real, authentic selves in the workplace. On a superficial level, that’s all quite noble and worthwhile, I suppose. But perhaps a bit more pragmatism might be in order. If we send our newly human acolytes into hostile bureaucracies to be their real, authentic selves, they’re likely to end up more frustrated than they already were … or on the unemployment line.

And how are we defining authentic in the first place?

In his book, The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber wrote this:

Everyone who works here is expected to work toward being the best he can possibly be at the tasks he’s accountable for … the business is a place where everything we know how to do is tested by what we don’t know how to do, and the conflict between the two is what creates growth, what creates meaning … A place where the generally disorganized thinking that pervades our culture becomes organized and clearly focused on a specific worthwhile result. A place where discipline and will become prized for what they are: the backbone of enterprise and action, of being what you are intentionally instead of accidentally.

There you go. Accountability. Conflict. Growth. Meaning. Focus on worthwhile results. Discipline and will. Being what you are intentionally instead of accidentally. In the context of any job you sign on for, that’s how authenticity should be defined. But you won’t find those things in any organization without buy-in from its leadership. And you’ll never find it in a bureucracy because the leaders are more interested in protecting their turf and getting more of it than they are in their people.

Let Them In

In their book, Get in the Game, Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker write this, emphasis theirs:

The best, most efficient, most profitable way to run a business is to educate everybody on how the business works, give them a voice in how the company is run, and provide them a stake in the financial outcome … build a business of businesspeople who think, act, and feel like owners … [get] everyone at all levels of the business as informed, involved, and engaged as the owner is in making the company successful … When you harness the collective wisdom of your people, great things can and do happen, not just to the bottom line but inside the hearts and minds of your people. The result is long-term success for your company and long-term success for your people. You will improve your business results and the lives of the people who create those results.

That’s a natural, enlightened, and inevitable evolution of what Michael Gerber wrote decades ago. It’s also an indication of the way we should now be defining authentic for people who are being paid to do a job and have reasonable expectations of deriving a sense of satisfaction from doing it. But it’s not possible in environments characterized by domineering egos and empire-builders. And it’s not possible without humility, transparency, the participation of everyone in the organization, encouragement, recognition, reward, and opportunities to experiment, to fail, to learn from failure, and to carry the lessons learned into their next efforts.

Full Circle

And that, of course, brings us back to offices, bureaucracies, and the objective(s) to which we should aspire in hoping to bring humanity back to the workplace.

It’s fair to say human consciousness is evolving faster than historical structures of leadership and management ever could. If our objective is to create environments of learning and fulfillment in the workplace, we should be clear about how we’re going about it, how we’re structuring our organizations, what we’re learning or helping people to learn, and what specific actions we’ll take to achieve our objective.

Hybrid work is not doomed. It’s not about the office. It’s not about bureaucracy. It’s about the philosophy by which you conduct your business. And it’s about people.

People first. Always people first.

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