Covid Knowledge Work
Greg Brougham (@SailingGreg) and Jon Husband (@jonhusband), April 2022
The Covid pandemic and the range of responses to its impact have proven to most people engaged in knowledge work that flexible locations for working are now an operational reality and not just a pipe dream. And the impact extends far beyond that. In this essay, we explore the impact and the possibilities it reveals.
Numerous articles have been published recently reflecting a general position that hybrid working is here to stay — not everyone is going to go back to the office and people want to mix and match with some office-based work and some home-based work.
But is this too narrow a view? Does the two-year experience of workplaces coming to terms with the Covid pandemic offer a larger opportunity, not only for people to have a better work/life balance but also for companies to address some of the more fundamental issues that have been made clear by the general workplace response to the measures imposed by a global pandemic?
Around the globe over the past 100 years, we have experienced a massive once-in-the-world’s-history shift as we’ve moved from making things by hand to learning to make and assemble using industrial processes. Globalisation and the spread of information technology then led to a current focus on creating greater economic value by exchanging information and knowledge with other people, leading to greater efficiencies, shorter product cycles and increased need for innovations. Today much of the developed world’s daily activities occur on or are supported by this globally-connected information-processing infrastructure.
Regardless of this remarkable evolution, most of today’s fundamental workplace issues have not evolved at a similar pace. During the 20th century, Taylorism and Fordism became dominant frameworks for the rapid growth and adaptation that characterised the 3rd Industrial Revolution. These frameworks did not foresee how exchanges of information and the application of pertinent knowledge would be carried out in a networked environment characterised by constant interactions with flows of unstructured and often ambiguous information lacking in context.
Connected-and-networked but hesitant is where we ended up by 2020 … with 10–15 years of cautious experimentation with learning, collaboration, and digital transformation initiatives as a general background, the Covid pandemic arrived and almost immediately demanded organisations to implement vastly-increased use of remote networked communications capabilities to handle most types of knowledge-based work.
After successive waves of implementing organisation-wide process re-engineering software and then moving the organisation’s processes and people onto the Internet, it is quickly becoming clear that effective technology and infrastructure are not, and will not be, the central issues.
As a result of the Covid-induced shift to remote work meeting the capabilities of collaboration and telepresence infrastructure, we are witnessing an emergent example of the oft-cited maxim “sociology trumps technology in the long term”. Today most people in the western world do not work in isolation, but with other people in various forms of cooperation, collaboration and conflict. To date, the cumulative effects of these conditions are resulting in a decomposition and de-bundling of how work has been designed prior to the arrival of electronically-connected information networks which are starting to demonstrate the characteristics of multi-stakeholder eco-systems.
This realisation provides a bifurcation moment: do we go back to the old ways of working, or use the crisis created by this historic pandemic to explore other ways of creating value from exchanging information and applying the knowledge gained in the exchanges?
Below we outline the pillars or shape of what’s coming but we do not talk specifically about the journey as that will depend upon who is interested and wants to explore other ways of working.
Covid arrived suddenly. The initial impact on the workplace was a drastic shock to most people. Until then, most companies had some remote workers or some people were allowed an element of remote work. But suddenly public health measures meant no one was allowed in the office (for the UK and most of Europe and North America). In a moment of widespread serendipity, the majority of people involved in knowledge work already had the means of remote working — internet connectivity and laptop — and most companies had messaging and conferencing systems that support remote work. Although dramatic, this change was achievable and a lot of people were able to shift to remote working rapidly with only relatively minor effort.
However, the pandemic revealed clearly one of the major inconveniences related to the modern workplace — humans still feel an important need to belong in order to feel a sense of fulfilment, to be a human element of a living system. Indeed, given 30+ years of efficiency-driven streamlining through process re-engineering and waves of integration after integration of enterprise software and cloud-based applications, the need to belong is greater than ever. The polarity of the machine vs. living-system metaphor has been growing and intensifying while most management philosophies and practices have remained embedded in the industrial era framework and practices.
Peter Drucker commented in the 1950s that in a knowledge economy the knowledge workers know more about the work they do than do their managers. And 50+ years later, increasingly they “own the means of production” (their knowledge and brainpower). Many companies’ management has not understood that managers can not step in and do today’s jobs. They lack the pertinent and applicable knowledge and thus are dependent upon knowledgeable, adaptable, and (most importantly) networked staff.
As a generality, much of the cumulative reaction being seen in today’s context and environment is directly related to the continuing dominance of the command-and-control model. For executives and senior management most role descriptions, management, and leadership development, and remuneration practices are still oriented towards rewarding fundamental industrial-era management assumptions.
The arrival of the pandemic and the related fallout over the last two years are leading organisations to realise that a lot of the reaction is indeed symptomatic of the leadership and behaviours prescribed, modelled and/or tolerated by senior management. This core issue is not new — the pandemic has only highlighted and deepened its impacts. Generally, whilst most surveys show that employee engagement has been dismal for the last couple of decades, during the course of the pandemic thus far peoples’ engagement and sense of belonging has declined even more.
It is abundantly clear that companies need to make their ways of working and general culture more attractive to both retain and attract people, primarily because it is expensive to recruit knowledge workers and it usually takes 6 months for someone to become productive.
The opportunity is clear and present to challenge traditional command-and-control models, structures, and behaviours and move to more trust-and-outcome based forms of “champion-and-channel”. The working definition of a notion called wirearchy suggests this more inclusive dynamic.
The main effect in the workplace to date has been named the ‘great resignation’ as it has made a lot of people realise that they are in what David Graeber describes as bullshit jobs. Many have come to realise “enough is enough”. In large numbers people are realising that there are alternatives that allow for better work/life balance as well as offering the possibility for greater engagement and an improved sense of belonging.
People are increasingly disengaging or leaving current employment not because of money but because of leadership and the culture/environment of their respective workplaces. People remember and compare their work lives before the pandemic and their experience(s) during the pandemic. Increasingly, they are realising that they are the means of production in a knowledge-based work environment, and so are beginning to exercise some of the power inherent in that realisation.
Thus, in the space of a couple of years attracting capable and engaged people has become perhaps the defining challenge of the era. The market for talent and capabilities is becoming more competitive and people are no longer staying because of this liquidity. Combined with two decades of growing pressure to carry out “digital transformation”, the stage is set for the emergence of the arena called — for better and for worse — the Future of Work (something Esko Kilpi was vocal about).
Much of the general Future of Work discussion revolves around the emergence of patterns of work and decision-making structures in today’s business environment. Today’s work environment is characterised by continuous interconnected stocks and flows of information and knowledge. The emergent patterns stem from a massive shift to the use of information technologies over the past 40+ years. The addition of the Internet and hyper-links have gradually created a general environment of continuous information flow and sequential project-based work.
As a result today the “workplace” commonly consists of various short and medium-term working/employment arrangements, and the terms “gig economy” and “gig workers” are regularly cited and referenced. The shift to what is now called the “gig economy” is projected to grow significantly over the next decade based on observed growth from 2018 to 2022 (*1). With such a wide variety of roles operating in networked conditions, projects are always front-and-centre and have given rise to the ‘generic’ use of AGILE principles expressed in a plethora of planning and execution tools and methods, and in many workplaces, Agile practices are the preferred way(s) of working.
The gig economy is beginning to provide a serious alternative to traditional employment arrangements, as it supports people’s needs while addressing the major issues. The ubiquitous always-connected environment is giving rise to a growing range of patterned experimental structures. These typically seek to enable flexibility — enhancing and augmenting collaborative ways of working and assuming threshold levels of worker autonomy — in order to support engagement and a sense of belonging.
These new dynamics are being expressed more and more often in community-development practices oriented towards cross-discipline and cross-silo working arrangements. This represents the evolution of early knowledge-work era concepts such as CoP (communities of practice), KM (knowledge management), and the widespread adoption of Lean and Agile methods and practices.
The focus on adaptability, attractiveness, resilience, and belonging has never been more present and sharper, and the challenge is not going away. Traditional companies need to understand what is needed if they are not to experience a Kodak moment.
Patterns of Networked Knowledge Work
One of the key things we have touched on but not elaborated is that most work is now done as part of a team. It is rare for work to be undertaken by an individual as tasks have become specialised which means that no one individual has all the skills needed to be able to address the work. This follows through into the siloed operation with separation or demarcation of the business based on the life cycle of the products a company sells. One such example is LBGUPS (Learn, Buy, Get, Use, Pay & Support) which enforces siloed operation while all the customer is interested in is buying and using a product/service.
We have seen this separation challenged in recent years as there have been initiatives about moving from project to product. The underlying theme here is that the team lives on as a long-term workgroup and thus assumes responsibility for the whole product lifecycle. Thus, the artificial separation that exists today disappears. This model puts the team front and centre — no longer do we go through Tucker’s Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing model (Tucker later added an additional stage of disbanding, acknowledging that all project work is temporary in nature). This also places more emphasis on leadership and the ability of the company to provide an engaging work environment.
As we emerge from the time of Covid we are encountering a significant opportunity.
Organisations can return to the previous structures and ways of working, in essence moving backward, or they can decide to move forward. Covid and the remote-working response combined with the ‘Great Resignation’ has offered up a fundamental — and critical — bifurcation moment.
Current exploration and interpretation reveals an emergent emphasis on community development, and on increased diversity, inclusion and deepening understanding of the particular ‘nature or work’ under consideration. Traditional decision-making protocols (usually associated with traditional role-based hierarchy) are increasingly under question, as organisations seek to understand effective arrangements about centralisation and decentralisation — of what, with and by whom, when, for how long, and so on.
We believe that the Cynefin framework can be useful here. It is a sense-making framework but due to its fundamental premises and definitions it is deeply contextual. As noted above we can indicate what some of the characteristics may be but the actual actions and paths that individual companies undertake will depend on their own context and dispositionality.
What we take from Cynefin are the possibilities for shifting from the practice of traditional hierarchy to some less rigid and more dynamic forms suggested by the notion of wirearchy. The journey to dynamic equilibriums inherent in coming to terms with ongoing complexity is not likely to be straightforward — the early era of networks in which we are now living has shown us disruption, uncertainty, anxiety, and resistance to change; all of which offer what seems to be and feels like a chaotic state. No one quite knows what the rules are for the new ‘Future of Work’ other than to expect it will be some kind of ‘hybrid’ form.
To move back to recogniseable forms of order and equilibriums requires a lot of time and energy and we are not likely to get back to the same position we were in before, as in the context of Covid’s impacts many or most people’s attitudes and expectations have changed (one of the characteristics of complex social systems as we say that they have path dependency).
A more suitable path is to acknowledge that the general responses to Covid’s impact have introduced and reinforced a complex situation in which we explore what makes sense “now”, in the current context. Once we understand what actions have utility, they can be codified and can be moved to an ordered/structured state. Here order has value as we can define procedures and processes but to get there the journey will not be straightforward and it will be different for each company.
The Cynefin framework posits understanding levels of abstraction and use of affordances and assemblages in sensemaking to respond appropriately to any given organisation’s context and current issues and challenges. This exploration is especially useful when examining hyperlinked networks and their effect(s) on traditional structures, as it allows for (or enables ?) a more horizontal perspective on the organisation and its work and considers the organisation as a ‘whole system of dynamic knowledge’.
This in turn leads to a clearer understanding of how organisational structure (and the forms in which it is expressed) are becoming more dynamic and responsive to the impacts of information as it flows into and out of the work of the people connected to each other throughout the organisation’s ecosystem.
Two decades into the advent of hyperlinked platforms for collaboration, usually integrated into ERP and other MIS enterprise platforms, we are witnessing a range of initial structural responses to the disruptions to knowledge work due to ubiquitous computing. Early faint patterns of exchanges and workflows have crystallised to some degree and can be explored via concepts such as lean management, the growth of communities in the enterprise, agile methods and dynamics, peer coaching, and high-participation planning and decision-making processes.
There is a “But” here as we don’t see the most companies moving away from a hierarchical structure but there is a need for the role of the team to be recognised and for the silos to be addressed (a note for the brave, there is Ackoff’s three-dimensional structure that may be worth looking at). We also need to acknowledge that value-generating work flows across the teams/organisation and not up-and-down — the more it goes up-and-down the more it impacts flows and the ability of the organisation to demonstrate agility in its responses to customer needs (there’s that that word agile again!). We need to also acknowledge that the finance and human resources domains are there to support not own the work and it is not their remit to control but enable.
It is clear that the impact of these ‘new’ conditions on traditional hierarchical management will not disappear but rather intensify and spread throughout enterprises as the connected world grows more and more synapses-and-neurons. It may be, as suggested by the notion of wirearchy, that we will come to be permanently working in constantly-changing flows of ‘power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on generating results’ rather than the more familiar top-down direction and control that characterised, and characterises the end of the Industrial Age being experienced by our corporations and institutions of today.
A huge change in the approach to management — philosophy and practices — is necessary. The pressure for a fundamental shift in the management paradigm that dominated the 20th century has been building (and increasing) for half-a-century. After all, this is the main reason for the great resignation — we need an approach along the lines of champion-and-channel with the management setting the direction and getting out of the way.
We have arrived at a seminal moment for the practices of leadership and management and we can use this opportunity to move beyond the ideas of Fayol. The opportunity is clear and present to challenge traditional command-and-control models, structures, and behaviours and move to more trust-and-outcome based forms of “champion-and-channel”. The working definition of wirearchy suggests that this more inclusive dynamic (which to be fair is appearing more and more often where the agile philosophy is being used effectively — supports championing the exploration of promising probes and possibilities and channeling resources to projects that test capabilities and offer possible innovation).
The growing changes to the connected-and-networked organisational designs are being expressed in various change-and-transformation consulting offers. These ‘new’ approaches proclaim and advocate greater inclusion and participation of workers (and more and more often customers and other stakeholders). They are not ‘new’ — they are rooted in the domain known as organisational development (OD). OD itself emerged from the need for work-arounds resulting from relatively rigid management practices. Advances in management ‘science’ during the 80s through to the end of the first decade of the 21st century were almost exclusively focused on efficiency and optimization, and relied on top-down motivation via incentives and/or soft coercion (values-based culture change programs etc.).
During this period, the avant-garde and the fringes began exploring and advocating issues such as continuous learning, learning organisations, socio-technical systems theory and practice, self-managed workgroups, and open-book management to address these issues. As a result, many books can and have been written about ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and focus on results’. Each of these factors critical for organisational effectiveness have been put into play by the evolution of the now ubiquitous connected-and-networked work environment. Software, almost always integrated into platforms and supported by the Internet, has become the nervous system which supports and enables the interactions of information and knowledge of knowledge workers. Do these workers need, and will they accept, an industrial-era management framework wherein their use of knowledge, and their experiences of trust and credibility, are still dictated by models that did not foresee networks?
The notion of wirearchy recognizes that connected (and generally continuous) information flows are at the heart of knowledge-work activities and that such conditions are often (not always though) anathema to top-down decision-making and control. Today (and tomorrow) too much work and decision-making takes place at the individual and group levels for the traditional hierarchy to guide effectively. It cannot be responsive enough, and the pressure for meaningful and effective decentralisation is growing. The people who control and manage the organisational hierarchy (senior management and executives) need to become more knowledgeable and more responsive to these ‘new’ conditions.
We can see the tension here as managers want workers to return to the office but are having to acknowledge that not all their employees want to do this and many prefer a hybrid model. Managers need to acknowledge this and act differently or they will lose more staff — we noted above that typically workers don’t resign because of the level of pay but because of the way they are managed. The pressures for “more social, more open, and more engaged” are on the front porch and banging on the front door, so to speak.
We are not talking about empowered as a motivational slogan. Knowledge workers everywhere want a voice in where, why and how they do their work. As has been the focus of OD for the past half-century, “managing” in today’s and tomorrow’s environment should be about ensuring strategy (direction) and intentions are understood and then letting people get on with the work. Connected and self-managed workers create and/or generate value that moves across an organisation and out into the market eco-system of that organisation, not up and down for the benefit of senior management.
The notion of wirearchy and its emphasis on flow and emergent patterns of interactivity presumes that people are aware of what is going on; this awareness is also more useful and appropriate in a gig economy where not everyone is going to be an employee of the organisation. One projection we’ve seen is that there will be more ‘giggers’ than non-gig workers in the US economy by 2027 — think about this for a moment; as this means that there will be more people engaged in short-term contracts or freelance work than are employed by organisations.
At the moment the order of two-thirds of what is called the “gig economy” is based on transport but this is expected to change as this latest disruption to the employer-employee social contract becomes more widely adopted. The US saw a 24% increase in people in the gig economy from 2019 to 2020 as a direct impact of Covid. Here there needs to be an acknowledgment that if and when gig workers support and/or revenue generation they need to be treated with the respect that you would apply to our own employees.
We have not touched on remuneration as we don’t think we could do it justice in an opinion piece and as we have noted, most people are not resigning because of money.
The Role and Impact of Location
Neil Usher has written about the Minimum Viable Workplace (MVW) on his Workessence blog. In his view just doing more of the same is not a viable option as prior to the arrival of Covid job satisfaction and workspace utilisation were around 50% pre-covid. The focus historically has been on ‘more’ but what if we changed the focus to less; ensuring what we offer is appropriate for the people, organisation, and environment ?
His suggestion is to borrow from the lean startup model of focusing on what works, is reliable, usable, and appealing, and with these, as the focus considers the amount of space, amenities, services, availability, and uniqueness that is needed, not wanted. For example, we don’t need to provide all the services as some of these are available as part of the environment of a city or region. By doing this we are also ensuring the resilience of not only the organisation but also the wider economy, the human ecosystem of interactions and services in which people live as well as work. In turn, we can see this fits nicely with the idea of a third space which we discuss below; the characteristics suit this model.
We can take this and also apply it to other locations as not everyone needs or wants to commute daily but may still benefit from having a separate working space such as a hub that is local (some people just don’t have the space either). We extend it to other locations we can see that it supports local spaces as we have removed all the baggage or ‘wants’ as Neil Usher so distinctly puts them
One idea that we have seen in the press is the idea of touch areas in gyms and other places which are aligned around the community and the type of activities. This is an extension of what we’ve already seen with creative hubs being established in certain areas but of a more generic nature and supported by traditional companies. This is being called a ‘third space’, not the home, not the office but something local which is a workspace.
When we look at this we also consider the need for privacy and the fact that open space offices were but another one-size fits all approach that completely ignores the neurological diversity that is present in the workplace in general. If we can use the opportunity to rethink this and make the workplace more practical and hospitable then that has got to be a good thing.
The Use of Platforms
Integrated software platforms have revealed the fundamental importance of how information processing is at the heart of the emergent modern interconnected economy. Based on the need to enable and support knowledge work, the development of integrated digital platforms has paved the way for the emergence of gig work and a Gig Economy. The role of the Gig Economy and its support of flexible working arrangements is not for everyone. However for a lot of creative knowledge workers it presents a real and viable alternative; they can take on pieces of work when needed and can be flexible about the hours. We have also seen the rise of online platforms where people can bid on work.
What is interesting to date is that there is no one option that is applicable to everyone and so we need to be able to have options. Organisations need to be open — with a gig-based economy their employees and contractors/freelancers need to be able to collaborate and to be able to share documents securely. This means they need to embrace platforms be it box or dropbox or something similar — the ability to share and collaborate is critical to their existence and effectiveness. It has become an existential issue that most organisations are just beginning to see and understand the scope and depth of the cumulative impacts of Covid, remote working capabilities and the emergent Gig economy.
The Role of Technology
The role technology plays and the ubiquitous nature of connectivity, video conferencing, real-time collaboration (messaging and whiteboard) and other similar capabilities means that for a lot of work we no longer need to be physically co-located. This of course puts a premium on people who understand the technology and are comfortable with it.
We are also seeing that the prices of devices reduce in real terms so that most devices are relatively cheap — a Macbook Air was around $1,600 when it was introduced in 2008, while a Macbook in 2015 was $1,300 and this trend continues. There is no excuse for organisations providing people with one-size-fits-all tools; they should be seeking to tailor the device to the needs of the individual for becoming productive as quickly and easily as possible. Providing them with work tools that have both effective function and form is important. We’ve seen one local initiative where a charity is repurposing old laptops, installing the Chrome operating system to make these web devices that support the SaaS/platform model.
Most of these devices include video and audio capability that is perfectly adequate for video conference and telephony. And if you are small you can take a mix-and-match approach using free versions of these products. It is only the larger organisations that need to licence Teams or similar. We also see that in time immersive technologies will become more available (Meta anyone?) but at the moment this is still in the emergent phase.
Instant messaging has become pervasive over the last decade — who has not encountered WhatsApp or Slack over the last couple of years, and by the way which of your kids use email? This type of technology is critical to enabling information flow within an organisation and its use has essentially become normalised for today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.
We have encountered some organisations that are still using locked-down desktops that don’t support messaging applications such as Slack. The migration of these types of organisation to hybrid work has been constrained not only by their existing policies but also by the current chip shortage which is leading to long lead times for laptops and devices in general.
Covid has demonstrated that remote working is basically viable in a knowledge economy and a hybrid model of working is set to stay, according to the Financial Times. There are major challenges such as the human need for belonging that need to be addressed to ensure the ongoing mental health of people. We believe that addressing these challenges will be critical for companies as they compete for digital talent as well as seek to retain their existing staff.
With the Millennial generation entering the workplace, having grown up with a networked society they expect the workplace to be both more democratised, more open and to have the kinds of flexibility we have described above. For the older generations of workers the disruption of Covid has shown them that there is a different and practical way of working. This is something that they would not have considered possible two short years ago.
Indeed, the pressures we have set out above that have accompanied the remote-working shift imposed by the Covid pandemic began quite some time ago. The spread and penetration of information-technology and connectivity has reinforced the advent of mass customization in many spheres of economic activity. In the discussion of the shift to remote-working and the concurrent emergence of the Gig Economy, we are experiencing another form of the mass customisation of knowledge work — My Work, My Way. We believe this is a deep cultural and values-based trend that will not disappear but only spread and develop clearer patterns as to the why, how and when of remote-working and the imperative of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Just click into the social work platform and let the virtual on-boarding begin as you figure out how you will do what you’ve been hired to do — for now.
So the debates about how we navigate the post-Covid Future of Work present an opportunity to address some of the main causes of why people leave organisations — as we have noted this is typically not because of the pay but because of the environment and culture. It is the practice of ageing management philosophy and practices that have led to the great resignation, and it is here where we see the need for a different perspective to be taken. The primary unit of knowledge work is the project team and the role of the manager should be about enabling the team to fulfil the project, not telling the team what to do in order to deliver the project’s intended results.
This is a fundamental rebalancing — one whereby flexible and responsive project teams become central to the well-being and success of the organisation.
We believe that the concept of a Minimum Viable Workplace (MVW) has utility. This can help organisations everywhere re-conceive the office environment so it becomes both viable and appropriate for a post-pandemic world and supports more localised ‘third’ spaces that offer a better work-life balance. Today the technology is there to support remote working and the immersive technologies mean that distance is no longer an issue.
People will want to work for organisations that have moved beyond command-and-control to champion-and-channel, and that values them by offering flexible arrangements and meaningful work.