COVID-19 was a generational opportunity for change at work – and corporate blew it

Faux flexibility – and then back in the office where we can keep an eye on you ...

Column Sent home to wait out the Omicron wave of the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, office workers throughout much of the world naturally will be wondering what comes next.

The frequently changing circumstances of the last 24 months appear to have permanently altered the character of work – but scratching the surface reveals the same old patterns dressed up in new buzzwords.

Working from home asked firms to find a new flexibility in all of their operations. So how is it that nearly every firm has found exactly the same answer? We've gone from five days in the office to three – yet those work-from-home days always seem to be Mondays and Fridays. Everyone still has to be in the office from Tuesday to Thursday, so that "teams" can stay "aligned" with the "direction" and "goals" of the organisation.

While we've clearly acquired a new respect for an embodied experience with our co-workers, and need to share some time together, why does meeting that need look the same for everyone, in every organisation? This one-size-fits-all approach does little more than replicate all of the managerial mistakes of the past – with a healthy dash of "you get to provision your home as a workspace" thrown into the mix.

It feels more like cost-cutting than flexibility, and actually diminishes worker choice. Should something arise to keep an employee away during the three "core days" – when everyone is meant to be present and accounted for – the façade of flexibility quickly falls away, revealing the same old rigid and controlling organisation.

What do you really want?

Plenty of organisations heralded the arrival of the "hybrid" worker: ready and able to work from home, within the office, or pretty much anywhere else, at any time, on any project. That pipedream imploded when it hit the coalface of management practice, with its over-reliance on neatly specified roles, capacities and schedules.

Mouthing smart-sounding phrases like "outcomes over output", corporate leaders conveniently forgot to send the memo down the hierarchy. Nor did they give managers the kind of training and skills needed to negotiate with a highly dynamic workforce – capable of being adaptive, yet completely constrained by management processes unchanged for generations.

Organisations often claim they desire a deep transformation, until they get a glimpse of the price tag: a redistribution of power. A truly hybrid organisation doesn't command its employees – it co-designs its direction, goals and processes with them.

But this leaves those in power feeling as though they've lost power. So it falls over at the first gate, because – far more than money – organisations have always been about power. Any organisational change that touches on anyone's power meets resistance. A change this big – touching nearly every aspect of how the organisation operates – hits a brick wall.

In the next few months, as we once again crawl out of our COVID-19 bunkers to greet the world, many organisations will immediately withdraw any of their imagined "flexibility". Employees will be back in the office for the same three days a week. Projects will go on as before. Power will radiate from the top down. All will be well in the world – until the next crisis.

The missed opportunity of fundamental change will visit every organisation that went rigid when it could have bent in the breeze. It's not about working from home – it's about who gets to decide who's working where, on what, and to what end. Until we grasp this as the real meaning of "flexibility" organisations will remain trapped in an endless repetition of power politics that are no longer fit for purpose. ®

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