the future of work: organizing around ideas instead of location

One of the most interesting innovations to come out of the coronavirus crisis (and it seems that nothing ever changes unless there is a crisis) is that the myth of location has been dispelled – we no longer need to gather in the same physical space in order to do much work.

Sure, there is plenty of work that requires being in the same physical location. There is nothing to be done about that type of work – the work will always be done in person. However, there is plenty of work that was able to morph into remote work over the last 18 months. Many companies found that they would still be able to operate when their employees worked from home or in other locations. There was no need for individuals who are working together to be physically located in the same place.

What does this mean? The Great Resignation. Employees are taking back their power from their employers. Why are many companies now asking for their employees to return to the office? Haven’t the last 18 months proven that much of the work can be done remotely?

During my time in the Stanford GSB program, my classmates and I put together a study on all of the aspects of remote work. In all but a single area, the ability to serendipitously overhear or connect with projects and colleagues in the office was the only real loss from remote work. From improving employee health and wellness (from removing the soul-crushing commute) to reducing carbon emissions through reduced traffic to accelerating new models of work to globalizing the talent market, to reducing companies spend on the lease/purchase or maintenance of a commercial building an infrastructure, remote work is far and away from a preferable work mode.

In the past, we organized around a location. You had to be in Silicon Valley to be part of Silicon Valley. Now, you can organize ideas instead of the location. Work becomes project-based.

There is a model for this already – the movie industry. When a film project is born, all of the players required to make the film happen come together – the producer lines up actors, staff, and all of the required individuals to write the scripts, shoot the film, edit it, record the music, and complete it. Once the film is done, the company disbands, and the workers can go off and do other films. In a sense, this is an example of organizing around an idea instead of a location or a company.

The pandemic showed that we can work organized by idea instead of the location. From the worker’s perspective, it’s a win-win – they get to live wherever they wish to and continue to produce quality work. It should be the same for the employer. However, many are trying to force their employees back to the office, when clearly they were able to effectively work from anywhere.

Why is this? You would think that employers would have realized that their employees, once they had been able to deal with family issues such as childcare and schooling, should be content to allow their employees to stay remote. Even savvy employers like Google have issued instructions to their employees to return to the office.

Unfortunately, it will be the employer’s loss. As more and more employers attempt to force workers back to the office, more and more of them will realize that their employer is no longer their ideal employer, and will pick another one – one more receptive to organizing by ideas instead of the location.

In fact, I posit that this is the true future of work, each of us working on multiple projects, all of which are chosen because they interest us instead of for the money. We are compelled to join employers on projects because we love the work, not because we have to work to pay for an $800,000 box beside the BART station.

The future of work is organizing around ideas and projects, not locations and employers. The sooner that employers understand that, the sooner the Great Resignation will be over.


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