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Reconnecting with Work

By Simon Wakeman



Reconnection with work is a post-pandemic experience that many people will share. Corporate and household economics have dictated a rapid shift from the instability of pandemic working to new working arrangements and emerging norms. Yet we should pause and reflect on what workers are reconnecting with. What is work and what are the networks within which we perform activity that we call work? How are these changing and what might this mean for the organisational constructs we use to bring people together?


It’s too easy to characterise pre-pandemic working as being an office based activity, defined by physical co-location and face to face interactions, followed by a period of enforced home working and then a reflexive snap back to somewhere between these two states. But this fails to look below the surface about how collective and individual pandemic experiences have changed what work means. At an individual level, work appears superficially as a transactional activity; the exchange of mainly time-based labour for reward. However, this view is reductive, relegating the role of workers to something akin to assembly line components in a Taylorist factory, dehumanising those involved almost entirely. For many people their work is intrinsically bound up with perceptions of identity and status. How often do people define themselves by their job title or the type of work they do? While we can debate how healthy this may be, it remains clear that the pandemic disturbed many unconscious norms of identity and status associated with work.


During the pandemic our humanity at work was constrained through a small video window on our colleagues’ screens. We interacted with each other to get work done functionally but with much of the humanity that differentiated us from deepfake avatars in a workplace simulation stripped away. What we lost in the extended periods of pandemic-era remote working became clear to many. The value of the human face to face interactions, the importance of unplanned and unexpected encounters and the value of having space in schedules to reflect and recharge. The visible signs and unseen indicators of workplace status disappeared overnight, disturbing decades of hidden unconscious patterns at work that we were all complicit in maintaining. As we explore what reconnection with work means, we are all part of an unplanned and unpredictable journey into future work. Reeling from the unspoken impacts of pandemic working, we are experiencing unfamiliar levels of instability. Recession, inflation and major war dominate the headlines.


Reconnection is a process, not a moment. For some the pandemic forced some hard truths about relationships with work. Priorities were rebalanced away from work, leading to people reconsidering work choices they never consciously made before. But to consider reconnection with work purely as an individual endeavour is an oversight. How we work together needs consideration too. Organisations are a key building block of how we create contexts for people to work together within. They are conceptual and legal containers in which people assemble, organise and collaborate to get work done. They exist because we’ve learnt it’s more efficient to use organisations than to work independently when the work that needs doing needs more than one of us, whether through scale or specialisation. Leaders in organisations need to explore what post-pandemic reconnection with work means for their organisations, looking beyond surface-level questions about hybrid working and new types of office furniture. To maintain the role of organisations as the convening force for people doing work, deep reflection is needed into the conscious and unconscious motivators for work. How have these changed during the pandemic and what does this mean for how we design and operate organisations?


"Reconnection is a process, not a moment. For some the pandemic forced some hard truths about relationships with work. Priorities were rebalanced away from work, leading to people reconsidering work choices they never consciously made before"

Individual agency is a useful lens through which to consider these powerful forces for change. In society we see an externally-focussed drive for individual agency and expression, supercharged by social media, which displaces many prior subjugations of individual identity to workplace identities. The boundaries have blurred more than ever and the concept of individual influence is now dominant. New forms of organisation need to emerge fast. What worked before won’t work now. For many people, their workplace reconnection with their pre-pandemic organisation is jarring and painful. They are consciously different humans, trying to fit into organisational constructs designed for the people they were before 2020. To see where this process of reconnection with workplace organisations is heading, we need to look more widely at where humans convene. We need to look at different organisations that emerge virtually to see what these changes might mean, not simply recycle old thinking that we see deployed in large organisations.


"For many people, their workplace reconnection with their pre-pandemic organisation is jarring and painful. They are consciously different humans, trying to fit into organisational constructs designed for the people they were before 2020"

Innovation is happening at the edge. It’s messy, chaotic and emergent, but it gives us pointers to where reconnection with organisations might lead. For example the emergence of Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) in the world of Web3 might be a pointer to new organisational forms for the mainstream in future years. DAOs have no central authority, enable individual autonomy and embody radical transparency. Every aspect of their creation, operation and transactions is visible to people working within them. They function as organisational containers in which individual agency is enabled, while maintaining coherency and governance that organisations need.


Is having the right and the means to meaningfully participate in the running of a workplace organisation needed for a meaningful reconnection with work? What support do people need to be able to understand their conscious and unconscious patterns of thought to be able to be effective in the new world of work? The process of reconnection with work is well underway, but has no discernible end. As long as humans adapt, so will the ways they will come together to work.

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