We seem conditioned to value the visible result over the long preparatory process, the house over the foundations, the gain earned – no matter how trivial – over the pain avoided – no matter how great.
A friend from China used to work in supply chain management. She has exceptional procurement skills, and saved her company millions of dollars. Her achievements barely received acknowledgement. Meanwhile, when the sales team brought in a few hundred thousands in contracts, everybody cheered. Eventually, she quit.
A balance sheet has two sides, income and expenses. Yet the dominant wisdom I absorbed from business people is, focus on income. The Business Model Canvas presents elegant symetry between cost and revenue structure, but most of the tips and case studies I read celebrate clever ways of bringing in more money.
In our age of abundance, we do not value temperance. There may be reason for it. After all, a danger avoided offers no chance for heroics. After complex research, modelling and bargaining, we did not incur a certain sum – but were we ever going to pay that much? The risk did not manifest, was it through complex strategy, or pure luck? And who can tell if it was ever even present? My sale, however, the crisis I solved, the monster I slayed, that’s concrete, and should be dutifully rewarded.
Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.
The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.
It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.
What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people? Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.
Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.
We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:
- Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
- Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
- Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
- Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast.
- Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.
When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.
Please, feel free to share reflections here!