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The brave, new world of work

Strategy+business contributors have been doing some deep thinking on the seismic changes that have shaken offices—and home offices—over the past two years.

To say that the way we’re working is changing is one of the great understatements of our age. I’m not just talking about learning to add cool Zoom backgrounds and figuring out when to stop responding to emails. (I try to draw the line at 6 p.m.)

No, the way we think about the very meaning of work, and how to maintain balance, health, and energy while doing it, is a hot topic of conversation—in the workplace and in the pages of s+b. At times, it seems as if it is the only topic of conversation. To be sure, the ongoing pandemic has a lot to do with this, but so, too, do forces like technology, globalization, and evolving consumer habits.

At work, disruptions and innovations have always tended to pile atop one another (fax, email, conference calls, the web, “telecommuting”), and people adjust on the fly. But the organizational contexts in which workers operate—the ways we organize, and the bureaucracies and systems we set up to get the work done—tend to evolve much more slowly. Helping to close the gap between what exists and what is needed has inspired a rich vein of articles in s+b in recent weeks.

It’s incumbent upon us, as leaders and readers, to get ahead of systemic changes. In an article published last month, PwC’s Bhushan Sethi, Blair Sheppard, and Nicole Wakefield describe the four key forces shaping workforce strategy: specialization, scarcity, rivalry, and humanity. As important, they offer some pointed advice to leaders on how to harness those four forces to inform their plans.

The recent disruptions to the physical workplace have highlighted the importance of the human connections that people make on the job. In an excerpt from her new book, Redesigning Work, Lynda Gratton of the London Business School plays off an insight made nearly 50 years ago by sociologist Mark Granovetter. Granovetter famously discussed the difference between “weak” and “strong” social ties and showed that, when it came to finding jobs, weak ties (the loose acquaintances with whom you might occasionally exchange an email but don’t know well) could actually be quite powerful. Gratton applies this thinking to the way that networks are formed on the job, and to how people organize to get their work done, get new information, and innovate. She concludes that, especially in an age of remote and hybrid work, companies have to redouble their efforts to ensure that employees are able to establish and mine the power of weak ties. For Gratton, the ability to create such connections is a must-have.

Workplace must-haves are the subject of an article by Earl Simpkins, Brandon Rapp, and Varun Bhatnagar of Strategy&, PwC’s consulting business. The authors identify the increasingly urgent need for businesses to focus on the “nonnegotiables,” the facets of the work experience that all employees demand. While nonnegotiables may differ from organization to organization, the authors argue convincingly that it is useful for companies to break them down into four major categories: individual, team, customer, and community.

When you’re always at home—as has been the case for many remote workers over the past two years—it can be difficult to draw the formerly bright line between work and personal life. Now more than ever, people have to engage in the often challenging task of drawing boundaries. In an article published in February, Liz Sweigart, a former PwC principal, and clinical psychologist Dana Gionta note the importance of establishing psychological boundaries in the workplace. “Although it is a critical piece of interpersonal know-how,” they write, “the skill of boundary setting is rarely taught either in school or at work.”

‘The skill of boundary setting is rarely taught either in school or at work,’ observe s+b contributors Liz Sweigart and Dana Gionta.

Where is the office, anyway? Many of us work in what journalist and author Julia Hobsbawm calls the “Nowhere Office.” In an article that draws insights from her book of the same name, Hobsbawm argues that remote-work policies should be less focused on precisely where people work and more focused on who is doing the work—and what stage of their lives they find themselves in. The workers Hobsbawm calls “learners”—typically young recent graduates—may find it important to be in a physical office. “Leavers,” experienced workers who tend to work on a freelance or contingent basis, may be content to come to an informal gathering place every now and then. As for “leaders”? They need to work harder than ever to get in touch with the human needs of their colleagues—and, as Hobsbawm puts it, “listen and learn more, and impose outdated algorithm-led monitoring and appraisal techniques less.”

That’s solid advice, no matter where your “office” happens to be.

Daniel Gross

Daniel Gross is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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