Work – Portal vs. Place

We’ve spent a year now becoming adept at being remote from our workplaces and closer to our communities. A year that has accelerated what was already happening and accelerated by the exigencies of Covid-19.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Terry Pratchett Hatful of Sky

Coming back to where we started, many of us see, and importantly, feel things differently.

Over the last quarter-century, technology has given organisations the ability snd freedom to globalise. To deconstruct and move their components, from manufacturing to back-office staff, to wherever logic dictated to minimise costs and maximise efficiency. They have become virtual organisations. Along the way, the impact made the places they dispersed from work-based communities became ghost towns and commuter villages.

At the same time, the story the organisations told themselves didn’t change that much. Vision statements come and go with CEO’s, and expensive consultants fret over “employee engagement,” as though nothing much had changed really, and they were still a work-based community.

Communities are held together by powerful forces. They are, in rough order, personal conversations (when did you last chat with someone you cared for about your quarterly forecast?), laughter, play, feasting, storytelling and ritual. Think pub, football, village hall, family get-togethers, religious festivals. The fragmentation has changed the workplace as a community anchor dramatically. The recent football league episode is a good example.

Communities are not subservient. /they have a life and spirit all of their own, and more ancient languages have words that evoke that in ways that the more functional language of the workplace has lost in a dusty corner somewhere. Businesses speak results language. Poets speak of the relationships that, in the end, any sustainable business depends.

One such word is “Hierath“, a Welsh word with no direct translation that infers grief and sadness over the lost or departed. Another is Cynefin, which is about habitat, haunt, acquainted, and the familiar (and probably best known in the business world for Dave Snowden’s excellent framework around complexity). Business is very good at describing things in two-dimensional language but cannot compete with poets’ evocative three-dimensional language.

When businesses give up their role as community anchors, communities don’t roll over; they evolve. One great example is the idea of Smart Villages. Places that are taking back responsibility for their own development and away from the organisations that are now opportunist tourists more than visitors.

I find it exciting. Communities rooted in place treating organisations portals for the work they do. Community at the centre; employers as interchangeable.

It will take a while, but it’s happening.

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