History Lessons

My career only began because I sat in an office with other people.

I was only there as a temp to do some admin. I wasn’t there to deal with clients, but I was curious, I listened to what was going on  and asked lots of questions.

After a few weeks, I knew more than enough to be able to answer the phones when it was busy and deal with client queries. They said it would be a shame to lose me at the end of my contract and offered me a job, which is how my career in BT started.

The benefits of being in an office, building relationships, informal learning, making you own opportunities. You’d think I’d be a big advocate of returning to the office, right? Sitting in an office amongst others was absolutely key to my career.

Fast forward 10 years. I’’m heading up a team of product managers based in central London. Our HQ has moved outside London and our operations are in North London. Arranging an in-person product team meeting is a major logistical exercise, so I call them sparingly.

I’m also in a Global Product Team, run out of San Francisco office and includes people in Ipswich and Paris. In-person meetings are expensive and difficult to arrange.

Fortunately, I manage the Email Products group, so we use that to work asynchronously, sharing documents and having email conversations. We supplement this with audio conferences (think Zoom with all the cameras off).

With my laptop and modem, I work from anywhere I can find a phone socket (wifi is not a thing yet). I’m only at my office a couple of days a week and rarely have meetings there.

Today, we’d call that working in Distributed Teams. Some people were co-located but most of the time we worked in separate offices, divisions, even countries. We had to go to offices for the network and tech to connect but those offices could be pretty much anywhere.

In that 10 years, it wasn’t just the technology that changed (from mini-computers to laptops!), it was the way that we worked. From synchronous, in-person, face-to-face to asynchronous, distributed, online. That was the key difference.

Now, all the things we went to an office for are available anywhere with a laptop, a mobile and a wifi connection.

40 years ago, we had to go to offices between 9 and 5 to work. We were tied place and time, we had to be there when other were. My lesson was that offices were essential.

30 years ago, we were still partly tied to geography but could already work untethered from time and the need to be synchronous and in-person. My lesson was that offices were not essential.

Today, we’re completely untethered from geography and can work from anywhere at any time. My lesson is that offices are unnecessary.

Organisations that are struggling with ‘Hybrid’ are still wedded to time and place. They are still predominantly synchronous, in-person and face-to-face. The solution to make ‘Hybrid’ work is to become asynchronous, distributed and digital.

That’s today’s lesson from history. 

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