Dragging Workplaces back to the 1760s – the Work In Office Dilemma and the Productivity Myth

In the 1760s Josiah Wedgwood changed forever the nature of workplaces. He expanded his pottery business and constructed a new large scale factory that required two critical elements:
a) Systemisation of processes to ensure consistent high-quality outcomes
b) Skilled workers on site

The systemisation required experimentation, observation, trials, failures and recording of data – what we now refer to as Research and Development. That was something largely within Wedgwood’s control. But what he didn’t have was a mass of skilled labour. For that, he devised a new approach.

The classical ‘Master and Apprentice’ model would not deliver the skills at the speed and mass, so he created a new role in which the ‘master’ rather than teach one, or two apprentices, would instead teach a line of workers. The Master would stand behind a worker and tell them what to do, and where needed, show them how to throw a clump of clay, how to turn a wheel, how to carve, shape and mold a form into a the beginnings of something beautiful. That role as ‘overseer’ meant Wedgwood gained access to a rapid uptake of skills using a process of workflow that enabled a skilled tradesman (all men back then) to look over the shoulders of workers at their pottery wheels and ensure processes were being followed.

The ‘overseer’ was born. In other parts of the world that term took on more sinister meaning.

Over the centuries that overseer role in Wedgwood 1760’s factory has morphed into what is amusingly called ‘management’ but the process is EXACTLY the same. A manager stands behind the desks of workers and convinces themselves that worker is being productive. For over 15 years the Future of Work has been a theme in my strategic futures consulting. I dubbed the current approach the ‘hairy eyeballs’ model. Provided a manager can see a whole heap of hair (people stifled at a desk) they believe good work is being done.

The Process of work – that which Wedgwood was intensely interested in, NO LONGER sits as the remit of middle managers, certainly not inside Human Resources departments or CEOs or CFOs. We have mistakenly chosen activity over productivity. We know this because there is a push right now to ‘get everyone back in the office’.

The sheer folly, the galling stupidity of that thinking should see the immediate removal of HR Directors and CEOs across the country. Simply put, the facts of Working From Home and the increase in productivity belie the myth that only office based workers can be productive. During covid lockdowns a vast number of companies saw profitability go UP – why? Because 40-60% of their workforce who CANNOT BE EFFECTIVE IN THE RATS IN A MAZE WORKPLACES were suddenly untethered from their rats in a maze seats and allowed to get on with getting the work done.

In March 2020 I wrote that many Property owners were about to become price takers because CFO’s will start to look at their empty rental office and ask why they would be spending the money, when work was still being done with an empty office space. The push toward ‘return to the workplace’ has vested interests all over it and none of it has any interest in what is good for the company or the workforce.

WFH, works. It’s freed up a whole heap of workers who prior to shut downs and an enforced work-from-home regime, were not accessible to workplaces. The travel costs, and time of work blocks just made it unviable to work. Here’s the rather indelicate message – those workers, by and large, are women.

Forget about the environmental benefits of less peak hour car traffic. Forget about the lower costs of office rental and the direct positive growth of the bottom line profit as a result. Forget about the improved mental health. Forget about the proven negative impact on  person’s blood pressure when they’ve spent just 40 minutes in peak hour traffic (productive workers anyone?!). Forget all that and just remember this – those who are insisting on a return to the workplace are most likely to be MEN who have no clue whatsoever about what enables a positive working environment for women.

The call for a return to Work from the Office is a call for a return to Wedgwood 1760’s factory. It’s time Australian workplaces grew up.

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