It took me about a week at my first job to make me conclude that there was something wrong with the way people worked. It was 1992 and I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had freedom and flexibility — in retrospect, an arts degree at Cambridge University is a great example of a progressive and nurturing working environment (without the pay).
You have deliverables — an essay a week — but nobody cares how, where or when you did the work, so long as you handed in your essay the night before the supervision with your teacher. We were trusted to work, and encouraged do other things we’d enjoy — play a sport, act in a play, write for the university newspaper. That was part of being well-rounded — making us happy and better able to do the work. There was also a pastoral care component, where regular meeting to check in with us and see how things were going in a holistic way (not just talking about grades).
So I’d worked hard and got a good degree, but now I was out in the real world. I got a job at a communications company producing newspapers and publications for government departments and large organizations — this was in the days before the internet, so we wrote and printed a tabloid-sized monthly newspaper for London’s water company (now it would be content marketing and social media).
It was a good job for a fledgling writer, but it was 9–5, Monday to Friday, with a 30–40 minute commute at either end of the day. From the beginning, there were problems. I couldn’t be productive for that many hours straight (who can?), and I couldn’t understand why the shops were even open, since everyone with any money was stuck in their jobs the whole time. I also hated the structure, the crushing sense of inevitability that I knew where I’d be every day for the foreseeable future.
It was a huge step back from the freedom and flexibility of Cambridge — it felt like being back at a really bad high school. I got my head down and did the work, but all the time I was thinking, ‘this is what grown-ups are supposed to do for 40 years?’
I lasted around a year before running off to Dublin to do a Masters degree.
There has to be a better way
Fast forward to the present day. I’m 43, living in the Southwest of the U.S. with my wife and daughter. Over the years, I’ve worked in a range of jobs, from fast-paced Silicon Valley tech companies, to researching and writing my own book; from working on communications for non-profits to running my own web design and content firm.
Through it all, that sense continued that there had to be a better way to work than the industrial-era model of clocking in and out, showing up to an office and playing the role of the obedient employee. And I’m not alone: for a lot of people, it’s not the work itself, but the daily grind of meetings, presenteeism, minimal vacation time (I’m looking at you, America), commutes, and inflexible arrangements that grinds us down. The average worker puts in too many hours, is disengaged and unhealthy.
But the good news is that an increasing amount of research and the examples of progressive organizations are showing that there is a better way — approaches that are more productive, make employees healthier and happier, and are more environmentally sound. As William Gibson says, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — there’s a huge gap between what we know works and what most organizations are still doing. And in this gap millions of people are toiling away unnecessarily when they could be following a much richer path.
I call this better way Future Work, and this blog is the Future Work Report. I gather research, interviews, news and thoughts from progressive people all over the world, combined with my own insights and experiences, to help us all move towards future work.