By Laurie Aznavoorian
My mother used to say if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all. As a rebellious teen and know it all young adult I rarely followed her advice, but now well into older ‘ahem’ adulthood I finally have. I haven’t posted for over a year because with the pandemic, fires, floods, wars and the erosion of democracy and truth, not to mention the death of Wally Cleaver so soon after Eddie Haskell, there wasn’t anything good to say. I feel differently now, don’t get me wrong there still isn’t anything nice happening, but there is plenty to say.
In March I departed a 30+ year career to pursue a PhD at the University of Melbourne. The degree sits in the faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning with an overlap into human sciences but unlike America, advanced degrees in Australia are research based so I don’t attend classes. As a first year a PhD candidate I spend my time reading everything to be found on my research topic, the impact of physical environment on human behaviours and the role that plays in decision making, and I do a lot of thinking, pontificating, and pipe smoking wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches.
I’ve done so much I feel it would be inhuman not to share my learnings and vow to return to frequent posting. You can thank an abundance of time and absence of timesheets for this head space to ponder the meaning of 1960’s American sitcoms. Valuable life lessons were imparted in shows like Mr Ed, Leave it to Beaver and The Beverly Hillbillies, but today I will focus on Green Acres and the parallels one can draw between that and the current lame rollout of hybrid working.
Recognising many of you are still required to fill in timesheets and don’t have the luxury to rewatch 1960’s television, I’ll offer a quick snapshot. Green Acres is about a prominent and wealthy New York City attorney, Oliver, fulfilling his dream to be a farmer, and Lisa his glamorous Hungarian wife, uprooted unwillingly from an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment to a dilapidated farm. Oliver does his chores in a suit and drives a Lincoln Continental convertible. Instead of washing dishes, Lisa sometimes tosses them out the kitchen window.
They don’t understand country life, perhaps you can see the connection? The first problem with hybrid began when we imparted an office pathology to a completely different medium that would have been better off without it. In the same way it is silly and very funny to transpose city life to the country, one should not plop the office and all of its crap into people’s homes. That’s not even funny.
The early days of the great hybrid experiment not only exposed but transported the toxicity and all that was broken in the office: the wasted time, unproductive meetings and larping directly to your residence. Larping is a character-driven type of gameplay conducted in the real world, guys (yes mostly men ) dress in character and wack each other over the head with foam swords.
Applied to work larpers are tossers who want to make sure everyone knows they are there and doing something useful. They used to say dumb things in meetings and now they say dumb thing on Slack, Teams, or Email. Either way they are a waste of time.
Now that we are allowed back in the office, the same make-believe role playing is being applied to Hybrid work. There is no shortage of debates about the number of Zoom rooms, days various teams will be in the office and lots of stupid talk about what a good idea it is to have a book club to reinforce company culture. It is not, that is a foam sword.
Planning hybrid requires deep thought to move forward with design intentionality, but instead we’re shovelling shit in a Brooks Brothers suit using a foam shovel. There is a lot of noise around what to do in physical workplaces when there should be noise about what we are really doing. I’ll bet you’re staring at a screen right now, I’ll bet that is what you spent much of your workday doing and what you did last week, last year, last decade. Isn’t it time we acknowledge the table has turned and work happens in technology, it is the PLACE. The physical workplace is one of many enablers.
Many reading this will be sputtering about how great physical presence is for collaboration, culture and the absolute necessity of being together for intense creative brainstorming. It’s a valid point, but when our offices were boarded up, we continued to innovate digitally (except for those who shirked quarantine restrictions to sneak to the office) and university design courses continued to be taught using Teams and Miro. We figured out new ways, all I am saying is it is undeniable – the pandemic busted many great myths of the past and that we should get ready and aim before we fire.
It would be unfair not to point out well documented positive sides of hybrid such as flexibility and the way it opened doors to greater inclusion. But you could have learned that watching Green Acres. Arnold Ziffel is a pig who understands English, lives indoors, watches Westerns on TV and attends the local primary school. In one episode they wanted to get him into Harvard, which gives me great hope for my cat Saucy Pissweak. The point is the town views Arnold as human, but Oliver only sees livestock. Similarly, in a digital environment you don’t know if you’re talking to a person or a pig, could be both.
Hybrid in its current form is a great start and research makes it clear that hybrid is not going away despite the desires of stale, grey, pale, males who lead companies. But is this current state really the template for the future? Shouldn’t our future begin with an investigation of the inherent flaws in the ideology of the office and phenomenology of work past. Shouldn’t we look at issues through the eyes of the people who use space, study their needs, pains, and expectations instead of porting old mentalities and slightly tweaked but obsolete physical environments into the future.