We are in the present. That position is seen as an inferior place to be. Instead, we are endlessly future focused, oftentimes prompted to design a future into which we are expected to leap.
When tasked with that design, we are tacitly instructed to see the past as a negative hinterland, somewhere where things were not quite right, and our present is a mere stepping stone between “then” and “soon”. We are left breathless as we are ceaselessly thrown forward, barely given time to gather our thoughts. There is little nostalgia in management theory and practice.
I sat in on an exceptionally wearisome virtual presentation the other day, entitled The New Workplace and the Future of Work. It was delivered by one of those “architectural theorists”. They seem as though they’re saying something profound about the inter-relatedness of socio-cultural issues and the built environment…but actually, all they offer is half-baked ideas delivered via visually shiny vehicles. (Think Rem Koolhaas, for example, when envisaging this type of sophistry.)
The speaker had entertained us with some verbal gymnastics – discussing the office of the future as a network that might be better thought of as a worknet; so far, so humdrum – and was tugging her thinking back towards the capitalist bottom line, the better to schmooze the corporate drones in the audience.
She then portentously announced the following rhetorical question, amply demonstrating the type of shoddiness that is to be found in much of the business thinking we endure today:
How are we going to learn from yesterday to create a tomorrow that is better than today?
How, indeed, insofar as that construct ties us into knots, whilst at the same time devaluing all that we have lived through and casting aspersions on the quality of our everyday. It seemed to be something to do with the “worknet”, which derived from a clunky application of network theory to the fact that I’m having to do my work in my house at present, that I connect with technology, and that I might end up working in cafes and suchlike in due course.
This thinking around time and our experience of it organisationally reflects some of the work that I am doing with my colleague John Higgins, as we work together on a book that seeks to move upstream to the headwaters of management thinking. But I open with this to remind us that – particularly at times like this – we need to be aware of our presence in a present – and apply our critical thinking in that context.
We do this not to craft a comprehensive understanding of our current position. No analysis in the moment can be truly exhaustive. Nor are we seeking to learn lessons, the better to design the future.
We are merely applying our consciousness and critical faculties to our existence at a point in time and space that ceaselessly nudges forward, carrying us with it. We shape that present – and, in shaping it, work together with others to shape the course of the stream of life in which all humankind stands. We are – as it is sometimes suggested – creating a statue, wherein we are at the same time both the rock and the sculptor.
My personal present
This temporal mindset – poor past, pointless present and fabulous future – is being amplified in our current circumstances. The constant focusing on the future – where we can settle into a “new or next normal” – is the dominant response to the rupture that we are enduring in the here and now. And woven into that response is a boundless optimism that the normal to which we are supposedly journeying will be significantly better than that from which we are travelling.
Aside from the slipperiness of any of these notions when trying reflexively to make sense of our lived experiences as human beings, this looks more and more like wishful thinking. On my morning walk recently, I came upon this strewn all over the countryside,
It seems as though our fetishized consumerism as a society is worsened rather than improved. The present seems to offer licence to return to old ways – and, at the same time, to disregard some of the key basic precepts that previously prevailed, such as the essential notion that we work together to try to maintain a pleasant environment for everybody.
Thus, we find our forests decorated with macabre ornaments, little black plastic sacks of dog shit thrown into the trees – and our parkland once again punctuated with piles of crap that owners no longer feel obliged to pick up. And the littering grows worse as the constraints that have existed over recent months are gradually loosened, as this ensemble of images depressingly seems to show,
Our present is the issue that needs to be addressed. Instead, we are endlessly prompted to look to the future – and our vision is distorted by the idea of progressive betterment that haunts our understanding of human time. And so – as we opt to stop “following medical science” (a notion replete with myriad complications in itself) in favour of chasing the “dismal science” of capitalist economics – we default to that which we have always done.
We could, of course, be seeing this as a time when we could collectively act on the warnings we have all heard about endlessly pursuing growth and of building an economic system on consumption of finite resources and the sweated labour of a globalised workforce. Instead, this is what we opt to do with our changing present,
“Business as usual”
This, then, is a somewhat bleak take on what we can see happening in our present – and how it stands in sharp contrast to the hyperbole about a drastically different future. It leads me to revisit Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, as a means of making sense of how these wasteful and unsustainable patterns of consumption persist.
But what of the excited buzz about the reformed workplace? In all honesty, the present suggests that, despite what is being said about there being no way back to where we were previously, often encapsulated in the crude observation that we will be unable to put the genie back in the bottle, the genie never really fully escaped. And our wishes are unlikely to be granted.
A recent meeting I participated in around parents and flexible working saw a strong focus on the light in terms of the content that was offered – but the shadow ominously appeared in the chat box, as participant after participant spoke candidly of the practical cultural challenges of trying to work from home in this new context when – at the very same time – expectations of “busyness” and the old notions of what productivity looks like persist.
Hence, we are all mindful of the message that enjoys amplification in our present circumstance, namely that we are relishing the release from restraint in respect to time and space when we consider how we choose presently to work. Cheerleading for this new way of working is now nested in the wider business discourse of so-called empowerment, the neoliberal notion of the “entrepreneurial self”, and a notion commitment to equity.
Yet behind the clatter and clamour of this tinny message of positivity there sits a more negative picture, wherein research seems to show a darker side to homeworking, in which work is intensified; there is digital presenteeism, and our voices in the workplace are reduced. That’s not to say that some have not derived betterment from the new circumstances: it’s merely to remind us that actively accentuating the positive can serve to obscure the negative (even in circumstances where the the latter overshadows the former).
In the present, we should all be acutely attentive to the linked issues of race and rank. Events recently have opened a space in which a national – indeed, a global – conversation has the potential to develop, as we reflect on the import of asserting that black lives matter. But this is merely a potential, at present, rather than an actuality. Energies are turned towards gestures and actions which express people’s frustrations and beliefs – but the responsibility to take these issues seriously through meaningful dialogue that centres on all of our lived experience remains outwith these activities.
Importantly, though, it is necessary to bear in mind that we will exploring this dialogue in the context of a capitalist system – and that this fact needs to be made integral to the conversation. And, in that respect, it is equally vital that we acknowledge the harsh fact that at root no lives matter in global capitalism: we are interchangeable elements of an interconnected machinery of production and consumption, mere human resources (or, at worse, “human capital”) rather than individuals who are seeking to sustain themselves through meaningful work.
This is the brute reality that is unchanged by no amount of superficial adjustment of our presence in the workplace. Hence, the grandiloquent observations about a new type of future – so beloved of the professional services companies, who are churning out what looks to be great oceans of material that, in reality, is so lacking in depth that it is actually an enormous and uninteresting paddling pool – offer bland reassurances that, with a little consideration (and a chunk of costly consultancy), it will be possible for capitalist enterprises to preserve the best of the past and combine it with the best that has derived from the crisis.
Whose “best” from the past will be sustained – and which of the perceived responses to circumstance will be deemed to be “best” – is a question that reaches beyond mere semantics into the murky realm of power. And, notwithstanding the tired old saw about us all being in this together, it would seem apparent that the perception of “best” on the shop floor may not be the same as that in the boardroom.
Refusing the repair of the rupture
Much is made of the disruption that we have experienced recently, as all of the above suggests. But, for me, the idea of disruption is one in which some significant shift or alteration occurs in the present that carries with it a sense of permanency. Hence, I can think of one disruption that occurred at a very personal level for me in the course of a psycho-therapeutic relationship: as I spoke in the consulting room, I came to a deeply impactful conclusion that literally meant that I was unexpectedly a different person leaving the session than I had been on arrival.
Our present circumstances feel more like a rupture. A stress in the fabric of our collective lives has caused a number of seemingly positive things to burst through, things that there seems to be a consensus that we would like to preserve. But then I am reminded of this tree that I see when I walk with my family through a nearby nature reserve,
Despite having been drastically uprooted and knocked down, the tree persists. There has been change to the tree over time as a result of this moment of calamity – but it remains a tree, somewhat adjusted but fundamentally the same as it was before. Hence, the scene creates an illusion of shift and change, whilst – at the same time – underscoring for us the inescapable notion that there is an innate immutability in such circumstances.
Hence, for me, our present feels less of a disruption – a change from which it will be nigh on impossible to step back – and more like a rupture, wherein something bursts into our present, noisily acknowledged, and then surreptitiously undergoes repair so as to restore it but maintain the impression of looking new. Hence, as we see at this time, the rupture sees declarations about the end of the office and the arrival of genuinely flexible working. Superficially, this appears to be the case, as the celebrants of these supposed changes ceaselessly point to the light whilst pointedly ignoring the shadow.
Similarly, the rupture seems to offer meaningful social change in response to global protests – but much of it is being conducted in the realm of the symbolic rather than deep in the warp and weft of day to day human existence. Hence, Nike’s corporate communications after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis should be judged alongside its familiar business practice, which sees the company constantly seeking out the cheapest labour across the globe.
We need to guard against being transfixed by that which seems positive in and of itself – but which is less alluring when viewed in the overall socio-economic context and which is also extremely susceptible to repair if business circumstances dictate (as inevitably they will).
In all of this, then, it is vital that we attend to the simple fact that the tree has toppled – but it remains a tree as it continues to grow, albeit at a slightly different angle. Unless we work below the surface to finally uproot it, that is how it will always be.