Our collective experience in the pandemic created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what we want from work and our working lives. We had a chance to question many fundamental assumptions, adopt new habits, and form new narratives about how work gets done. The experience also confronted corporate leadership teams with the challenge of how they would respond. Would they stay with their old ways or embrace the opportunity to be bold and redesign systems to make working a more purposeful, productive, agile, and flexible activity?
To begin to reimagine work, you have to create a deep understanding of how your company works. And that involves developing an understanding of the different types of jobs within the business, the tasks that they involve, and the behaviors and capabilities that support productivity. But the classic description of job tasks and the related element of productivity assume an almost static process, which is essentially about the individual. In reality, people, the tasks they perform, and the jobs they do are embedded within networks of human connections. Through these connections flow knowledge, insight, and innovation. One of the major insights from the experience of the pandemic is how important these often-overlooked human connections are to organizational health and vitality. In general, networks shrank. That’s because people working from home spent more time with those they already knew well and less time with people they knew less well, and they created far fewer new friendships.
It is also important to understand networks and knowledge flows because any redesign of work can inadvertently disrupt them. It is no surprise that the potential disruption of networks and knowledge flows is at the heart of two major concerns about the redesign of work: the socialization of the young and the possibility of serendipitous encounters. We learned that lack of face-to-face connectivity was particularly tough for young people as they joined companies without being around people in an office environment. And there is widespread fear that young joiners to a firm will suffer if they work from home, as they will not be able to observe and network with more experienced members of the firm.
In addition, there’s anxiety that the watercooler conversations and serendipitous encounters that happen when people simply bump into each other will be diminished. Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, explained to me: “Exposure to new and different experiences—sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people—is a key source of creative spark. These external stimuli are fuel for our imaginations, and the imagined, made real, is what we typically mean by creativity. Home-working can starve us of many of these creative raw ingredients—the chance conversation, the new person or idea or environment. Home-working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom.”
These concerns are real and valid—and so, before decisions about the redesign of work are made, you need to have a view of the current structure of networks and knowledge flows and use it to consider how the models of the redesign of work will change them.
Tacit vs. explicit knowledge
Not all knowledge is the same. Some knowledge is explicit and objective: it’s easy to write down and access, and it moves with ease across your business. It’s carried by manuals, websites, and handbooks. In companies with a history of working virtually, much of the design of work is about making explicit as much knowledge as possible. That benefits new joiners and new team members, who can quickly get up to speed on how projects work and the skills of their colleagues.
An aerial photograph of office workers collaborating in a conference room.
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Yet much of the valuable knowledge that resides within a company is tacit knowledge: the insights, know-how, mental models, and ways of framing that are held in the minds of individuals and are part of how they see and interact with the world. Because this knowledge is held in the minds of individuals, it is much more difficult than explicit knowledge to express and codify. Indeed, there is a view that you can only really access another’s tacit knowledge when you know them and when you trust each other. So, while explicit knowledge stands outside of relationships and is codified in manuals and websites, tacit knowledge fundamentally resides within relationships.
If the nature, extent, or depth of these relationships is changed by the redesign of work, then the fear is that this precious commodity will suffer. So in the jobs that you are looking at, consider what knowledge is important to be productive in that job—how much is explicit in the sense that a new joiner could easily find this knowledge, and how much is implicit. If your proposed model of work will require more virtual working, then you need to consider investing in more knowledge-capture processes to create more explicit knowledge.
By the spring of 2020, still early in the pandemic, it became apparent that changing work patterns, and particularly working from home, were impacting the development and maintenance of human connections and networks. We quickly learned that many people were spending more of their time with people they already knew. Often these strengthening bonds turned out to be crucial to positive feelings of worth and mental health. In those tough situations, people were taking solace from their nearest and dearest.
Yet at the same time, people’s relations with their broader network of colleagues, associates, and more distant friends began to erode. Here are two comments from managers I noted in my daily journal in mid-2020—when many had already experienced six months of lockdown: “Some of the people in the team who are working from home are feeling very lonely. If they are naturally extroverts, this is really impacting their happiness and well-being”; and, from another manager: “At the moment, what really concerns me is the pressure on networks. People are getting close to each other and, frankly, that’s been a lifesaver for many over the past months. But what has happened to the watercooler moments? It’s impossible when everyone is at home to just accidentally bump into people.”
What is happening here is almost below the surface. Most of us don’t systematically track our networks, and few companies have empirical data on how knowledge flows within and across their business. Yet it is clear that if the redesign of work in your company includes changes to place and time, such as working from home or adopting a revised schedule, then this will inevitably impact networks. That’s why it is so important to understand how networks work and how your redesign ideas will change them. The networks framework below illustrates some of the key concepts.