Why this all has to happen

I could have just left it all alone. Not bothered, I could have assumed my place in the exacerbated sense of post-pandemic powerlessness and sought to minimise the damage until habituated. I could have chucked another compliant and well-organised text into the overcrowded melee, hacked a few talks on the back of it, spun a few posts to be washed away in the torrent of over-authenticity, as is the fashion, and made and lost a few friends in the process. That’s the way of things as a business author, after all. But I didn’t. Not this time, anyway.

Authors are always asked why they wrote a book. There must have been a specific stimulus, or why would we have ever cranked up the word processor for another bout of tormented soul searching and self-doubt? They usually pre-empt the question with a Preface. Get out ahead of it. They thank a few people, and dedicate it to the folk on the receiving end of the greatest amount of tormented soul searching and self-doubt. And that’s that.

Yet with Unf*cking Work it simply felt like it was time. The reasons had always lurked, through thirty years of labour, mostly within large corporates, in an industry that has largely been kind to me, allowed me a contribution and a voice. Work itself, however, has constantly fascinated and tormented at both a philosophical and practical level. Not just for me personally, but in observing and interacting with those around me. Two literary influences stood out through all this time: Marx and his regret at our being forced into a “particular, exclusive sphere of activity” and Roethke’s poem, Dolor, with its “inexorable sadness of pencils” devastatingly capturing the spirit of my first full time job.

With one of my collaborators on the book, Perry, we would often wonder how satisfying it would feel to blow it all up. But however satisfying, not to leave it at that, to rebuild it, too. Without any constraint, self-imposed (more often), or otherwise. Led by our emotion. So, quite simply, when it felt right, we thought we’d have a go.

To that urge to try and genuinely change something, there were four key — and related — drivers that I recognise only now, after the fact. At the time, there wasn’t any rationale. We just started with a target list of bullshit. Two glorious A4 pages. That was the original plan for the book, and so it remained throughout. Some got written, some were superseded. Structure was for other books.

Firstly, amid the almost exclusively white, male, middle-aged obsession with the ‘future of work’ lies a more enduring and taxing problem than the consequence-free postulating of trends would recognise: the now of work. That with which we have to contend daily. I’ve long argued that we can’t attain a beneficial future of work if we don’t solve what’s in front of us today. We don’t suddenly leapfrog out of our boiler suit into a tutu finding everything that once tormented us resolved, however often it may be positioned that way.

Take trust, for example. How many times in the last two years have we been confidently assured that it’s a key ingredient in hybrid working, as though we’ve just discovered its spangly beauty and all we have to do is say we need it for it to gush freely into the crevices between us. But it’s not In the Night Garden. Trust has always been an issue at the heart of work — all work — and invariably in short supply. No trust today, then there’s sure as hell no trust tomorrow.

Second, that tiny but taxing phrase: all work. The office world has got itself into an almighty post-pandemic tangle, those holding the pen writing out of the present and future the needs of those not subject to the “ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma” (Roethke again). Office workers are a minority in even the most developed economies, yet a noisy minority with a lot to say about where they park their arses every day. The indescribable tedium of output without end wrestling over and over with home and office, commute and convenience, has drowned out not just the concerns of those for whom location is inseparable from activity, but also the more fundamental issues associated with work itself. The tail is beating the dog to death.

Third, therefore, is the brawling in the shallow waters downstream, rather than finding and re-establishing the source. It was the late Desmond Tutu who said “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Our fixation on developing resilience is often in response to the damage being caused that necessitates it. Yet its easier downstream. No-one’s going to get lost. We can paddle around, go home for our tea, come back tomorrow. It’s where most business literature resides. It perpetuates, but it solves nothing.

Finally, the challenge we face with work isn’t an ‘us and them’ situation. The sort favoured by social channels. Someone to blame, to hold responsible. Managers, leaders, executives, old farts. Anyone but us, always someone else. The reality is it’s uncomfortable, but we’re all culpable. We’re often managers, leaders. We’ve been the idiot, taken a bad decision, said something we shouldn’t, made a wrong call. I like to think I’ve been a good boss and colleague but bloody hell, if I think back I cringe at some of the things I’ve done. If you don’t, I suspect you’re not being honest with yourself. In being part of the problem, though, we can be part of the solution. Not waiting for someone else to fix it.

As a book, Unf*cking Work was an inevitability. I’m delighted it’s about to see daylight. It’s on pre-order from wherever you like to buy books. I’d love to know what you think. I’d love to know what you’re going to do, too.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog