We are having the wrong conversation about work

We are having the wrong conversation about work. The remote work conversation is so 2020. It was a thing long before that too. I keep seeing articles like “Why companies should embrace remote work” and “How remote work makes employees more productive.” Those articles are fine, but they are talking about something already cemented in our work consciousness, even if many bosses haven’t figured that out yet.

The next conversation about how we work is more interesting. It’s about the diversity of tasks and asynchronous communication. The next conversation is also about freedom and trust and how these come together to create a very different work culture than we have seen before. 

How work worked 20 years ago

I recently hired a young, smart, twenty-something to help run my new company, and her preferences and approach to work are entirely different than they would have been 20 years ago. In the early ’00s, a professional would start with:

  • A fixed job description.
  • Set hours of work.
  • The expectation to be on call and available at all times for the boss. 
  • The expectation to work more than “just 40 hours,” including nights and weekends.
  • Limited trust with a lot of oversight and hand-holding. 

That was 20 years ago. Throw all that out the window.

Today’s workforce doesn’t need or want that level of micro-management and hand-holding. The current workforce in their 20’s and early 30’s is smart, self-motivated, and flexible. They can figure things out on the fly without being told how to do something. They can come up with a strategy and execute it. And, most of all, they can be trusted to do the job they were hired for without continuous oversight.

How work should work today

The work of today has to evolve beyond the thinking of yesterday. As our technology improves, our approach must improve along with that technology. Instead of the list above, professionals today should start with:

  • A list of problems to solve, giving them the flexibility to change their tasks and approach in the pursuit of owning and solving a problem.
  • Flexible hours. I don’t just mean flex hours, where some people start an hour earlier than everyone else. I mean, knowledge workers need a genuinely flexible schedule to come and go as they please as long as the needed work is getting done.
  • Downtime. The idea of working nights and weekends and giving the boss instant responses isn’t healthy for anyone. Most of us don’t work in jobs that demand instant responses. The world will not end if team members wait until the next day to respond to an email.
  • Trust that they can do the job they were hired to do. Bosses have to trust their people and take their hands off the wheel to give employees the freedom to thrive.

Trust, Freedom, and Asynchronous communication

Now that we have some foundation comparing early digital work to its current incarnation, can we all agree that talking about remote work is pointless? Remote work is a given, not an exception. In 2020 it became the norm, and for all high-performing employees that want it, that will never change.

Instead of talking about remote work, we should be talking about trust, freedom, and asynchronous communication. These form the foundation that knowledge workers need to thrive in today’s culture and the next phase of work.

Trust your team

If you think about it, all you need for trust is a willingness to extend it, a competent person to work with, and a good system for tracking progress. Once you have these three things, it’s easy to tell if a person is on track or not, giving leaders the ability to step back, let their teams work, and watch the results. For digital workers, this means leaders can assign a task in their project management system and trust that the task will be completed as expected. 

Freedom for workers

Digital workers need more freedom than ever. They want to travel and work, not just one or the other. They want to be a fully present parent and a good team member, not just one or the other. Freedom to work as they want to and worker productivity are not mutually exclusive.

Many leaders make the mistake of thinking that team members need to work the way we would work, the way we have worked, to be productive and get ahead. It’s not true. As work changes, and it’s changed more in the last 20 years than perhaps any other time in history, our ability to conceive how that work gets done also has to change. We need the freedom to reimagine how work should work and the freedom to act.

Asynchronous communication

This is the next big conversation, and I hope it includes sending video messages rather than email (but that’s for another post). This last piece ties it all together, giving team members the trust and freedom they need to thrive while keeping the team on the same page and connected.

Asynchronous communication allows teams to better collaborate across space and time without the need to infringe on their freedom or ability to get deep work done. While there are times that real-time communication may be critical, often, asynchronous communication will get the job done if we are willing to have a little patience.

Asynchronous communication for a team may look like creating a shared brainstorming document where teams write out their ideas for 24 hours instead of a live call that demands everyone be on the line simultaneously. It may also be a video communication where each side of the conversation is sent and received, and the conversation slowly plays out over a day rather than a quick call. I know many leaders will bristle at those ideas, but will they result in subpar work? Or, will they result in the same or better outcomes, but aren’t the way we usually do things?