It’s Not Where You Are, It’s What You Do

“Where do you work?”

It’s one of the first questions a new acquaintance will ask at a cocktail party, a networking event, or even an airport lounge. They usually start with, “Who do you work for?,” followed almost immediately by the question, “So, where is your office?” In the past, there wasn’t much grey area.

“I work out of our main headquarters in Burlington,” or “I commute to our offices in New York.” And even just six months ago, I found myself saying, “My new job? Oh, I work at Skillsoft in our Boston office.”

Now, suddenly, that seemingly harmless and utterly conventional question feels hopelessly out of date in much the same way commercials that feature people gathering in tight office spaces do.

I recently interviewed Ester Martinez, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of People Matters for a Skillsoft Podcast. We talked about the current world of work and what “the next normal” is going to look like. But, what really blew my mind was when our conversation moved from day-to-day details of safely returning to the workplace to the enormous sea change we’re all experiencing.

The very definitions of work, workplace, and worker are evolving rapidly.

Certain people in certain roles have worked remotely for years. But until the business world had to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, they were the exceptions, not the rules. Now, a vast majority of traditional office workers have experienced the benefits (freedom and flexibility) and the challenges (less camaraderie, no face-to-face meetings) that remote work affords. And, while some people may miss the routine of traveling to a centralized location, many others will be reluctant to go back to business as usual. In this new paradigm, employers are going to have to provide choice and learn to manage a distributed workforce model.

What does all this really mean? (Besides the obvious benefits of remote work: no traffic, and wearing pajama bottoms all day.)

Many office workers, regardless of their role or level, were still operating with a time clock mentality. “Punch in at 8:00; punch out at 6:00.” In essence, they were paid for showing up and being onsite 40 (or many more) hours a week.

Now, and as the future shapes itself, workers will be paid for their skills and for work produced, not for their physical presence. Going to work won’t literally mean going to a location anymore.

Take that in for a moment because, as Ester explained, this is a profound transformation. And, for some, the loss of a place of work may be a source of sadness. But, once work is no longer synonymous with a physical location, people can start to learn, grow, and flex new muscles. In theory, we’ll see a world where employees can live anywhere and work anywhere (have you seen the new ads touting Barbados as the place for remote workers?). It’s possible that people will work for one or multiple employers, acquire and use new skills, and seek out work that matters as much to us personally as it does professionally.

Don’t assume this is far into the future; this is going to happen, soon and quickly. By the time my two teenage daughters accept their first jobs, offices and water coolers and coffee breaks and surprise parties for coworkers may all be things of the past, the kind of nostalgia we enjoy on TV series like Mad Men.

Perhaps in the future (the very near future), the question won’t be “Where do you work?” It’ll be “What do you do?”

Just imagine the possibilities!

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