Magical thinking

Flexible working is often seen as a magic bullet for a variety of workplace challenges, but the truth is that it can’t be fired without inflicting some collateral damage, Mark Eltringham tells us.

According to Oxford Dictionaries the word of the year for 2016 is ‘post-truth’. This is a slippery little adjective because while some things are pretty much objectively true, the use of post-truth in many contexts is merely a way of shutting down opinion.

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It’s especially pernicious when it comes to ideas and philosophy because it assumes that the person using it knows what the truth is, yet the world’s sharpest minds can’t always agree on that as the great Ambrose Bierce defined truth in his caustic Devil’s Dictionary: ‘Discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy, which is the most ancient occupation of the human mind and has a fair prospect of existing with increasing activity to the end of time’. And there’s a good reason why in the Bible Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ is met with silence.

What is ironic about this now is that the world is awash with data. We could easily assume that this would make the truth, or at least facts, less disputable. But the converse appears to be true. The more information we have, the more we fall back on narratives. This is often the case in the field of workplace design and management. We’ve never had more data about what makes people productive, happy, well, engaged and motivated. We’ve never known more about what makes buildings function and how to optimise their systems and performance. And yet narratives persist that do not match the data, or at least oversimplify them.

“The more information we have, the more we fall back on narratives”

Perhaps the most prevalent of these is that flexible working offers some sort of magic bullet to most of the problems we encounter at work. When it comes to finding solutions to the workplace’s most complex and intractable challenges, the idea of a ‘magic bullet’ is obviously something we find compelling. The term is nearly as old as gunpowder itself, dating back to a piece of German folklore in which the Devil grants a sharpshooter six bullets which hit whatever target he chooses, while the Devil reserves a seventh bullet to do with as he pleases.

We still assume we can always find a single solution to even the most complex issues. This includes finding a simple, single solution to the twin facts that work, for most people, is a frequently troublesome necessity or even something they actively detest; while, for most firms, there are major and sometimes fatal problems associated with the whole palaver of employing people and finding somewhere for them to get things done. For 25 years or more the magic bullet for these facts of life has been the principle of flexible working.

What the data shows us is that flexible working in its various forms is able to help resolve certain issues at work, especially when it is well matched to a firm’s culture and an individual’s character and ability. But it is no magic bullet and often solves one problem while creating another.

We know this, yet still the narrative persists that flexible working is the go-to cure for the ills of work. This seems to rest on another narrative that medicalises our workplace dissatisfaction. We talk about commuting and lack of engagement and stress in pathogenic terms, so it’s no surprise that we should assume there is a cure when the fact is that work is merely a fact of life and sometimes comes with unavoidable annoyances and deprivations. We can always make work and workplaces better, but there’s no magic bullet.