Management with intent

When Frederic Taylor brought the world Scientific Management a hundred years ago, it changed what it meant to run a factory. Stopwatches and assembly lines dramatically outperformed the traditional piecemeal approach.

Henry Ford wrote a four page article for Encyclopedia Brittanica about how organizations could embrace the new model, and his focus on this lowered the price of a car by 80% or more.

I’m confident that car companies like Dusenberg and Pierce Arrow felt this new approach was beneath them. They probably made thoughtful arguments about esprit de corps and the magic of a hand-built auto. But they’re gone now.

Video conferencing, the pandemic and the powerful shifts that knowledge work and the internet have caused are at least as significant a shift in work as the stopwatch was.

And yet the Washington Post sent a memo to its reporters telling them that if they didn’t come into the office three days a week, they’d be fired.

That’s because an executive there has decided that “the office” and “work” are the same thing. Even though reporters generally report, and reporting is generally done anywhere except in the office.

Was there something special about hanging out over coffee, greeting people in the lobby and gossiping every day at the water cooler? Of course. But these were side effects of good work in the office, not the cause of it.

If a manager says, “the only way I can create connections, loyalty and a sense of purpose is to force people to shlep to an office every day,” they’re being lazy. Surely we can come up with something better than simply taking attendance.

If it’s important to have your brilliant designer review the work of junior architects in person, then do it on purpose. Schedule it and make it worth the focus and effort. If you believe that loyalty and communication increase when people have regular physical interactions without a screen in between them, then build this into the schedule for the work that’s being done, don’t simply wait for it to accidentally happen.

As knowledge work has shifted to a remote-first setting, organizations have generally done an astonishingly bad job of bringing any intent at all to how they will build a culture that they care about. Forcing people to show up so they can hide behind a screen in the office is lazy.

Yes, the old culture happened organically over the course of decades. No, it’s unlikely you’ll end up with a new culture you like if you simply pretend that nothing has changed.