The world has changed.

We used to talk about the online world and the real world. There is no longer such a distinction. Our realities are a synthesis of things in the physical world, things in the digital realm and stuff in our heads. The biggest part, as it’s ever been, is the stuff in our heads. The physical world was always just a figment of our imaginations.

In our lives devices and digital services intertwine with the physical environment in which we find ourselves. We seamlessly switch between conversation channels, from message to voice to video. It still somehow seems richer if we’ve actually met someone in “the flesh”, but it’s becoming less important. Real relationships flourish in digital spaces, as they have done since the invention of the telegraph.

And yet for so many people working in large organisations, the tangible mixed reality of life outside of employment is brought to a shuddering halt when we step through the doors of the office. But it is changing, and at pace.

The old was a world of “knowledge working” where people work is a destination, a physical place, where people go to labour to create documents as outputs. For many the now is where knowledge work happens in documents, in the comments and amendments and suggested changes, and physical location is immaterial. And if you think that “the document” is sacrosanct, an immutable part of the reality of working, then think about how many documents you create these days outside of the 9 to 5. Documents are a vestige of an age of prior technology; documents don’t exist in the world of Facebook.

Documents are alluring because they can be measured and counted. How many, how many pages, how many words, give an illusion of output. Of productivity. But they are merely a demonstration of the work that was done, and often were no more than that. You know that big report you just slaved over and published? No one is ever going to go beyond the Executive Summary and the numbers at the back. And the real work happened in side conversations in the coffee shop and on Slack.

All of this is having profound impact on how we organise for work, although the forces that provide the places and means of work, and the regulation around it, are struggling to even conceptualise this new mixed reality. “Everyone will always need offices” say the real estate folk. “We’ll always have documents to file” say the archivists. “It’s for us to control” say the business technologists and HR professionals.

The world of work and working is changing. Has changed. The models of management and control, of certainty, of regulation are broken. The future isn’t about managing systems. It’s about trying to guide complexity and chaos.

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