Every so often, the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field switches. Geomagnetic reversal is a phenomenon that seems to happen at random, and has been observed through a natural records as having occurred 183 times in the last 83 million years.

In the “list of stuff that I would worry about (but not unduly) at 5am in the morning”, geomagnetic reversal factored more heavily in recent years than global pandemics. Good to see I had my priorities straight, eh?

But the impact of such a simple binary shift – north becomes south and vice versa – would be profound. Compasses would all be wrong. The systems and software built on assumption of North and South would break. The cultural associations of the terms (and those of East and West too) would be wrong.

In my head I kind of imagine the poles would wobble around a bit every so often, and then once in a blue moon would tip over entirely A bit like a Magic 8 ball or something. I’m not a geologist.

But that image is in my head when thinking about the world of remote working and where we find ourselves today. It feels like there are a number of factors that are on the wobbly point of potential polar switch:

  • Organisations that currently are working remotely (trying to use technology to simulate the work that they do in person in offices) could make the choice to switch to properly remote working (gearing their businesses to assuming that remote is the natural pattern.
  • For that to happen, the assumption in most organisations previous to the pandemic that you had to seek permission to work remotely switches to you have to seek permission to work in an office. (With social distancing measures, this will be the case for the foreseeable future).
  • In the new world of (knowledge) work offices become places where people work alone where online spaces become the places where people work collaboratively. This is profound, and will feel utterly wrong to many of us. But again, with social distancing measures in place, 2m between each other will feel much further than being on the end of a Zoom call. Meeting rooms in most offices in most organisations are unusable in a social distancing world.
  • The social implications of this are also fascinating. Offices and desks in offices will go from status symbols to anti-status symbols. The “corner office”, blocked off in an open-plan space for senior bod, no longer has social capital when the main reason people work in an office is because they haven’t got the space at home to work remotely.
  • Remote working will no longer be seen as a barrier to achieving strategic goals but rather an enabler. Yesterday’s strategies might need to be heavily re-written for that to happen.

None of these are givens. It could be that rather than polar shift, the current world is but a wobble that will return to some sort of norm “after this is over”. But the longer “this” goes on, the more organisations need to think about whether they consciously want to shift from working remotely to remote working.

Office spaces today look very little different to those of the 1960s when open plan became all the range. Take this example from 1965, for example. Take the typewriters and replace them with laptops and you could be in 2020. Despite 30 years of personal computing and 25 of mass internet use, we haven’t really changed how work works that much.

But here is an opportunity for those who decide to take it. And even if organisations don’t decide to do it consciously and strategically, there’s some things that have changed that I don’t think will ever revert back to what we used to think was normal.

(Check out The New Abnormal for more on this, and some remote working collaborative activity exploring some of these themes).

2 thoughts on “The world turned upside down?

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