The Future of Work is an Oldie

An illustration made by graphic equalizer sliders with cut-out images of musicians pasted above every other one, representing their contributions to the writing of Beyoncé’s song, “Hold Up”
Beyoncé and 6 of her 15 collaborators for “Hold Up.” Image by ReelSmart, for Two Beats Ahead, by R. Michael Hendrix & Panos A. Panay

Here’s the scene: you, alone, at home, at work. Sometimes it feels like a gift. Sometimes a prison. Whatever it is, vaccines are on the way and there is light on the horizon. In the meantime experts across industries have taken note and are proclaiming a new future of work. But as these things go, they span from “This sucks. Let’s get back to how things were,” to “Offices are dead, long live van life!” They also tend to look at the problem through models of efficiency, management, and safety, while overlooking the reason why many of us work: it is a place we find joy.

As a kid, I remember hearing: “If you find what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And yet, last month, a friend and collaborator confessed something to me: that the pandemic malaise had sapped joy from her work. “Honestly,” she said, “this is the first time in 25 years that my job felt like a job. I’m just working for a paycheck.”

I could relate. Before the COVID breakout, I traveled a lot for business and viewed home as a place to land, recuperate, and reflect. But then we all got grounded and suddenly home was all of those good things PLUS collaboration, stimulation, and entertainment — all on a screen. And in this new, flat world, everything became two dimensional.

I recently read that we are experiencing collective grief in COVID Times. Norms and familiarity have been disrupted and dematerialized. When it comes to work, that is certainly the case: gone are the commutes, the company lunches, the cross-country flights. But when I step back to look at the landscape, I have to ask myself: what have I really lost? The office wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. A year ago I was reading articles about the failure of the Open Office plan, about the best noise cancelling headphones and the necessity of private, personal “heads down” time and the environmental impact of business jet-setting. Pre-pandemic, these were major reasons that I loved the days that I worked from home. So what have my friend and I been missing?

As a designer and musician — and co-author of Two Beats Ahead, a book on how musicians are, at heart, entrepreneurs — I am endlessly curious about the context in which creative projects take shape. The New York Times’ excellent video series “Diary of a Song” unpacks both context and creativity, and my favorite episode tracks the creation of 2018’s billboard chart-topper “The Middle,” by Grey, Maren Morris, and Zedd… an unusual billing of two producers and a singer that sprung from an evolution that involved a songwriter, three production teams, and fourteen singers spanning from Melbourne to Los Angeles to Nashville.

As I rewatched this episode, I saw the obvious: that these musicians were living the future of work, even before the pandemic. In fact, there is a pattern that shows up over and over again, in “Diary of a Song” episodes: a songwriter comes up with a few lines, a melody, and shares a digital recording with someone else, who adds more lyrics or new arrangements. These are then emailed to a producer, who adds texture. This continues until the song comes to a point where a recording studio matters: the specialized hardware, the unique sound qualities and experienced engineers that can only be found in a professional setting. But sometimes it is of a more spiritual nature too: who recorded there before? What’s the neighborhood?

For decades before this coronavirus struck, we all subscribed to the opinion that being in the office benefits productivity. Even as mobility was on the rise, most companies expected employees to report to HQ. From management’s perspective, this was about accountability and the ability to track employee performance; from the employee point of view, it was about access to tools, collaboration, and approvals. But a year after COVID-19, we’re somehow continuing without this strongly held framework. Working this way hasn’t been without its challenges, but most of the problems have been due to the impact of social distancing requirements or the fact that supporting systems crumbled under the new conditions. As far as the work itself, it hasn’t been so significantly different that workforces are having to develop new skills beyond learning virtual collaboration tools that mimic real life interactions.

When I talk to my colleagues, they share their struggles — and they vary across age groups and family status. But they also speak of new things they’ve enjoyed, like time to work on personal projects, to spend with loved ones, to learn new skills, or to catch up on reading. Work/life balance flipped to life/work balance. So when we talk about the future, the picture that comes into focus is one that is somewhere between what was and what is, and that takes me back to the musicians.

From the Postal Service albums to Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” — both developed via email in the BC (Before COVID) era — we saw musicians make some of their best work without ever being in the same room. By necessity. This is digital disruption as a good thing, pushing creators to approach work differently, enabling musicians to broaden their circles for access to more talented co-creators. Is this difficult? Of course. But the pursuit of passion is always difficult. What can they teach us about the future of work?

I believe there are four key characteristics in a musician’s workflow that can lead to new thinking about hybrid work models, and the opportunity to re-inject joy into our work — although it’s important to note that they are not just characteristics, they’re stages and phases:

  1. Vulnerability: feeling safe, supported, and secure, and so empowered to take creative risks,
  2. Collaboration: pursuing others who complement and challenge your talents,
  3. Inspiration: allowing yourself to be compelled to create and share,
  4. Connection: building community, reciprocity, and mutual affirmation.

What might it look like to live/ work in places that are defined by support systems, rather than brick and mortar? What doors does it open for financial security and emotional vulnerability, for putting down roots that are emotionally nurturing and so help us grow in new ways? This could be an amazing shift in today’s work environment, if we allow it to, rather than seeing our current situation as a necessary evil.

What if, in the future, we travel again? But we travel with focus: coming together with specific individuals at key moments in a workflow, as musical collaborators do? Travel might occur at key moments in a project — centered on unique spaces, and the creative collisions that happen with unique people there. Joining expert collaborators onsite, to tackle specific challenges with the unique resources at hand. Maybe you want to play the same piano that McCartney played on “Hey Jude.” Maybe you want to record in Electric Lady Studio, which Jimi Hendrix built for his own sessions. Maybe you want to work with a particular producer, or two, or three, or fifteen, like Beyoncé did. In my design work, I might travel to an office that has specific prototyping tools or to an academic institution with a unique perspective on the world… these are all compelling reasons to come together, work together, and then disband. It’s a familiar impulse: for years, many companies have been holding “leadership offsites,” getting out of the daily grind to shift perspective and connect with collaborators in new and meaningful ways.

But wait, you might say, this can already happen via Zoom! In my experience, video conferencing is great for planned meetings but not for casual connections. By its very nature, the format pushes us toward forced conclusions, because it’s time boxed, absent moments at the coffee maker, the water cooler, in the hallway. In my consulting work, when we design innovation labs we are carefully attuned to identifying areas in shared physical spaces where casual connections can happen: unplanned conversations in a cafe or lounge that result in shared creativity. The unstructured moments where we let our subconscious roll, where we share our thoughts and ask questions about what coworkers are pondering. Where we impromptu brainstorm together and make suggestions to help each other move forward. It’s these serendipitous moments that often lead to the big breakthroughs.

There may be a huge upside to diversifying our workforces too if we begin leading by these characteristics. Great talent is everywhere, it’s just not evenly distributed. Common phrases like “flyover states” and “the rust belt” show that we all know what parts of the country are overlooked. Creating a start-up in Tennessee in the early 00’s, I felt this personally. It was impossible for us to get venture funding from the coastal VCs even though we tried extensively. Eventually we found money from investors in Kentucky but it was a fraction of what was being doled out to tech companies in California. Why didn’t we move to get funding? It was suggested to us, but we had homes, family and friends in Tennessee we didn’t want to give up for an expensive chance of investment. If it’s hard for me, a white male, to leave my support systems and uproot to an ambiguous future, then I know it’s even harder for people of color, who are being asked to move to parts of the country where they are represented in the single digits. And yet, if we want to engage diverse talent, with different life experiences and skill sets, we’re going to have to wrestle with how our expectations for work create the conditions for a lack of diversity. It’s a rare moment to be able to leapfrog a structural condition, but this might be one of them.

Looking forward, executives have a complicated task. Efficiency, employee management, and safety are complex contexts, and require careful strategy. Unlocking opportunities for individual employees will come from understanding what is most effective for enabling creativity and productivity, including a better understanding of home and community dynamics and their effect on our mental health.

And I truly believe that this new model — established by musicians for decades and codified by many of us, inadvertently, during COVID — could benefit many companies. A hybrid work model that stretches beyond “work from home part time,” to focus on planning intermittent convenings and connections, could help us take work to new heights. If we figure this out, we may never work another day in our lives.

R. Michael Hendrix, in his office in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Jacob Waites, 2019

R. Michael Hendrix is the Global Brand Director at IDEO; in his free time he writes about the connections between design and music. Learn more about his book, Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation, from Public Affairs in the U.S. and from Penguin Business in the U.K.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store