Accessibility links

If you haven’t got time to read this blog, please just watch the video below ( It will give you the essence of what we’re looking for, and how to get involved, in a couple of perfectly crafted minutes. Thanks to the most excellent Philippa Young (FRSA) of guerrilla filmmakers Whattookyousolong? for making this fantastic film for us.

It’s been a week since I returned to work from a rather extended paternity leave, having had twins and thereby suddenly - and rather shockingly - doubling my number of kids.

The idea of ‘returning to work’ seemed rather laughable after more than a month of being run ragged by newborn twin girls, a 3 year old son armed with a Nerf Gun and a hyperactive 5 year old daughter on her school holidays. As bosses go, they don’t get much more demanding (or delightful). By contrast, the day job is strangely bereft of colleagues demanding to watch Tom and Jerry in their pants.

The timing was quite apt, given my need to make adjustments to my work and family life. Shortly before the twins’ arrival I published an RSA report – The Flex Factor  – which looked at the value of flexible working to individuals, organisations and the wider economy. The report highlighted the importance of a reciprocal commitment between employers and employees in order for flexible working to be ‘optimised’.

In the report, and the conversations that followed, there was a consistent theme. British working attitudes and practices have changed to a great extent, enabled by information technology, the advent of a service-based, knowledge economy and a rebalancing of gender roles. But there is still deep resistance to negotiation, experimentation and change in certain professions, tiers of management and organisational cultures.

As a result, most of us work to the patterns, customs and conventions that have governed working life for a century or more: we endure the misery of commuting in a time-structured week; spend our days performing carefully prescribed tasks, whilst navigating hierarchical and often dehumanising organisations; follow narrowly delineated job descriptions, roles and career paths that don’t reflect our fullest interests and capacities. The result is that we spend quite a lot of our time outside work moaning about it to our families and friends.

Okay, this isn’t everyone’s experience. Some people feel real purpose, ‘flow’ and joy in the work they do on a daily basis, with fantastic results. But this is arguably more the exception than the norm.

And as commentators like Lynda Gratton argue, more of us are going to find our traditional career and working patterns being disrupted over the coming decade as demographic, economic and technology trends re-shape the labour market.

Both of these should point us towards taking active steps to reclaim and enrich the quality of our working lives, by collectively questioning and challenging the status quo. This is not just about improving personal job satisfaction, or pursuing employee rights, but also a desire for our employer organisations to be successful, and for our labour to have the widest possible social and economic value.

This is a mission that should be led by key institutions such as trade unions, and by professions such as HR. And it's great to see CIPD's recent shift, for example, towards "championing better work and working lives". But vital as they are, all of these institutional actors have their own particular baggage, flaws and constraints. Too often they are marginalised by the dominant discourse of work - one which has a narrow account of value borne of economics and the imperatives of finance.

Rather than rely exclusively on such institutions, the enrichment of work should be the collective endeavour of everyone who holds, or aspires to use their labour productively.

To take this active, collective step requires a willingness and capacity to see the daily grind through fresh eyes, and the energy and freedom to try new ways of working.

Acquiring critical distance is one of the great advantages of a disruption or break from work. Sometimes it is just a holiday (or a paternity leave!), other times it is prompted by a big transition, upheaval or crisis.

What seems natural or inevitable about our work seems suddenly strange and worthy of constructive challenge. Many of us go back to work after these breaks with the intention to ‘craft’ our jobs and working environments in healthier and more productive ways. But individually our efforts and energies get dissipated in the face of collective inertia.

Maintaining a ‘stranger’s perspective’ on work is hard because we’re all so immersed in it. But it’s vital because it is the source of innovation.

Some people have a natural aptitude for showing us how strange our working lives are. For example people with Asperger’s/Autism often find it hard to learn the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the ‘neurotypical’ workplace, and in their insightful and fascinating exchanges on the subject reveal to us just how unnatural, unproductive and unhelpful our practices may be from a stranger’s perspective.

We can also learn from anthropologists, who must be able to shift between an insider and outsider perspective if they are to successfully undertake ethnography, and why it’s in some ways easier to be an anthropologist in an exotic or alien culture.

Another way to learn and maintain the stranger’s gaze is to act in a way that we know is taboo. Breaking the rules throws them into sharp relief, and forces us to question their validity. What would be the most taboo (but still harmless and legal!) thing you could do right now in the office? Why should this be taboo? What emotions would you experience if you did it? Guilt, anxiety or exhilaration? How could your work be better if it were to be the norm?

If we are to flourish we need the courage and collective will to experiment with radical and disruptive approaches to work, that creates value for individuals, organisations and wider society.

Organisations that work with humanistic principles: i.e. that value the whole person and go with the grain of human needs for dignity, affiliation, accomplishment, freedom and purpose are arguably likely to be the ones that succeed in the long term.

How many of us can say we work in organisations of this kind? The statistics show that a large proportion of us are still disengaged and disaffected when it comes to our work, and that this has major implications for our economy.

We all know a relatively small number of organisations or practices that are constantly lauded as exemplars of an alternative approach to work: Semco; WL Gore; Zappo’s. We also see and celebrate the listings of best organisations to work for.

These are organisations that already ‘get it’ and are trying. But are they as rare as the engagement statistics would suggest? Why is that? Could they go further, and on what basis? How diverse is our gene pool when it comes to organising and cultivating good work?

The RSA, in association with the Humanistic Management Network, is interested in these questions, and in finding lesser known, perhaps more extreme, unusual and inspiring examples of work organisations. We’re calling them Working Wonders.

We want to understand how and why they do what they do, what makes them successful or what they’ve learned from failing, and encourage more to experiment in their wake.

We’ve already come across a few of them, which we’ll profile in this blog. We’re also supportive of other existing initiatives (e.g. MIX) organisations and experts who have embarked on similar quests. We just want to see if the RSA and its friends could reach parts others couldn’t reach.

So please share your experiences and exemplars of radical work innovation. Whether it's in something seemingly tiny and mundane or as fundamental as the whole work system. We have some ideas about how this informal call could turn into a fully-fledged project but we’re leaving it open to ‘the crowd’ to discuss and decide.

Visit the open LinkedIn discussion group  - - that we’ve set up initially to start a discussion and let’s see where it goes….We’re looking forward to things getting a bit strange.




Join the discussion

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.