May 11, 2023

Examining the Evolution of the Workplace: From Hunter-Gathering to Hybrid Working

A debate has raged for the last few years, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, over the nature of work and the workplace and how they affect collaboration, supply-value chains, and efficiency. Remote, hybrid, and in-office workplaces have been hotly argued, sometimes controversially.

Yet this is not a new phenomenon. Working practices have changed over time. What worked a century ago may be less useful now, and the same will be true of current practices in the future.

As technology evolves, so does society's understanding of the meaning of work. The concept of work has been around for centuries, but it has always changed to suit the needs of the time. The pandemic has accelerated this process, forcing companies to adapt to new ways of working.

Remote work has become a new norm, and hybrid work models are being developed to cater to different work styles. It is clear that the workplace is not static but rather a dynamic environment that is always changing. The future of work is exciting, and we should embrace the potential that it offers.

The First Stage of Work:

The first stage of work can be traced back to ancient times when humans were hunter-gatherers. Work meant hunting for animals and gathering food, and this was a task that had to be done to survive. The concept of leisure did not exist, and everyone had to contribute to the group's survival. This concept of work continued for thousands of years until humans discovered agriculture. With agriculture came a new way of life and a new concept of work, which we will explore in the next section.

The Second Stage of Work:

Farming is a great source of pride for me, as my 87 -year-old grandmother continues to work her farm to this day, rearing goats and sheep, and growing crops like yams, cassava, and palm nuts. Some of my fondest childhood memories happen to be on my grandmother's farm, and I will never forget them. In Igbo land, farming is a hybrid of home business and office work. Farmers grow crops like yams and cassava and bring them to the market during the four market days (Eke, Orie, Afor & Nkwo) to sell and barter with other farmers.

Agriculture brought about a more sedentary lifestyle; this was the first time humans began to gather in a specific location to work on a specific task. These centralized locations became the hub of commerce and trade. However, at a certain point, there came the industrial revolution and the '40-Day work week.'

The Third Stage of Work:

The industrial revolution marked the beginning of modern-day working practices, with machines replacing manual labor, allowing for efficient production and increased productivity. Unfortunately, these changes also brought long hours and poor working conditions, prompting protests for labor rights and improved conditions.

Today, workplaces continue to evolve, adapting to new technologies and uncovering new ways to collaborate and be productive. Henry Ford's 1926 popularization of a 40-hour workweek (down from 80-100 hrs. prior) caused a shift in labor standards. In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act codified this into law, resulting in a 5-day, 8-hour-a-day workweek still used today. Despite critics' doubts, this schedule has been a success now for nearly 100 years.

The Fourth Stage of Work:

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process of remote and hybrid working models enabled by technology. Predictions of the post-pandemic world varied, including assumptions of an enduring shift to online learning and a ridiculous notion that people would have to remain within a two-mile radius of their workplaces and schools.

Thankfully, this latter theory proved wrong, enabling travel to continue. However, the outcome was a move towards remote working, which some companies have continued, while some have adopted a hybrid model with a few days in the office. Others have returned to the Henry Ford model.

This shift to the remote and hybrid model has not been without its challenges, with concerns around work-life balance, isolation, and the impact on company culture. As we continue to navigate this new stage of work, it is important to remember that the workplace is constantly evolving, and we must adapt to stay ahead of the curve.

Why is this a conversation?

The pandemic made it clear: employees do not need to be in the office to work efficiently. The real issue is Trust and Control. Leaders who insist on fully in-office work either don't trust their employees or don't know how to lead effectively; if this is the case, they should enlist the help of a leadership coach.

The debate about working remotely, hybrid, or in-office should focus on Development, not Efficiency. Employees can be productive from home when distractions such as commuting, water-cooler conversations, and excess breaks are removed. This allows them to prioritize the completion of their work.

I started as an intern in the Analytics space and became the CEO & Co-Founder of eqtble, a tech company. In every role I had, I could visit my boss's office to ask questions and have conversations; sometimes, I got to have lunches or happy hours with them.

I learned so much from those moments—I saw vulnerability and received invaluable advice I keep to this day. One such moment changed my life. My boss, who I sat next to at Arsenal FC, challenged me to study Data Analytics instead of Pure Maths for my Master’s degree. He said it would be big in the future—and he was right.

For experienced workers, this isn't an issue. But for new graduates, remote work often takes away the opportunities to have insightful conversations and experiences that arise when discussing face-to-face. For example, I wouldn't have obtained certain advice and moments with my boss about studying Data Analytics if I had worked from home.

Initialized Capital, our leading investor, took a call with us due to an intro from a former colleague I had never worked with but had chatted with in hallways and during happy hours; his intro was, "Joseph is smart, passionate, and a good guy - you should talk to him."

Remote work can be successful if communication and collaboration channels are effectively implemented. However, what it can't offer is face-to-face relationships. Consequently, developing and fostering team unity requires companies to look for alternatives, such as hybrid work, i.e., a combination of remote and a few days of in-person work and/or regular meets for bonding and team-building activities. As times have changed, so must our work practices; those who refuse to adapt will be left behind.

Oh! Also, there is the 4-day workweek revolution coming! But let’s save that discussion for another day!

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