A satirist, a salesman and a scientist walk into a café. You might think it odd that they walk in together, but this is Strip the Willow on Abbeydale Road where, it seems, nothing is odd. An exhibition about an East Yorkshire guru of longsword dancing adorns the walls, curated bric-a-brac sets the scene, a young couple gorge on some lovely looking pasta, and the radio is tuned to Hallam FM, holding out a lifeline to those regular workplaces it often soundtracks: garages, building sites and sales counters.

But they don’t really notice any of this, because as soon as they reach the top of the stairs their attention turns to a baritone Canadian drawl emanating from a side room. They look in. The satirist sees a circle of earnest, left-leaning intelligentsia that he can write a sketch about. The salesman sees customers and wonders how he’d pitch to this crowd. They might be tricky. The scientist hears abstract talk of ‘emergent plasticities of behaviour’, and though she marvels that these words are coming from the audience, not from the speaker, she craves something more tangible she can take away with her.

What the satirist, salesman and scientist have in common is they’re all more or less understood by their work, and by what they and other people make of it. Can the same be said of a call centre wage slave, or an NHS administrator, or a management consultant? Or a ‘creative’ for that matter, denuded of a noun for what they do? Does the need to re-frame yourself through your hobbies (“I work in a shop but I’m actually a songwriter”) or to cloak your professional life in a mantle of bullshit (“I specialise in upwards leveraging and client retention”) point to something going badly wrong in our relationship with work?

We’re here to discuss the future of work with two genuinely lovely, interesting blokes who’ve recently published books on the subject. Peter Johnson’s Making Light Work explores how the hierarchies within most organisations inhibit the creativity and productivity of their staff, and how even personal time is imposed through timed tea-breaks and structured fun (helter skelter in the lobby, anyone?) The solution he sees is complex, but hinges on loosened controls and greater trust between people with different responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the tantalisingly titled Anarchists in the Boardroom by Liam Barrington-Bush (the Canadian baritone) asks why even the most well-intentioned organisations, including charities, often make their workers chronically unhappy. Anyone who has been in a boardroom knows that even its name demands that you leave your latent anarchy at the door and conform. Barrington-Bush’s big idea is to make organisations more like people – that’s to say, more spontaneous, more willing to help each other out, less obsessed with structures, protocols and audit trails. These obsessions, Peter argues, come from century-old concepts of ‘scientific management’ which have led us into narrow specialisms with prescriptive job descriptions and person specifications. In Liam’s interpretation, that leads directly to a blame culture, because problems can be someone else’s and each of us defends our own position, yet in the end we all suffer. Anarchists, he suggests, are not so much lawless as just more willing to organise themselves and get on with it, rather than use up their budget writing the instructions.

We could easily have discussed this for hours, but here’s a shortened version I worked out on the way home, playing the conversation back in my head. It’s easy to characterise humans as driven by self-importance and greed. We’ve created too many organisations that are like that, and then wonder why they’re not nice to work in. But what are humans good at? We create and develop things by trial and error – experimenting, getting it wrong, adjusting, trying again. We hold different opinions and persuade other people to share them, so that our ideas benefit from the combined efforts of others. And we depend, more than we can possibly imagine, on not taking ourselves or each other too seriously, so that we can test out ideas without causing offence, respect other people’s perspectives and bring down tyrants. That sounds to me a lot like science, sales and satire. Somewhere in there is the future of work.

Peter Johnson
Liam Barrington-Bush
Andrew Wood

Andrew Wood