Full Circle

Humans have gone full circle in workplace strategy. In the Great Debate happening in offices across the globe, executives are asking themselves whether they should demand that staff come into the office to work. For many, the speculation of both immediate and long-term societal changes are causing decision-making paralysis. The solution is to make an informed decision about the things that you do know.

The question to ask is not: WHERE should they work?

The question should be: HOW do they work?

In the swirling adventure that is work culture, we’re on the cusp of something big, something that brings us back to our roots while launching us into a world brimming with opportunities for flexibility and efficiency. While this is a global phenomenon, the work strategy history of the United States illustrates it well. We’ve gone through five phases of workplace strategy:

Ideal Locale

The first American settlers were quick to figure this out. They came here with skills: Fishing/Whaling, Farming, Hunting/Trapping, Logging, Mining, and Crafts. The craftspeople located in the towns and villages, the whalers along the coast, and the miners in the bogs of Virginia where iron ore was located. Each trade operated from the Ideal Locale for the work required. There may have been multiple locales, one to produce the product and another to market it, for example.

The Farm

As we moved into the early 1700s, farming became the dominant trade and we moved into the Agrarian era. Life and work revolved around the farm, and the vast majority of the population lived in rural areas. The workday for this population typically started before dawn to care for the animals so that maximum daylight hours were available for fieldwork. Seeding of crops was not asynchronous! In winter, when there were no crops, the focus turned to repairing structures and equipment. Farming also drove migration as settlers sought out additional lands.

The Factory

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in the early 1800s, the tranquility of the fields was swapped for the roar of the factories. People left the farms and moved near the factories, clustering in urban areas. The factory model of working fixed hours was adopted, with defined start and end times to the workday. This regimentation of time was a departure from the more flexible schedules of agricultural work and was designed to synchronize the labor force. The concept of scheduled breaks and shifts was integral to factory work to ensure continuous production and dictated by the factory bell. Daylight played little part in factory shifts, which were often 12 hours or longer and six days a week.

The Office

By the 1920s, the number of people working in offices surpassed those working in factories or on farms. The factory culture heavily influenced office settings.  Office workplaces adopted the design common in factories, with clear lines of authority, where managers and supervisors often had separate offices overseeing the work of clerks and typists in larger, open-plan areas. The concept of scheduled breaks and shifts, integral to factory work to ensure continuous production, was also applied in office environments to manage desk capacity and maintain productivity throughout the day.

Ideal Locale

Now, here we are, and we’ve come full circle. We’re back to the Ideal Locale phase, where the ‘where’ of work is all about finding the best spot to get the job done. This isn’t just about nostalgia for the good old days; it’s about seizing the moment to work smarter, not harder.

This journey from then to now isn’t just a history lesson. It’s a wake-up call. We’ve evolved from settlers who worked wherever it made sense, through centuries of change, to arrive right back at a place that values flexibility and efficiency. As we dive into this new era, we’re reminded of the simple genius of working in a way that fits not just the task but the person doing it.

This is about reconnecting with the idea that work doesn’t have to be a place you go, but a thing you do at, well, wherever you do it best. Embracing the Ideal Locale can transform not just where we work but how we feel about work. It’s a return to form, but with a twist that could only happen now. Work is what we do, not where we go.