6 min read

The evolution of creative knowledge work

Why does creative work feel hard whether you're in an office or remote?
People working at large computer screens on rows of desks in an open plan office
Photo by Israel Andrade

Why does creative work feel hard in the modern world, whether you work in an office or remotely? The answer lies in how we have tried to evolve only one aspect the way we work.

Let's start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start. But you might be surprised to find out that this takes us back to the 5th century.

Office-based work

Perhaps the first creative knowledge workers, monks worked in open plan rooms at rows of desks, copying and translating books. They had set hours, and kept the team culture strong by going for a few jars of mead at the end of the day.

Since then, office work has advanced considerably.

Oh, wait. No it hasn't.

The tools of the job have advanced:

  • we use computers instead of quills
  • we have electric light instead of candles
  • we have printers.

But, also, a lot has gone backwards:

  • we have more people packed more tightly into larger spaces
  • people work in bad air with artificial light
  • they have to travel great distances each day from where they can afford housing to where we've decided to put offices
  • we expect people to be in constant meetings and somehow still get their creative work done
  • we have printers.

But much of the culture and practices have remained the same. People are still expected to be at their desks at certain times, to crank through a certain amount of output, to work on tasks they've been given, and so on.

A stone-walled room with monks working at desks writing out books
A trendy creative business in Shoreditch, London. Oh wait, no - it's a monastic book production room in the fifth century.

Over the years, as organisations grew in size, they needed large numbers of administration and finance clerks to control everything. Offices became more like factories. Rows and rows of desks like a production line.

This created the modern office, which has become more like a battery farm for chickens. Everyone has their workstation, in rows of identical ones — and effectively clocks in and out (even if it’s just that someone notices and bears a grudge when people aren’t at their desks). Managers dish out tasks and monitor activity — must keep egg production up! There’s poor air, artificial light and an incessant background noise that’s hard to focus in. Interruptions are constant and random. It’s almost impossible to get a meeting room.

To require working there, on set hours every single day, is a completely dysfunctional way of doing creative knowledge work.

It creates a low-trust, low-productivity, low-creativity environment rife with presenteeism and busy-work.

However, there are benefits of gathering people in a shared space sometimes to co-work and collaborate. There is a place for an office of sorts, used when it's valuable.

But offices as we have them now are designed for admin, not knowledge work. We need to rethink the concept of shared workspaces as we create a Free-Range working environment. What if there was a place where people wanted to go to work in certain contexts?

'Working from home'

As offices became more packed and harder to concentrate in, there became a need for senior staff to work from home on days when they had to get complex thinking work done that needed concentration.

Mostly a benefit reserved for managers, it was generally treated with mistrust by those around them, because the deep thinking work that was being done — by its very nature — isn't very visible.

Even the term 'Working from home' was often used in inverted commas to suggest they weren't really working. And some people did abuse the opportunity — 'working from home' on Fridays when they wanted a long weekend, or when there was some big sporting event on.

It was in an era of bad IT systems and poor connectivity, so it was hard to still be effectively connected to coworkers to collaborate as needed, or even to access some of the things you needed for your work. You might as well have been on the moon.

This approach was a mess, and created a lot of the mistrust towards remote work that became a problem later.

Remote work

As technology and connectivity improved over the last 10 years or so, it's become perfectly possible to work effectively with colleagues without being in the same place.

Most organisations still have an office, but they have some remote workers. As the rest of the organisation still works in a very traditional way, with no meaningful cultural or communications changes, these people can fall into simply being names on emails. They see notices about there being cake in the kitchen for so-and-so's birthday. They get dialled into meetings and find it hard to hear or see what's going on in the meeting room and people forget to get their input. They feel remote, and they seem remote to their colleagues.

Other organisations have sprung up without any shared workspace at all. The whole team work from home, having meetings online, collaborating in online documents and project management tools. But too often they've focused only on the tools, and otherwise it's very much like working in an office, but across multiple locations. Nothing else has changed, and there hasn't been the mindful design of the culture and communications.

Then during the initial phase of the pandemic, most organisations had to suddenly switch to remote work. They set up Zoom, chat rooms and so on and

To their surprise things still worked okay. Lots of staff really liked it and aren't too keen to go back to how things were before. But managers felt they lost control. They don't have the culture in place to support high-trust working, and suddenly they can't see what anyone is doing. They also observed cracks beginning to show in team cohesion, and the feeling of purpose and meaning in the work overall. It became more like clocking on and clocking off, at a distance.

Also, they have some really expensive big offices that they feel are being wasted now. So they saw it very much as a temporary shift and expected to go back to office working.

Remote work has some of the basic building blocks of a new world of work, but it is missing the glue that sticks them together. People feel remote, less connected to their organisation and to each other. The culture and communications suffer.

The underlying problem is that remote work only focused on one type of freedom — where people work. It assumed everything else, including the nature of responsibilities remain the same. That means everyone has to be seen in the chat room all day and be in video meetings all the time.

That means it doesn't really solve any of the problems. We need to mindfully redesign creative knowledge work to be productive and satisfying, rather than just try to work in the same way as in the office, but across multiple locations.

Hybrid work

This is a phrase that has grown in usage after the pandemic lockdowns. Effectively, it's a back-pedal from organisations who had to go fully distributed for a while during lockdowns.

After lockdown, many managers tried to say "Ok, let's get back to 'normal'" and met staff resistance. Many staff even resigned rather than go back to the daily commute and open-plan offices 5 days a week.

So a compromise had to be reached — 'hybrid' working.

The idea is that people will office-work for 2-4 days a week, and remote-work for the rest.

But they don't plan to change the office in any way. They don't plan any evolution in their company culture. They don't plan different approaches to communications and collaboration. It's simply just an agreement about the location of where people will work, stitching together two opposite modes from the past and hoping it'll work.

It's a Frankenstein's monster of a working arrangement, and there are going to be problems.

Free-Range Work

Free-Range Work is what comes next in the evolution of creative knowledge work.

We need to mindfully design our new ways of working. We need to think about more than just the location where work is done.

Free-Range is about maximising all the freedoms we need to do our best work, in an effective and satisfying way — while also clearly understanding the balancing responsibilities.

We need to understand the types of work we need to do, and the contexts that work exists in. We need to understand collaboration, communication and culture.

A Free-Range team feels more connected and creative than anywhere they've worked before. It's liberating.

But getting there requires thought and action.

FreeRange.Work is the place where I'll share more about how I see this new world of work, and provide the tools and methods to help you adopt these ideas into your own work, and your own organisation.

The next stage of the evolution of work begins here, and now.