When We Return to Work, It's Nomadic or Nothing
Now that the vaccination campaigns, in developed nations at least, are gaining speed, we, the privileged ones, are erasing the pandemic like a bad memory, shaking it off our clothes and bodies and souls like the flu. Despite all the talk about a great reset, we are more or less returning to our pre-pandemic lives. For those of us lucky enough to contemplate it, the new normal is the old normal. We want our life back as it was, with one notable exception: work.
For unprecedented flexibility in organizing our work is the one newfound freedom in the lockdown that we cherished. Remote or hybrid: for many of us the physical distance to work has surfaced a more spiritual distance to it that had been there all along.
Now, as we step off this hell of a non-ride, we are realizing that what we actually want is — never to go back to work.
We’re too fed up with mind-numbing routines, motivational speeches that offend our intelligence, passive-aggressive email threads with a dozen people copied on them, and office politics. We’re weary of being crammed into an office with people we are forced to interact with. We don’t want any more managers who don’t trust us, and as we work remotely, have reverted to technology to track our every move (one in five businesses already use surveillance software to monitor staff as they work from home). We can’t stand the thought of sitting in front of a screen after just having done little else for more than a year.
There are so many more important things to do now: find out who we are and can become. We’ve had enough of ambiguity, introspection, and liminal spaces, we just want SPACE: to do what we really want to do, to be selfish again and frivolous, gregarious, and exuberant. To live life instead of just surviving it. We want heavier doses of pleasure, but no longer from a distance. We want to satisfy our “skin hunger.” We desire to be with other people, including our co-workers, and smell, hear, and feel them again from up close.
But not in the office.
So, good luck, dear employers, trying to retain us, trying to contain us!
You may entice us with workplaces that don’t look like anything but work, and rather resemble beach bars, golf courts, or clubs. But that won’t cut it. We did like the remote work, but not that we were still chained to one place. Having spent so much time at home, we lost a sense of home, ironically — and we can’t help but look for it elsewhere now.
The only way you can keep us is if our workplaces become destinations and satisfy our innate desire to travel, our neophilia, fernweh, and wanderlust. Not even allowing us to be digital nomads is good enough anymore. If we are to return to work — and give it our everything — then work itself must become nomadic. Our organizations must become nomadic.
Let’s take a closer look at what that means.
Nomadic organizations possess three distinctive pairs of qualities: they are ephemeral, yet rooted in purpose; frugal but giving; becoming while storytelling.
1. Ephemeral with purpose
Many people view moving as a hardship. Nomads, however, consider mobility a resource. Likewise, nomadic organizations embrace movement and impermanence as their modus operandi.
The original itinerant business might be the door-to-door salesman, moving from city to city to sell goods. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can run a business from home, and home can be wherever that person happens to reside, from houseboats to hotel rooms. Legally, businesses are generally required to have a fixed address, though there are ways around even that — see companies like Incfile, Traveling Mailbox, or iPostal1.
Large organizations, as of yet, have resisted the opportunity to become nomadic, still anchored to real estate in fixed locations. But that is about to change, as more companies are allowing more workers to work from wherever they choose. As Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury reports in his seminal Harvard Business Review article on remote work, organizations such as GitLab (with 1,300 employees, the world’s largest all-remote staff company) or workflow automation company Zapier have already made remote work a big part of their workplace culture. Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, and the State Bank of India, among others, have recently said they will make Working-From-Home (WFH) or Working-From-Anywhere (WFA) permanent. JP Morgan, Salesforce, and PwC are all dumping office space. Global IT services company Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, plans to be 75% remote by 2025 and has announced it will allow its staff to spend only 25% of their working hours in the office. In the UK, half of the workforce is currently working from home, and recent surveys forecast that “working from home for two-three days per week will likely be the dominant pattern after the pandemic.”
Nomadic, however, implies something even more radical than remote: it means the entire organization is consistently in motion. In nomadic organizations, work is shifting from something we do, remotely or not, to something we experience.
The headquarters are turning into a hydra, a network distributed across locations but also only activated sporadically, like so-called flash organizations inspired by the Hollywood model of pop-up employers and project-based ephemeral structures.
Furthermore, some companies are exploring whether to go a step further and put the money saved on office space into tentpole experiences that take their employees to a few deliberate destinations throughout the year.
At the House of Beautiful Business, for instance, we work from our homes and from some small project-based temporary apartments in Berlin and Lisbon that we rent. Once every other quarter or so, our core team meets in a city where one of us lives, and once a year the whole team meets at our annual gathering in Lisbon. What we lack in informal encounters every day, we make up with extreme encounters we curate throughout the year. We don’t design for serendipity, as the designers of corporate campuses are so eager to do these days, we simply move into new situations with either no plan or no agenda — and see what happens.
This sparks an even more radical scenario: what if companies uprooted themselves entirely and created organizational structures that were flexible above all everything else: a mix of fixed tenets (values, processes, and protocol) and fluctuating operational components (location, team make-up, work schedules, meetings-on-the-go, as in walks, taxi, train, or plane rides, etc.), forming ad-hoc cohorts and moving them from destination to destination, spending a few weeks in Barcelona, another few weeks in Tallinn, and another few weeks in the desert?
Such collective WFA models present challenges, no doubt, including issues such as sustainability, social isolation, a feeling of being disconnected from the mothership (if there still is one), a lack of cohesion, cybersecurity, and fair compensation. Yet the benefits are compelling: novel experiences instigate creativity and innovation, and a frequent change of scenery is conducive to learning: it’s called “learning journey” for a reason. Services such as Remote Year (with the slogan “Keep your job. See the world.”) capitalize on this and curate travel programs to cities across the globe for professionals and teams. Founded in 2015, the company has enabled more than 3,000 people to take part in retreats, individual, and corporate programs.
The same way Airbnb evolved from being a hospitality provider to becoming an experience provider, the workplace will evolve as our business paradigms change: from machine (productivity) to platform (creativity) to journey (purpose).
2. Frugal but giving
Like nomads, nomadic organizations thrive under material constraints and are adept at doing less with more in the face of natural scarcity. Jaideep Prabhu, co-author of Frugal Innovation, refers to what we consider an “innovative” fridge in more affluent societies as an example: a smart fridge that will talk to you, and you can talk back to via a mobile device, a feature worth $3,000. But that smart fridge is not for everybody. Enter the clay fridge, made with widely available materials: clay and water, as a frugal alternative for hundreds of millions of people around the world who’d like to have a fridge but cannot afford it, or who don’t have access to electricity even if they could.
Nomadic organizations adopt this frugal mindset for tackling all business challenges. Different from efficiency, frugality implies using limited resources in the most creative fashion, not just to increase output, but to innovate in the most inclusive way.
This includes elements of a gift economy, a process of giving–receiving–reciprocating that requires its participants to share time and space. As Ilana E. Strauss points out in a piece for The Atlantic, gifting is different from — and in fact much more efficient than — a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person having what the other wants at the exact same time. It’s also not tit-for-tat: “No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred,” she writes.
You can find notable gift economies amidst our market society structures, albeit most of them temporary ones: from Burning Man, the annual festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, to the “Desert Snowbirds,” the 200,000 retirees who spend every winter in and around the small town of Quartzsite, Arizona, in the Sonoran desert, with some 50,000 of them living in informal housing like campers, tents, cars and trucks, or self-constructed cabins. In either of these two economies, taking part in the gift-giving process is expected, and without such implicit rule they wouldn’t materialize.
Illustrated by Burning Man and the Desert Snowbirds, gift economies serve both a functional and a social purpose. They provide goods and services in conditions of real or artificial scarcity, while also bestowing a group with a collective identity. Participants give, receive, and reciprocate not only goods but also personal involvement and attention, often expressed in the form of rituals.
Nomads trade goods in lieu of currency, and they do so in a personal exchange. If you’re trading with someone you know, you’ll “inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account,” argues the late anthropologist and activist David Graeber. “Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift,” he writes.
Nomadic organizations are not necessarily always full-blown gift economies, as they engage with their internal and external constituents, but they understand that gifting is an important dimension of their being, that some interactions can be protected from mere transactionalism if they assume the form of an asynchronous exchange of gifts.
Nomadic organizations rely on the trust and generosity of both their members and the strangers whom they encounter on their travels, and they will only engender these responses if they give without the expectation of instant reciprocation. There is another word for this kind of behavior: caring — and it is an important and timely reminder for any company that views itself as part of a larger community.
3. Becoming while storytelling
Nomadism extends beyond mobility and frugality, and it describes the ability to adapt to ever-changing social and cultural environments. Nomadic organizations are shape-shifters.
In a knowledge economy operating with largely abstract forms of capital (stock, knowledge, competencies, patents, ideas, relationships), organizations must increasingly manage intangible resources, and they will be better equipped to do so if they become intangible themselves: agile, fluid, resilient — or, in one word, nomadic.
Alexander Styhre writes in his essay on “the postmodern organization of becoming” that “there are few stable, fixed, and determined positions that can be taken by an organization” in postmodern, continuously shifting capitalism. Postmodernism calls such positions “emergent.” Styhre remarks: “The idea of emergence underlines that small changes can have great, unanticipated, and unpredictable consequences.” He describes nomadism as an “affirmative attitude towards the idea that seemingly stable systems can be reversed by small, initial events.”
In other words, the nomadic organization “is a becoming-organization…always in a state of change, or creation, of novelty. The becoming-organization continuously adapts to, and responds to, a transient reality that can never fully be determined nor fully understood or anticipated.”
He contends that if formal structures collapse and complexity grows in increasingly pluralist markets and societies, the only anchor that remains in lieu of permanent structures and homes is identity. And identity is created and cultivated through stories.
Storytelling skills are crucial to help managers navigate this new reality of permeable organizational boundaries and flattened organizational hierarchies. Styhre concludes: “In the nomadic organization, storytelling is not only what makes sense out of complex experiences, but what is making the very organization.”
Nomadic organizations therefore seek to create opportunities for storytelling whenever they can: around the equivalent of the campfire, online or IRL, in town halls or lectures. They embed stories and create spaces for stories in all communications, on every single Zoom call, every single meeting, every campaign, every performance review.
They understand that for us nomads, what we narrate about our travels is as important as the experience itself. Each trip is a story, and the more trips we can take, solo or as a collective, the richer our stories will become, and the less we give in to the lazy temptation of having just one single story, and confusing that one story with the truth. Nomadism is the antidote to dataism. All of the stories and possible identities we collect on our travels helps us shapeshift and become someone else at any given moment.
A nomadic organization not only allows a multitude of stories to be told, all the time, it also changes its own story constantly.
At the House of Beautiful Business, sometimes my colleagues stare at us in bewilderment when my co-founder and I overhaul our plans once again, revising positions we had just taken a few weeks ago. Often, they feel we are changing our beliefs, but that is not true: we have no beliefs. Actually, that is not true either. We have fewer beliefs than one might assume. And we are happy to change them if needed, so that we can arrive at a collective truth that feels more true precisely because it is not exclusively ours.
Nomadic organizations move on from story to story, thought to thought, idea to idea. They are not pivoting; they are the pivot. For business to be inspiring, interesting, and growing, it must be unfinished business.
If “home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul,” as the writer Pico Iyer once put it, then the nomadic organization is collecting moments and memories on the go, as pieces of soul-searching that have only one goal: to bring us closer to home.
To dive deeper, subscribe to the weekly Beauty Shot newsletter by the House of Beautiful Business. This week’s issue is devoted to nomadism.
This year, the House will host Concrete Love in Lisbon and online, from Thursday, October 28 to Monday, November 1.