Given these choices, which of these six ways would you choose to work in 2021? Onsite Local. Onsite Dispersed. Hybrid Scheduled. Hybrid Unrestricted. Off Site Local. Off Site Dispersed. Perhaps, like me, you’d simply shake your head and say, “I just want to work, man.”

Humans naturally are inclined to group and label things as it helps our brain understand relationships and concepts. Yet labels often create divisions and distance by creating groups that are “in” or “out” – those that belong and those that do not belong. In the effort to understand new ways of working, the label “hybrid” has sprung up as the latest word du jour. The six ways of working I listed are one organization’s effort to control how people will work in a post-Covid world. Are they trying to too narrowly define what work looks and feels like?

More than 20 years ago MIT professor, Dr. Seymour Papert, considered the world’s foremost expert on how technology can provide new ways for children to learn, worked with the then-governor of Maine to get laptops into every middle school in the state. At the time legislators were incredulous – they thought that kids would drop or lose their laptops or sell them for drugs. Study after study showed that kids performed better, were more engaged, more creative and connected, and enjoyed learning when using technology. Yet there was so much resistance to this new idea because it was a dramatic change to how kids were learning in the late 90s.

I remember Dr. Papert saying that the resistance to the laptop as a tool for learning was akin to dumping a pile of pencils on a desk and telling the kids that only one pencil could be used – it would need to be shared by everyone in the school. His point was that the laptop was simply a mechanism for conveying the learning – and it should be as readily available to each individual child as pencil and paper.

Papert and Governor Angus King were successful – and none of us could imagine what 2020 would have looked like for schools if the legislators’ fears had triumphed.

I was reflecting on these events as I read the descriptions for “off site dispersed” and “off site local”. Do I need yet another label to define how I will work when I can work on a plane, a train, or sitting in a tree? Do these labels help me make a difference with my work and be better connected to the purpose and mission of the organization I work for?  I now wonder if the effort that went into creating these six categories (a thoughtful and bright group of people spent months to come up with these definitions) was time well spent.

Imagine what different outcome might have occurred if the hours spent defining these ways of working were instead invested in meaningful conversations with colleagues about how their work is connected to something larger than themselves. If they were inspired to imagine a future where their work was more impactful and more innovative than what they were doing before the pandemic.  Where they were encouraged to question embedded assumptions and look for ways to improve efficiencies and productivity for themselves and for their colleagues. If they were given the time and space to have small group, one-on-one conversations with each other to answer these questions…

We know that people are feeling isolated and intimate colleague-to-colleague conversations are happening far too infrequently. Having people talk with just one other person and giving them time and space to listen carefully is also a way to build empathy and connection. (Have you read of the study showing that when two strangers answer 36 specific questions and then stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes that they will fall in love? I’m not promising love here, but clearly science supports this type of conversation as a way to build authentic connections.)

Here is the thing. Labels define us. They also isolate us. In 2021, we need to be more connected than ever – connected to something larger than ourselves and connected to our peers and colleagues. Do you have the courage to do something different? To buck the trend of putting a label on how people work? On May 11th we’re hosting a live webinar ‘Seven Bold Steps to a New Normal’ and invite you to join us. This is a moment for us to consider how the ways we work can lead to greater engagement, improved happiness, and stronger connection to organizational purpose.

Your voice is needed NOW to make a difference, before we fall into patterns of old ways of working simply because it is the safe thing to do and because we are afraid.  It’s time for some open, honest conversations and a new deal between employees and employers (…which is only the title of our latest report here).

What if everything you – and your people –  want is on the other side of fear?