Binary Thinking and Other Misconceptions About Work

How Covid-19 Exposes the Dangerous Trap of the Work-Life Pendulum and Grants an Opportunity to Reset the Workplace

April 22, 2020

Partner, NBBJ


Humans are fixated with the notion of opposites — “or” is easier than “and.” We love the simplicity of binary, black-or-white thinking. True or false. Progressive or liberal. Man or woman. If only society were that simple, right? Or maybe not. We’d either disagree and be in constant war, or align and never challenge assumptions — neither of which is good for humanity.

Not surprisingly though, it’s taxing to seek equilibrium. Yet it’s extraordinarily important for our survival. Just before our last global economic crisis, Roger Martin outlined the evolutionary advantage humans have by holding conflicting thoughts in a manner that enables us to synthesize better ideas and outcomes. It’s the evolutionary equivalent of the “yes, and” world of improv.

This same binary thinking also applies to a traditional view of our lives and how we spend time. Work or life. We remain fixated on the elusive ideal of the “live-work balance” in part because we aim for an ideal in which almost half of our working age will be focused on our jobs, while the other half will supposedly be spent reveling in the comforts provided by our paychecks. Almost insidiously, this mindset reveals our quiet acquiescence that work is now as important as life. Work — like education, spirituality, health, and community — was intended to bolster our existence, but it currently feels like a counterweight.

Why is that relevant now?

The disruption the coronavirus pandemic has created in our lives is confusing to say the least. We see how uncomfortable opposable thinking is at extremes: blue skies AND empty swing sets, 7.5 billion people at home AND few voices heard, a desire for social connection AND the requirement to stay 6′ distance apart. In the midst, life AND work collide into one footprint, with little chance of escape from either. This isn’t necessarily new; spurred by generational attitudes and technological advancements, we have invited work and life to be co-partners. But the discomfort we now feel is inescapably visceral. Our work-life scale is anything but balanced — it’s a swiftly swinging pendulum that doesn’t pause. Fortunately, we have a chance for a reset. Before we blindly rush back to our offices — forgetting what we’ve weathered simply because we’re thrilled to be together again — we need to recalibrate our beliefs about work and workplace.

First, remember what we know — and act
We are social animals. Approximately 40,000 years ago, we claimed our stake as a species that would survive through social activity. Instead of doubling our physical mass, we doubled our network through communication. Now we sense the importance of interaction more than ever. Video conferencing and task completion are easier to address in the short term. However, our ability to counteract physical isolation with tools that improve ideas and outcomes will be fundamental to advancing long-term ingenuity. Physical AND virtual environments must be geared towards collaboration, and equity through access will be crucial.

Physical activity and connection to nature are critical. Every person must have space in which to move and see green. We’ve acknowledged that, but are we delivering it? Those in urban settings feel this more than ever, and this demand will extend to offices once we head back. Density — of a floor or of a city block — must be humane. Urban planning, building siting, narrow floors, and outdoor access cannot be overlooked anymore. Nor can back-to-back-to-back meetings in the same windowless conference rooms. Subtractive master plans can help recalibrate the ratio of enclosed buildings to open space, daylight, and view; technology can ensure we never get stuck in one place for too long. Structured AND organic systems must coexist.

The workplace is never an “or.” It’s always an “and.” We’ve gotten so caught up in the “open office or closed office” debate that we slid effortlessly into the “working on-site or working remotely” conversation. Even in a workforce of one person, the workplace should never be 100% of anything. The opportunities for ANDs here are endless.

Then, acknowledge what we’ve learned — and don’t overreact
Working from home does not mean we’re comfortable. Yes, I can shower if I want, wear what I want, and control the amount of light and temperature. But ironically I’ve lost what truly makes me most content: time to think and the impromptu conversation. Instead, I’ve fallen prey to the merciless Outlook calendar. The learned helplessness sometimes felt in the workplace — where we unknowingly accept things “out of our control” — is carrying over into our own homes. However you move forward after this crisis, accept that work modes should drive work locale. This is not about remote OR on-site, but rather what condition best supports the type of work performed. Decipher employees’ stress points — not through complaints submitted by email or survey — but through actual conversations. Treat the cause, not the symptoms. Avoid reactive “helicopter” management. Instead, coach individuals on how to remove obstacles on their own, regardless of the physical location.

The workplace is more than just camaraderie and experience. More than ever, it’s painfully obvious that the office is as much about unexpected introductions as it is connection to familiar colleagues. We desperately need other cultures, beliefs, landscapes, and activities to reveal greater visibility to the world around us. Yes, this will help us escape our own filter bubbles, but it will also lead to a proven ability to better solve problems. Don’t grow numb to the issues you can’t see; make your work environment — wherever it might be — force novel exposures. Move beyond silos of company OR community; analyze your teams’ current day-in-the-life and ensure journeys that enable broader awareness.

Predictions can be futile — and dangerous. In his book “How Buildings Learn,” Stewart Brand outlines the predicament of buildings being predictions of the future in spite of all predictions being wrong. Fast forward to today, and anyone who’s ever worked in or designed an office is sharing their guess as to what the world will look like post-Covid-19. Regardless of where we land, if basic human nature isn’t taken into consideration, Mr. Brand will be correct yet again. Reason OR instinct leads to chaos and confusion. Taller cubicles, one-way traffic, more chemicals — ironically, these could cause the death of the office more than fallout from the health crisis itself.

In the midst of a pandemic that some predicted but few understood, we see first-hand the fallacy of the binary mindset. We no longer live in a virus-free or virus-riddled world — we understand that neither exist. We understand that working remotely or in an office should not be an either-or. We don’t care about an open-office or closed-office, just about a place that caters to our current task while offering awareness, delight, and social cohesion. And ideally, we will no longer divide our days into either working or living. Instead we have an opportunity to rediscover how work — and wherever it happens — is a platform for the way we want to live.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at


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