The Convoluted Mess of The Hybrid Workplace

What if hybrid ends up being a mix of the worst of both worlds?

Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.

McKinsey

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Dave Hollis wrote a tweet that would prove to be prophetic. In the rush to return to normal, he said, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

Well , people did consider this. And they didn’t rush back.

Whether you term it a great resignation, or as I prefer, a great reshuffle – people are reconsidering the role of work within their lives. And the prize seems to be increased autonomy rather than simply increased pay.

The emerging data highlights distinct generational differences – but shows a trend of people moving away from restrictive roles towards those which offer a better work life balance.

The shockwaves for employers have only just begun to be felt. As lockdowns are lifted and work from home mandates ebb and flow employers have found that their previously compliant servants has discovered how and when they want to work, rather than wait for some top down ’employee offer’.

Employers may claim to have a distinct culture and purpose, but the behaviour of many of our institutions during the pandemic has left many doubting their authenticity.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values. Has that happened?

Employee burnout has doubled since lockdown ended, according to Glassdoor, whose survey showed that flexible working was only one part of the jigsaw, with better performing organisations also having flatter structures.

Companies congratulating themselves on their newly found hybrid work approach should pause to reflect. What a lot of people are now experiencing is the worst of both worlds.

As Emma Goldberg writes, this sudden mash-up of remote and in-person work “has resulted in a mushy middle ground: video calls where remote workers have trouble hearing, a sense that people at home are missing out on perks (teammates), while those in the office are, too (pajamas). And the stakes aren’t just who is getting talked over in meetings. It’s whether flexibility is sustainable, even with all the benefits it confers.”

My most absurd experience , in a year of absurd experiences, was literally carrying a remote colleague around during an in-person workshop. Holding their dimly lit face on a laptop and positioning them so they could see some post-it notes on a whiteboard. My battery power died and I forgot all about them until they text me to ask if the session had finished.

Hybrid takes effort. Token attempts at employee engagement just don’t work (btw is there anything in the recent history of mankind that is more soul crushing than a festive Zoom quiz?). Companies that have crafted very strong, definable cultures have tended to be fully in-person or fully remote, not mixed.

Equally remote work isn’t equal for everyone. A study from Qualtrics, found that 34% of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. There are similar disparities for ethnic minorities.

Our offices, those that are still there, look increasingly adrift and desperate. Stowe Boyd , as ever, has a good take on this: “One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.” He goes on to make another great point: “Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.”

To get hybrid work to work it will take creative thinking like this, breaking the fourth wall between Microsoft Teams and real life. It means really getting to know individuals and understanding productivity at a very human level, listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones. It means letting our people become the designers of their own unique workdays, and giving them the right tools and permissions.

Or maybe we just need less work. Signalling that people will sacrifice some pay for a better life Spanish high-end apparel brand Desigual introduced a four-day work week at its headquarters in Barcelona last month, raising expectations in the business and political arena in Europe, where some other pilot trials have been launched.

No employee works on Friday and they can choose to work remotely any of the four working days. The company has subsidized half the cost of the 13% reduction in working hours, with employees overwhelmingly agreeing to a 6.5% paycut.

Four days a week, no meetings, you choose the hours and work where you want. Is this the future of work or just the late 2021 expectations of the many?

When people have a 60-Year career you need to design something that’s sustainable for the long term not built on burning people out by the time they hit 50. Indeed -“If a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life.”

There could be a silver lining to all of this where people re-engage with their own work on their own terms , but this is going to require huge flexibility from employers. Most will find this a challenge, and I expect to see further pandemic workplace aftershocks between now and 2025

Let’s remember that for almost all companies hybrid work is an experiment, and most experiments fail. The best experiments are small and build upon previous evidence.

When nothing is certain in the short-term never mind the long; a good approach to take colleagues with you is to “test and learn” rather than “show and tell”.


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

The Great Resignation and The Relentless Rise of Work About Work

We really need to start treating people’s time as being more valuable than the organisation’s money.

Mark McArthur-Christie

In 2012 a civil servant in the German town of Menden wrote a farewell message to his colleagues on the day of his retirement stating that he had not done anything for 14 years. “Since 1998,” he wrote, “I was present but not really there.”

People waste a lot of time at work. Or rather, we waste a lot of people’s time at work.

The fact that this isn’t a contentious statement is shocking. The only debatable point is what people waste their time on.

A recent piece of work from Zapier found that meetings aren’t killing productivity; data entry is. Although meetings have historically been blamed for sucking time out of the day, their survey of 1000 knowledge workers found data entry and covering for colleagues was the biggest non-value add. Some headlines:

The majority of workers spend less than three hours a day on impactful work. 81% say they spend less than 3 hours a day on creative work, and 76% spend less than 3 hours a week on strategic work.

Workers spend a lot of time doing work outside their role. 83% said they spend 1-3 hours a day covering for or making up work for a colleague.

Almost all workers spend a massive amount of time in chat apps. 90% spend up to 5 hours a day checking work messenger apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams. 

You and I probably don’t think we waste other people’s time, but intentionally or not we all do it.

  • We write policies and procedures that help us fulfill our outcomes but get in the way of the outcomes of others
  • We schedule unnecessary or last-minute meetings
  • We fill the inbox with messages that have no real value and are over long
  • We design processes that make it more difficult for our customers to do business with us
  • We wear busyness as a badge – proud of living a life in back-to-back meetings.
  • We fill people’s time with work about work – which gets in the way of actual work.

‘Work about work’ are activities that take time away from meaningful work, including communicating about work, searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities, and chasing the status of work.

We have whole roles in organisations whose remit is to generate work about work – distracting people from what they should really be doing.

After Covid we may be experiencing a reconsidering of priorities, the lasting effects of which will not only be personal, but economic. During lockdown many of us have recalibrated, finding that our life and work are intrinsically linked. They are one.

Unfortunately many employers have not realised this: Cutting the pay of those who work from home, or even utilizing ‘tattleware’– software to monitor workers’ online activity and assessing their productivity: from screenshotting screens to logging their keystrokes and tracking their browsing.

This in part is fuelling talk of “The Great Resignation” a period of high turnover as workers gain more confidence in the economy, and therefore feel more comfortable in making some career changes. For the first time in my career, I know of more people looking at making changes to their employment than I do people who are highly engaged.

Post pandemic we need to reshape the workplace so it reflects people’s lives today, not 20 or 30 years ago. If only one good thing came out it, it might be that we find a greater respect for other people’s time.

As Stowe Boyd writes “we should not start with the goal of conforming to the unreasonable demands of time-hungry corporations, that will use even the leverage of a pandemic to carve out an additional three hours a day from its workers.”

Full calendars and back to back meetings simply reveal leaders who are lost. There’s nothing to admire about this, it’s a very visible sign of a malfunctioning system.

We aren’t always in full control of how we spend our time. However we are in control of how we contribute to the the distraction and time wasting that happens every day in the modern world of work.

It ends when we say it ends.


Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Remote Work Is Always Efficient But Efficient Isn’t Always Effective

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

This week marked my return to in-person facilitation after 16 months. I’m not going to lie. As I began the week with a 5:30am start and a 90 minute commute, I was hardly overjoyed after a year and half of tumbling out of bed onto Teams.

Real life workshops can be expensive, inefficient, bad for the environment, and bad for you.

And they can be far, far better than collaborating online.

I’m going to risk upsetting the tech enthusiasts here – but when it comes to user experience – face to face workshops are the difference between watching a movie on an iPhone and seeing one in IMAX.

What was missing from workshops I’ve taken part in during the pandemic – although I was always looking at them, never actually in them – is the free-flowing, back-and-forth-and-sideways exchange of ideas that happens in person.

People just behave differently. They mess up. They swear. They spill drinks. No matter how much we’ve gotten used to being on screen, we’ve never actually forgotten that we are on screen. Days literally spent looking at ourselves.

It wasn’t just me saying this. Other people commented it felt like we were a team again.

The chance meetings – I literally had half a dozen in about four hours – don’t happen in our transactional world of screens.

Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation?

There’s no evidence of it, according to a piece in the New York Times.

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” says Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

As we take part in the return to the office we are seeing divergent thinking about the benefits of in-person work vs remote.

“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” says Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, goes further – saying working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”

I think people are in danger of conflating three things: innovation, collaboration, and culture.

What Tim Cook is talking about is serendipitous innovation and the randomness of accidental insights. I had at least a couple of these insights this week based on what I overheard people say – this absolutely would not happen on a Teams or Zoom call.

When Jamie Dimon says remote work doesn’t work for culture, I think he probably means the ability to get to really know what makes a person tick. The ability to act authentically and unguarded. The mistake I think people are making is equating offices as being the only way of achieving that.

We can all think of remote first or remote only companies who appear to have great cultures. Buffer for example and (maybe until recently) Basecamp. However, both of these do international get togethers or retreats that bring people together on a semi-regular basis. That is – they recognise that remote work has its limits. No offices, but purposeful about culture.

The Impact of Loneliness

When it comes to innovation there’s a power in working alongside people. As Tristan Kromer writes – being alone is hard. “Innovating should be a joyful process, best shared with people whose interests and goals align with yours. But in a more practical sense, working alone makes it hard to spot our biases and misconceptions.”

This is a one size fits no-one problem. As I’ve written before the new world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace.

  • The people that are raring to get back and be around people.
  • The ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • The group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society because of Covid.

Innovation isn’t one thing to these people.

Collaboration isn’t one thing to these people.

And neither is culture.

Every employee may be experiencing your organisational culture differently. However, if we get the culture right for the individual, then most of the other stuff we do, like delivering great service, building an enduring brand, or innovating will just be a natural by-product.

Working from a screen is efficient (if you conveniently ignore the carbon impact of back to back video calls). But when it comes to culture, efficiency isn’t everything. We’ve all had very efficient colleagues who are total arseholes.

This isn’t about requiring people back in the office. It’s about letting them influence where they can do their best work and knowing where your best work happens.

And that’s about being efficient and effective.


Photo by Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

Innovating Against All Odds: The Endlessly Adaptable Future of Work

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

Against the backdrop of a socio-environmental crisis of such complexity and scale that its not yet fuIly understood, let alone fully quantified – some businesses aren’t just surviving, but thriving. How, against such odds, do they do it?

Dr Melissa Sterry – Innovation Against All Odds

I first came across Melissa Sterry when I attended a talk she was giving in late 2019. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. ‘Babies born today would live to be 100’. This was the received wisdom that much of the conference was founded upon.

“How can we say this?” she asked. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?”

She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there are few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear: the world we think we know can alter rapidly or even disappear.

Melissa has now authored ‘Innovation Against All Odds’ – the inaugural report in the #OpenForesightSeries. An independent work, it discusses developments in science, technology, design and society at large that are shaping leading-edge innovation worldwide. 

I’d urge you to read the report as it begs the question of how to navigate not one, not two, but many possible futures, each of which is distinct and, by nature, messy in its expression. More specifically, how might our businesses both large and small, established and emerging, plot a path through such complexity?

Welcome To The Post-Usual

This morning I spoke at a breakfast seminar on the post-Covid workplace. My contention was the current hot favourite – hybrid working – won’t be as successful as many think in the long term. History shows us that the end state is rarely that which is adopted first. The predictions of deserted high streets completely robbed of office workers, or of 24/7 fully remote teams who meet up on off-sites in Bali are extreme positions, and neither are likely to to become true. As the report makes clear, recent studies have shown that those that go to extremes lack the ability to process complex scenarios, and thus mentally default to expectations that fail to accommodate the complexity of reality.

As I say in my introduction to the Evolution vs Extinction section, we are all going to have to learn to live through complexity – moving from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation. The organisations that think change is something to merely react to, or to manage or control, may struggle to survive.

As Melissa makes clear, working with change is a symbiotic process that involves businesses being constantly alert to signals of change both within and beyond their industries, regularly re-evaluating the relevance of their model, operations, positioning, and talent.

From my perspective this requires all our organisations to adopt new mindsets as well as skill sets.

  • A place where work has just enough friction. Far from all the talk of safe spaces the most effective teams will have regular, intense debates
  • A place that has permission to be different. Where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be ok with questioning assumptions and direction
  • A place that harnesses the ability to think and act experimentally. Where happy accidents occur as much as planned foresight

In a post-usual environment there’s no right way to do things or hard and fast rules. Best practice can’t be true. What currently works will often stop working in complex and volatile times.

In the seminar this morning I pinned my hopes for the future on a more enjoyable, ethical, equitable and sustainable world of work. We need to focus on the principles of the outcomes we want to achieve as much as the outcomes themselves. Innovating Against All Odds makes this point in a different way. That businesses of old were, largely, consumed only with the odds that they and their industries faced, today, responsible businesses consider the odds that we, all humanity, face. The most innovative of those businesses seek to understand those odds to the greatest extent possible, and to do all in their power to help not hinder collective efforts. How you do this isn’t as important as the act of doing it. There’s not a print-it-out and stick-it-on-the-wall methodology to follow here.

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

The companies who thrive will be the ones who are change seekers and change makers, not controllers, managers or inhibitors. 

The Return To The Office Has Begun. What Next?

39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.

What happens next now more and more bosses are demanding a return to the office?

A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

Employees are quitting rather than giving up working from home

Gradually, glacially perhaps, we are returning to something like normal.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on one management overnighter (In a hotel! With people! And flipcharts!) and had two weekends away. It felt odd at first, but reassuringly familiar. After so much disruption it’s quite remarkable how quickly we can return to old norms and habits.

At our away day we all remarked how disorientating it was on arrival – seeing colleagues we’d not seen face to face for 17 months, and meeting several colleagues for the very first time other than through a screen. But just a few hours later, over dinner and in the bar, how quickly we forgot about metre plus distancing and our year of fearing any other human contact.

At a theme park a couple of days later, thrill seekers all compliantly wore their masks on coasters despite the fact the sheer velocity removed them from our faces. Within about two hours no-one was wearing a mask. Even the most well designed behavioural nudges fail in the face of social norms that have been in place for decades. You scream on rollercoasters, you want the wind on your face, not half your face.

My point here is not to be cavalier about safety – I’ve followed the rules as much as anyone. But for all the talk of a new normal, it’s the old normal we’ve missed and the old normal to which we’ll shortly return.

Which brings us to the return of the office.

As I write Apple has announced it wants employees to return to offices by September. Workers must return to their desks for at least three days a week, chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a memo, saying “I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.” Apple aren’t alone, with Google also seemingly becoming much more cautious about a remote first working environment.

When even the CEO of Zoom says he’s got Zoom fatigue , and other executives say the perils of remote work make a return to the office an imperative – you know that change is in the air. It’s over.

The flavour of the month is hybrid working. The best of both. A few days in the office, a few days out. Everybody who is anybody is predicting the future of work is hybrid, seemingly without any actual evidence or experience.

In all likelihood, you’re going back to the office. As Daniel Davis has pointed out – existing as a hybrid is a hard act to pull off. As he says ‘the cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies’.

On the other hand a survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure is 49%, according to the poll on behalf of Bloomberg News.

The new drive to get people back into offices is clashing with some workers who’ve fully embraced remote work. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou write ‘there’s a notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.’

Not that this is just about dinosaur bosses – seemingly some employees want to have their cake and eat it too. People have been enjoying unprecedented flexibility to work when and how they want – and yet the trade union Prospect is calling for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours. What are ‘set working hours’ and how can this realistically sit alongside a hybrid, or remote work policy?

Let’s also spare a thought for the people who never left the old normal. The healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers. The only thing that changed for them is that their bosses spent even more time in meetings.

The truth is, we don’t know what happens next – there are too many variables here. Variables we haven’t yet begun to consider.

There are people who can’t wait to get back out there, meet people, to socialise and to travel. There are many who are more cautious. And there are those who have been deeply scared and scarred by the Covid experience.

Up to one in five of us are believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which is likely to stay in place for some time. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, says Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored a report on the recently identified condition Covid Anxiety Syndrome (CAS). CAS is characterised by a fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking.

Our Post Covid world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace. Some of our colleagues will not be the same people they were in January 2020.

What we do know is this:

  • Some people are raring to get back, or to get others back, to the office.
  • There’s a new strain of highly ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • There’s a group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society.
  • And there’s the people for whom nothing has changed , those who worked on the frontline during a global pandemic putting themselves at risk whilst the middle classes moaned about Zoom Fatigue.

What happens next? No-one knows. However managers now have to learn to deal not just with different personality types and skill sets – but completely different mindsets about what work is and where it should happen.

Nobody can predict the future — but everybody can choose their approach to it.

The Productivity Paradox and Zoom Fatigue: Why Technology Won’t Solve Our Problems

“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror”

Jeremy N. Bailenson
Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue

Twelve months into the great remote work experiment, where do we stand?

A recent report from Steelcase which surveyed 32,000 people globally makes the bold claim that 95% of remote workers say they’d rather be back in the office in some capacity. Only 19% say they’re completely satisfied with their current work from home arrangements. More than half want to cap their remote work time to one or two days a week.

I don’t completely buy that, and suspect most would want to cap their office time to one or two days a week. Steelcase is a company that manufactures office furniture and clearly have a vested interest to declare. That said there is a lot of value in the report- particularly the findings that people’s experience varies significantly based on their circumstances and work ‘persona’.

As we emerge from our various lockdowns the model that appears to be gaining traction is that of the hybrid workplace.

Nearly a quarter
of all businesses
say they will continue to
work in the office
as the primary
destination.

However, the
majority of
organisations
will take a hybrid
approach to
work, in which
employees work
from home, the office, and elsewhere.

Clearly then for the majority of us technology will continue to play a defining role in our worklife experience.

The Productivity Paradox

There were clear signals long before the pandemic that technology often just makes it easier for us to be busy fools.

As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. What it gives us in efficiency, it takes away by giving us more overall work to do. Cal Newport whilst researching his new book illustrates it using the example of email. “In 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.”

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. As Cal says – it seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

Zoom Fatigue: “Everyone is staring at you, all of the time”

One fairly consistent feeling among people I know across different industries and age groups is a kind of exhaustion at the end of the workday. This seems counter-intuitive given we haven’t had to commute or rush from meeting to meeting, physically at least.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has spent more than two decades studying the ways virtual communication affects individuals. At the beginning of the pandemic he wrote an article suggesting that the fatigue we get from video conferencing could be due to a kind of cognitive overload that occurs when we substitute in-person interactions for virtual platforms.

Now he has published a paper which explains the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” and its four causes: an excessive amount of close-up eye gaze, the effect of video on cognitive load, the increased self-evaluation from staring at video of yourself and the constraints of physical mobility.

The paper is fascinating and I’d recommend any remote/hybrid worker reads it, particularly if you lead teams. It outlines how quickly our behaviour has changed. Indeed behaviour “ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

One of the other emerging impacts of videoconferencing is the effect of your own reflection constantly staring back at you from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect of seeing ourselves in a mirror and its role in self image/perception. Bailenson points out most prior mirror-image research has only focused on fleeting glances at ourselves, not the effect at gazing at ourselves for hours on end.

“There is no data on the effects of viewing oneself for many hours per day,” he writes. “Given past work, it is likely that a constant mirror on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect.”

The suggestions in the research for reducing fatigue are common sense , but arguably this is the problem. Many of us know that the behaviours we are adopting are bad for us – we just aren’t listening to what our brains and bodies are telling us.

We know we spend too much time staring at screens.

We know that meetings, especially back to back ones, are corrosive to mind and body.

We know we should move , or stand, for 15 minutes in an hour unless we want a lot of problems in later life.

We know there’s a better way.

Looking Beyond Technology

The issue here is that instead of taking the initiative and setting some rules for the new world of work we wait for the technologists to solve the problem for us. The only response from Silicon Valley will be to make the tools faster, ‘smarter’ and give us more of them.

As Cal Newport points out the solutions will not emerge on their own. We need to start experimenting and finding out what works for our varied teams.

Ironically what we are missing from meetings is the things that happened between meetings: the random human connection, the physical chemistry, the overheard conversations.

Technology has helped us immensely over the past year. The lockdowns have only been possible because of technology. But algorithms only go so far and are rarely designed to encourage the accidental collisions that lead to innovation. That feeling of running into someone, asking what they’re doing, and exchanging ideas. ‘The magic that’s sparked by serendipity’ as Steve Jobs described it.

Do we really think any tool or app is ever going to recreate that?


Lego image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Dog photo by visuals on Unsplash

Where Did Our Commute Time Go?

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has ushered in a new era of remote work but either way a lot of workers have saved a lot of time this year. So you’d think we’d have put it to good use.

Have we?

Pre pandemic, commuting was the bane of many peoples lives. The housing crisis and a lack of spending on infrastructure has led to longer, more onerous, commutes for many workers. The number of people spending more than two hours travelling to and from work every day jumped by 72% over the past decade to more than 3 million. The number of people spending 3 hours or more increased by 75% – with women being disproportionately affected.

A 2006 study from Daniel Kahneman found that respondents ranked commuting as the least enjoyable activity of the day, with a large body of research linking it to marital breakdown, depression and all manner of physical and emotional impacts. Indeed, a 20 minute increase in commute has been likened to getting a 20% pay cut.

The Nine To Five plus a growing commute also locked us into a very rigid formula where we even had to compromise our natural sleeping requirements – ruinous for mental and physical wellbeing. We all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day. This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our productivity.

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has truly ushered in a new era of remote work, or perhaps the shift is merely illusory , but either way many of us have saved a lot of time this year. So you’d think we’d have put it to good use.

You’d think.

In my highly unscientific Twitter poll, nearly 40% of people say they are just working more. The removal of the natural break of a commute has just extended the work day for many, with it now becoming culturally acceptable to host meetings before breakfast or after dinner. Some people say they are actually making or eating meals – during meetings.

Working through these new social etiquettes, how to be effectively heard, how to ensure we stay on top of the meeting, how to speak up without being rude, is exhausting. Combine that with making the kids breakfast and you’re heading for a crisis.

However some people are loving their new found freedom:

So what explains the different choices people are making? A more scientific study from the US indicates they might not even be choices.

The research found that different types of workers used their time savings very differently. Independent employees (i.e. those without managerial responsibilities) reallocated much of it to personal activities like hobbies, exercise, sleeping, whereas managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings.

Importantly , for managers, the increase in work hours more than offset the loss in commuting time. They not only used the previously allocated commute time for working – they added extra time to it.

Let’s remember the virality of meetings is not a new finding. In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Microsoft Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.

Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat. It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:

  • The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
  • 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
  • The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
  • 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings

The findings showed that, unchecked, meetings spread. And it seems that this pandemic has acted as a kind of super-spreader for even more meetings.

Of course, it is possible that many of us are exaggerating the hours we are putting in. There is evidence emerging of blurring, the distinction between work and non-work disappearing so it appears you are at work longer than you actually are. We pad the work day out with household chores, exercise or even entertainment. The Harvard study found that often there was no increase in total time spent working, but an increase in work-day spans.

However, the enlightened (or lucky) ones are embracing the new world of work to explore new hobbies, do more exercise, and spend time with their family. Or doing the one thing pretty much guaranteed to make your life all together better: getting more sleep.

So, some of us are thriving and some of us flailing. The irony is that the ones flailing appear to be those with the power to change things. The managers: the people who set the work day rules for everyone else. We can change this if we truly want to. If we really care about people’s wellbeing we can stop this now.

Covid, clearly, doesn’t kill meetings. But we can.


Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Why Are Remote Workers Facing Burnout?

Employee fatigue and burnout was a wellbeing concern for many employers before the pandemic, but eight months in, the problem seems to have been exacerbated by granting people the very thing they coveted the most: unlimited flexibility.

Are we experiencing the unintended consequences of working remotely?

The hype told us that working remotely was all good – less commuting, more family time, greener planet. And the valley of despair told us it was lonely, stopped “water cooler” moments, and killed culture.

Iyas AlQasem

After the hype, comes the disillusionment. Some people are losing faith with remote work.

Employee fatigue and burnout was a wellbeing concern for many employers before the pandemic. Eight months in, the problem seems to have been exacerbated by granting people the very thing they coveted the most: unlimited flexibility.

Are we experiencing the unintended consequences of what was a sudden shift to working remotely?

Data from Gallup reveals something that’s never been seen before: fully remote workers are now experiencing more burnout than on-site workers. Before the pandemic, the perks of working remotely — either part of the time or all the time — resulted in lower levels of burnout compared with employees who were on-site 100% of the time. The situation has flipped.

On one hand, we shouldn’t panic. Let’s remember we are taking part in a massive unplanned experiment in remote work at scale and the use of technology in the workplace. Even the very best planned experiments go wrong. This was never going to work at our first attempt. We are going to learn some things do not work well at all, but we are also going to find many that do.

So let’s accept that working life has changed for good, regardless of if and when COVID-19 will be brought under control. We’ll never go back to the way we were and our focus should shift to what the minimum office looks like and how best employers can support best practices around it.

As Michael Y. Lee and Koen Veltman write , the Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the greatest threat to team connectedness we have ever seen. However their research indicates a workplace divide between those thriving and those burning out. They find that 45% of people said their team’s level of connectedness had declined since Covid-19, but nearly one-third said it had improved. Only about one in five reported no change. The pandemic, far from having a consistent effect observable across the sample, had created a divide. Teams that seemed better adjusted to the “new normal” were becoming more connected as a result, while those that adapted less saw the quality of their relationships decline. They conclude that harnessing the power of new technologies, designing new interaction rituals and leveraging the pandemic as an opportunity to show compassion and care are good places to start.

This diversity of experience presents both a problem and an opportunity. As Leisa Reichelt writes for Atlassian everyone is experiencing working from home entirely differently, and she surmises that its based on three basic factors:

  1. Household complexity – The magnitude of care duties people have responsibility for, as well as the density of their household, affects their remote working experience.
  2. Role complexity – The complexity of an employee’s workflow, and the level of social interaction they depend on to be successful in their role, influences their job success & satisfaction.
  3. Network quality – People’s access to personal and workplace communities contributes to a person’s sense of belonging, and support.

These are important factors that we need to address on an individual level rather than with one-size-fits-no-one wellbeing initiatives.

There are a couple of other emerging problems:

The Problem With Management:

Little has changed in the fundamental way we work. We’ve lifted and shifted legacy office ways of working to the home. We’ve not changed enough other stuff. Much management coordination activity continues to be focussed on replicating pre-existing processes, methods and rituals, but using digital tools, which is even easier when remote and there’s zero commute time. This means working hours have increased, some suggest by 10 hours a week.

Additionally we’re spending more time than ever reporting, trying to make our work visible to those around us. This spike in ‘work about work’ is at best self-indulgent and at worst, a complete waste of people’s time.

Obsessing about the visibility of work and making sure your team are seen to be active is the new form of presenteeism.

The Problem With Personal Planning:

A lot of office workers have never really had to think about planning and productivity. The 9-5 , for all its many flaws, has provided a monotonous but convenient template for us all to follow for generations.

You get up, you shower, you put on work clothes, and you commute to work. You put a shift in and you leave. Rinse and repeat.

The demarcation line between work and personal life has disappeared entirely. In addition, given the ease with which digital tools lend themselves to constant communication means we can exist in a constant state of distraction where deep work becomes impossible.

This is my real fear – that we focus on low grade menial ‘tasks’ and work about work rather than deep work solving the problems that truly matter.

Let’s go back to how I opened. This is an experiment. We don’t have to beat ourselves up – yet.

However , eight months in we need to pick apart what works and what doesn’t pretty damn quickly. When running innovation experiments you have to iterate very quickly before erroneous results form into established behaviours.

As our experiment goes on longer the more it becomes a normal way of working. 18 months in and we’ll find our new way of working becomes impossible to change.

The time to call out the problems and test some solutions is now. Let’s look at the third of people who are thriving in a remote work environment. What are they doing that works and how can we build upon that?

A series of radical experiments with your team would be a far better use of that 10 hours extra a week we are working than yet another Teams/Zoom Doom session.


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Can Remote Work Usher in a New Era of Creativity?

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

This post is a version of a talk I gave for Qube as part of their Remote Working Thought Leaders Summit. It brings together some content from recent posts with some additional thoughts.

My personal take on innovation is that we sometimes focus too much on adding technology rather than removing barriers to reveal the things that people truly value.

A good example at the moment is that it’s easier to speak to a consultant or your GP than it ever has been before. By necessity COVID has forced them onto the phone rather seeing people face to face. The barriers around them have been removed, if only temporarily. This has largely been achieved without new technology.

My second take is we sometimes focus as organisations on searching for ideas rather than great problems to solve.

And given the Bank of England has forecast the deepest recession in 300 years plus we have a rapidly ageing population, increased automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. I’d say we have enough problems to keep us busy. 

One of the things I’m wondering and the purpose of taking up your time is I’m thinking about how remote work can play it’s part in helping us tackle some of those challenges.  How could it increase our mental bandwidth so we can solve the great problems of our time?

As a side story – just after the UK lockdown started I found myself undergoing emergency surgery. I was nervous about going into hospital during the what was predicted to be the worst period of the virus and it was only my partner and some paramedics who forced me , quite literally , into an ambulance. 

So I had eleven days in isolation, major surgery and my family and friends were unable to visit. I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis. I also had to have eight weeks off work for the first time in my career. 

I’ve been interested in remote working and have written about it and experimented with it for the past six years. So it’s a source of some frustration that I missed the beginnings of the biggest workplace experiment we’ve ever seen!

And I’m scared we are going to mess this once in a lifetime opportunity up.

I think it important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment. We have to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the impact on their productivity.

However, COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which I know people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

The diagram from Matt Mullenweg illustrates the challenge of remote work quite well. Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon and I walk through them in my previous post.

Importantly Matt says that’s there’s a pain barrier at levels 2+3 where things can be more chaotic and less productive than being in an office. My take is a lot of companies are struggling to move forward from the chaos and it’s because of this: we lack the necessary collaboration skills or the incentive for collaboration just isn’t there.

Truth is — most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. It’s only recently that collaboration has been measured at schools.  Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving. If you’re above the age 30 – it’s likely you won’t have been taught it at all.

Our companies are not great at collaboration , internally, with partners and with communities. Almost all of our organisational targets and performance frameworks reward short term outcomes rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

So our companies must invest in and nurture collaboration skills. 

Let’s briefly look at communities.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that organisations simply can’t.

To return to my point earlier – this has been achieved by taking things away not by adding new things in. Communities have stepped into the gaps left by institutions. 

I’m inspired by the work of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who challenged the practice of adding more into communities with his idea of “Shared Spaces”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

So trusting communities to do the right thing – to work with each other to solve problems – has to be a foundation of our next normal.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else – both in our working lives and in our communities. We’ve started thinking about what a set of principles for collaborative working would look like that helps us move to another level.

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status obsessed cultures are incompatible with relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Many people are claiming to have successfully rolled out remote working because they’ve got Microsoft Teams. That’s just the technology.

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

We won’t reach nirvana by accident – only through design.

Nirvana or Business As Usual? Navigating The New Future Of Work

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

With the easing of lockdown measures now in full swing we are coming to the end of the largest global work experiment we’ve ever seen.

As I’ve written previously it is vitally important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of many of our civil liberties. Any evaluation has to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the subsequent impact on their productivity.

COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

We’ve finally challenged the office orthodoxy, and it’s our choice where we go from here.

Stay remote?

Back to the office?

Or adopt a hybrid model.

For a fairly conservative view you could look at the new report from Xerox, The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era. Designed to uncover how IT decision makers are addressing these major considerations in a highly fluid environment 600 IT leaders were surveyed.

Depressingly, it estimates that 82 percent of the workforce in respondents’ organisations will have made a full return to the office in 12 to 18 months. For those of us who were asking whether offices would still exist that’s a healthy vote in favour of the status quo.

To be fair, the report also notes that the softening of employer attitudes toward remote working – with managers realising ‘hey, they actually do work without us bosses looking over their shoulder’. It’s this realisation – and the sight of scores of managers littering LinkedIn and Twitter with excitable Zoom and Teams selfies – that could usher in the hybrid workplace with employees working remotely all, some or none of the time depending on their role.

It’s always useful for us remote work laggards to listen to people who have been working in a distributed fashion long before the pandemic.

As Matt Mullenweg discusses in his conversation with Sam Harris, he has seen companies make the transition for small (10 people) to large (1500+) with an evolving set of work principles.

As Matt says – any company who can enable employees to work in a distributed environment now has a moral imperative to do so. Forcing a commute is worse for the planet and worse for personal wellbeing. It’s no longer the act of a responsible employer.

Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon:

  1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than they did.
  2. The first level is where most businesses were pre COVID, 98% reckons Matt. There’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. Level one companies, says Matt, were largely unprepared for this crisis.
  3. Level two is where most of us landed during lockdown. Doing what you did in the office , just remotely. Matt likens this level of maturity to the situation in the early 1920’s when radio drama started. Performers would literally recreate plays – but just on the radio. There was no taking advantage of the new technology or innovating the medium. Importantly Matt points out that this can be less productive than level one as we explore and get distracted. His advice – push on – nirvana lies aheads
  4. At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. People invest in better equipment. It’s where teams start to collaborate on shared documents or build business cases during the meeting.
  5. Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work.
  6. And level five, Nirvana This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organisation could. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to work every day.

The most important lesson I take from Matt is that there will be a pain barrier to push through at Level 2.

As someone who took a extended break from work at the beginnings of COVID I returned to find people saying they were overwhelmed, in continual back to back meetings , and working 12 hours days. That this has become acceptable in such a short period of time is a form of madness , and is wholly unsustainable if we are to push forward and mature our approach to distributed work.

In fact the terminology of remote work is itself unhelpful almost framing the solution as either office or home based. As Stowe Boyd suggests perhaps we need to turn the thinking and terminology around and drop both the ‘hybrid’ and ‘remote’ terms. As he says, let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, rather than zero office and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

We do need to avoid simplistically calling for the death of the office (although let’s be clear – it’s dying). Equally we need to resist the corollary of “get back to the office”. What about the city centres? What about the shops and spaces that have supported us the past few months? It would be remiss of us to exclude our local communities from this conversation.

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

That – and that alone – should form the basis of a discussion of where the work is actually done.

In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?

One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.

This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.

As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.

This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.

With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.

Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.

That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.

The-phases-of-disaster-response-Image-When-disaster-strikes-Beverly-Raphael-1986-
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

The Positives

People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more,  saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.

There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.

The Negatives

Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.

It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm.  Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm.  However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.

Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.

Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.

However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.

Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.

There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing  leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.

As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.

So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.

As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.

Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.

“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”

It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.

We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.

We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.

However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.

The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).

Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.


 

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Remote work has accelerated 10 years in 10 days. The only thing that could pull people back to the office is the ego of the bad middle manager scared of losing control – Chris Herd

The revolution in remote working , when it came, was peaceful. Orderly even.

There was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us.

The way things worked two weeks ago are not working today. All our previous beliefs and prejudices have been thrown out the window.

The managers who believe that you can’t trust people to work productively from home have had to adapt to a whole new world. 

The people we were told were ‘change resistant’ have just demonstrated that they can change pretty damn fast actually.

Last week Bromford Lab hosted a debate about the new world of remote work and it was noticeable that –  after the initial shock – people have adapted to different ways of working very easily. The coronavirus has moved the future forward in many respects.

The biggest challenge for people seems to be not the technology – but any combination of juggling work with childcare, staying motivated, finding a new routine and dealing with a changing workload.

A caveat: let’s not confuse enforced home working during an international lockdown with flexible working.

However the virus has just kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment in history.  And right now there are going to be lots of CEOs and Boards looking at their empty offices which cost millions each year and thinking what the future looks like.

The World We Left Behind

Before we get all nostalgic about worklife before the lockdown let’s remember the world we had created.

Even if we only manage to cut meetings down by 50%, it’s conceivable that we could add 18 months of value back into the average workers life.

18 more months we could spend not working, but rather being with your kids or spending time with friends or your community.

Before life returns to ‘normal’ let’s consider carefully what we want to return to.

The World We Move Towards 

Now is the time for some reflection about what we value and what we stand for. The actions of the large companies who first thought is to ‘furlough the non-essentials’ will be remembered for decades to come. Similarly those companies who don’t support employees who are striking a very difficult balancing act between family care and work.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values.

We will remember what companies do next.

As Nick Martin writes in a piece for The New Republic:

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

In the Bromford Lab debate there was a lot of talk of what life should be like when we return to ‘normal’. One of my favourite quotes came from my colleague Steve Nestor:

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It means getting to know teams, and actually listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones.

Letting our people become the designers of their own unique workday, and giving them the tools and permissions to create a happier and more fulfilling life for everyone could be the start of something special.

 

 

Why Do We Hate Our Offices?

If you are working in an office today you will be interrupted – or you will interrupt yourself – every 3 minutes.

And what’s worse is it will take most of us up to 23 minutes to recover from that distraction.

If your boss lets you, go home. Walking out the office door is likely to be the single most productive decision you’ll make this year.

It’s not hard to see why we dislike our workspaces and what they bring us:

  1. About 11 million meetings are held on average every single day, with employees in the US attending about 62 meetings every month.
  2. British workers spend 492 days of their lives travelling to work, spending over £800 every year.
  3. A survey of British workers, published in June, found that those in a hot-desking office took an average of 18 minutes to find a seat.
  4. The average professional spends a third of each work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. And 62% of that email is not even important.

On top of this the actual design of our workspaces is mostly poor. Whilst the technology we use is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, the places we work from haven’t really developed.

How The Open Office Came To Rule The World

In 1958, an art professor named Robert Propst set out to design the office to rule them all. He had researched the habits of office workers, including what made them inefficient, what they liked and disliked, how often they moved from their desks.

He monitored every wasted second—in the hope that he might save us all, not by leadership, but by design.

Typically, he observed the the manager in a corner office and the majority of workers at open desks that were arranged in static lines, with very little consideration for any form of privacy, storage or intrusion.

The ‘action office’ he invented was intended to take us away from the distractions of open environments, and give us a semi private space we could decorate with photographs and other items. It was an ‘office’ for those of us who were not important enough to warrant a real office of our own.

It wasn’t the fault of Propst, but his original designs came to be dumbed down and the mutated into the cubicle, which came to visually represent the office silo, banks of workers not talking to one another.

We needed a solution, an open office that made us collaborate and communicate with our colleagues.

 

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The pursuit of increased workplace collaboration led managers to transform cubicle offices into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing spaces with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries. However, research by the Royal Society shows that open plan offices do not build teams or increase collaboration.

The reason why we don’t collaborate is far more complex. If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. Office design is only a miniscule part of that.

Equally, office design has done little to improve our productivity. UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, but this isn’t translating into improved productivity. In fact, the research shows employees in Denmark put in over four hours less than UK workers – whilst productivity in Denmark is 23.5 percent higher than the UK.

It doesn’t look like the innovators can save us either. The latest office disruptor – WeWork – appears to have stalled too. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram people into cool looking spaces and give them snacks — puts lipstick on the problem, but wholly fails to address it.

The cost of all this is measurable, in employee disengagement scores and the costs of our locations. The average annual property cost for a British office worker is £4,800 ($6,000), according to Investment Property Databank.

Can the death of the office come soon enough?

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings and managers (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set an unhelpful precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Rising travel costs, advances in technology and the climate crisis are cohering to guarantee that working from home becomes relatively commonplace. And a new form of remote work has emerged: working from anywhere , in which employees can live and work where they choose.

After over a century of trying to solve the productivity problem with physical design we need to ditch the idea of the office as being the answer.

We don’t require new workspaces but new cultures.

There is no unique formula for productivity or creativity. It’s now the role of the leader to work with others to find out what their own unique formula is.

That might mean:

  • Giving teams true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their  work
  • Providing funding for informal meet-ups to allow people to collaborate in ways that suit them
  • Giving people freedom over the technology they use, allowing them to make use of personal devices not company mandated relics.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. That’s why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in them being the average of everyone.

Yes – we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It also means getting to know teams, actually listening to people as individuals, and letting them become the designers of their own unique workday.


 

Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay

What If We Replaced All Our Managers With Robots? 

Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done

Peter Drucker

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Gary Hamel , but his explanation of how management ‘spreads’ is always helpful.

Typically a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees. 

But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

Most of our organisations are focused on growth rather than remaining small and simple. More people inevitably means your coordination and communication problems magnify, the management hierarchy multiplies, and things get more complex.

Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity increases. However, exactly the opposite happens with organisations. When companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down.

This is why companies which grow quickly get into trouble. A fast-growing company can go from 20 to 400 people without changing anything about how they work. What works in an organisation of 200 people simply doesn’t in an organisation of 2000.

Globally, our employees crave more autonomy and less bureaucracy. However, there is currently a gap between wanting autonomy and flexibility, and getting workplace autonomy and flexibility.

And the reason it’s difficult is this: it’s impossible to dismantle bureaucracy without redistributing authority. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Most of our organisations don’t redistribute authority, they accumulate it.

So what if we replaced all the managers with robots? 

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, at the moment we’re either 100% human led or just starting to explore the possibilities of having machines support decision making.

Simon points out that humans are particularly bad at making decisions. Our decisions are largely emotional and often illogical, which can lead to inequity, data bias and bad outcomes. Having a machine help us make decisions more efficiently actually makes a lot of sense. Who says they wouldn’t be better than managers?.

The Mystery of Miserable Employees

In an article for the New York Times, Neil Irwin explains how a team at Microsoft used data rather than managers to figure out why a business unit had such poor work life balance. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration. Rather than leaving it to managers to solve the problem the team deployed a Microsoft Office feature called MyAnalytics which allows users to receive nudges when their actions don’t line up with their stated goals. A bot notifies you about how much focused time you had, or how many hours you were on email.

Just like wellbeing trackers like Fitbit, rather than doctors, are nudging people to improve the quality of their sleep, we’ll see algorithms, rather than managers, nudging us to be more productive at work.

To keep teams productive and happy, managers need to master the basics: don’t overwork or expect others to; hold frequent 1:1s; make cross-functional connections; and of course, keep meetings on time and inclusive. All tasks perfectly suited to a robot.

We Are All Managers Now

Like it or not we are headed in a direction of either performing human focused work (social, health workers, coaches) or performing deep non-routine knowledge work. All other tasks will be automated at some time in the near future.

It will happen slowly:

  • Things like Robotic Process Automation will begin to undertake the systematic and behind-the scenes jobs
  • AI will complement this software to add thought, judgement and intelligence
  • You’ll be told by a bot what the optimally productive length of the workday is for you.  You’ll be advised whether it makes sense to focus on deep contact with a few customers or much looser relationships with a wider community
  • Monitoring tasks (hours worked, productivity) will be democratised and we’ll be self managing using nudges and prompts – developing the interpretive skills to understand what data is telling us.

The automation of these routine tasks will allow people to focus on ideas, innovation and higher-value work.

Management has been responsible for a lot of disengagement with the workplace. This multi-tiered management model piles inefficiency upon inefficiency. Decision making slows. People become less empowered.

Robots will replace most managers before they replace front-line workers. But it won’t happen overnight and won’t even feel uncomfortable.

If we design it sensibly and ethically, the organisation where you are your own boss could be less cumbersome and costly – leading to a much happier and productive world of work.


 

 

Image by Jin Kim from Pixabay 

 

Is It Time To Get Rid Of The Job Title?

Last week Elon Musk dropped all job titles associated with Tesla referring to himself as CEO of nothing.

Although he soon discovered that some jobs are legally required – for now at least.

He said he deleted all his Tesla titles to ‘see what would happen’ , so it could be just another outlandish statement – but he may be right in general about the futility of job titles.

Titles exist to to signal to others what we do and our relative status within an organisation. Their main role is to provide clarity to others about the person they are dealing with.

However , in an era when many of us will work from our teens to our 70’s, and beyond, the idea that all our skills and experiences – that everything we have to offer the world of work- can be neatly summed up in a couple of words, is naive.

Additionally job title inflation – the increasing number and size of grandiose job titles in corporations and organisations – is everywhere.

Last year the BBC announced it would reduce over 5000 baffling titles to just 400. In the public sector there’s a surfeit of Officers, Directors and Heads of Everything, all designated to make people feel a lot more important than they actually are.

I once ran a team that abandoned job titles. It worked for a while. People actually had to define themselves by what they contributed rather than use a title as a signal of their identity, self-esteem and status.

After a few months though we bowed to pressure to bring them back – the wider corporate structure couldn’t cope without badges to label people with, and a couple of the more established members didn’t like the fact that there was no way of signalling their seniority. I gave in to the desire for hierarchy. That’s why most people hold on to titles: they want their fair share of recognition.

The inability of our organisations to think beyond job titles and job descriptions – of neat little boxes – is in part linked to our failure to shift from an industrialised model of work.

As Roger L. Martin has written – companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers. Many modern workers don’t manufacture products or perform basic services or tasks, rather they produce decisions, thoughts or ideas.

This results in an almost primitive form of design – the organisational structure chart – which places knowledge within neat directorates and then draws boxes around people.

The end result of this is there for all to see: an inability of organisations to tap into the skills of people across the wider organisation and a cyclical round of growth, redundancy, hiring and firing as the company recruits based on a job description only to realise it doesn’t need it a few years later.

There are companies who have made the successful shift away from job titles:

Gusto:  “The most immediate change was in our recruiting. Our hiring managers saw incredible people come through—people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. Eliminating job titles helps create a “no ego” culture”.

CloudFare: – “Titles definitely come with a cost. The best ideas are bottom-up, not top-down. But in most companies, the ideas come from the top, and hierarchy can mean artificial authority wins, not the best idea”

Valve:  We have no formal titles. The few employees who’ve put titles on business cards do so to satisfy outsiders apprehensive about working with people without labels. The same applies to Gabe Newell, one of Valve’s founders. “I think he’s technically the C.E.O., but it’s funny that I’m not even sure of that.”

We Are All Project Managers Now

Today’s workplace is complex and dynamic, needing a high degree of technological proficiency. There is a generational shift in the workplace, making it a new HR challenge to lead multi-generational and more diverse teams.  There is a need for people who can lead or execute projects from beginning to end.

Let’s get rid of “jobs,” argues Roger L. Martin, and instead give everyone “a portfolio of projects.”

If we used the project rather than the job or the job title as the organising principle, we’d be much more productive, efficient and happier.

This would avoid progression being seen from jumping from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and grabbing “director” accolades along the way. People will know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling more advanced projects.

The Rise Of Quirky Titles

“We have our fun titles, and everyone has the opportunity to consider their title and come up with something that means something to them…”

Maybe if we are to have job titles we need ones that are more reflective of who we are personally. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and London Business School found that “self-reflective” job titles reduced workers’ emotional exhaustion, helped them cope with emotional challenges, and let them affirm their identity at work. The team tested their findings in hospitals, where they asked workers to give themselves new job titles. An infectious disease specialist became a “germ slayer,” and an X-ray technician was dubbed a “bone seeker”.

Tightly defined job titles and job descriptions can kill innovation at a time when we need to create more concept and value-driven teams.

They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”.  Huge resources lie untapped.

The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of who they are, where they sit or what their title is.

Continuous Partial Attention: Designing A Less Distracted Future Of Work

Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better – Nicholas Carr , The Shallows

You’d have thought we’d have given up on the physical office by now.

UK workers spend a year of their lives in meetings. If you work in the public sector it’s even worse – with nearly 2 years waste clocked up for every worker.

You spend another year of your life commuting to and from work. At a total cost of about £50,000.

You spend about 60% of your time on email,  about 4 years of your life.

With all this apparent evidence you’d expect to a see a swift migration away from the office but this is exactly what’s NOT happening.

Average commuting time to work is increasing despite research showing that every extra minute spent travelling to and from work reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

Not that all this effort is achieving much – despite our technological advancements – productivity in the last decade was the worst since the 1820’s.

The problem isn’t just the physical office anymore – our work accompanies us on a variety of screens wherever we go.

A work task can sit in the same queue as an alert about a Netflix series. What we haven’t done is considered how to reshape work in a world of digital technologies and a brutal competition for attention.

Clearly, we haven’t found the balance – we just aren’t using technology to its full potential. We are running against the machines rather than running with them.

Is Microsoft Office A Bigger Productivity Drain Than Candy Crush Saga?

In his latest post, Tim Harford makes an important point – that technology has made generalists of us all. General purpose devices running software such as Microsoft Office has meant anyone can have a go at anything — with “well-paid middle managers with no design skills taking far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at”.

In my first job, I was literally not allowed to write a letter to a customer. It was deemed more efficient to be done by a typing pool comprised almost entirely of middle-aged women. Anachronistic for sure, but also error-free.

The point that Tim makes is that this drive to make us all-rounders – self-serving but ultimately average at everything – may lead to a productivity loss we haven’t even considered.

Habitually Distracted Minds

The typical smartphone user touches their phone about 2,500 times each day, meaning we are pretty susceptible to distraction. The problem is that distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days.

Today we have a number of different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention. I even had an automated reminder at 6am on Christmas Day from a particularly persistent workplace irritant. Robots don’t sleep. Or celebrate Christmas apparently.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting the technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

At Bromford we’ve made a start – setting design principles for 30 different service areas, but we need to go much further. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks, we need to consider the balance between generalists and specialists.

The future of work isn’t a place you go.

It’s better to think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done in environments that limit constant interruption.

How The 9-5 Saps Our Creativity and Harms Our Productivity

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven; From eleven to noon, think you’ve come too soon; From twelve to one, think what’s to be done; From one to two, find nothing to do; From two to three, think it will be; A very great bore to stay till four.

A Day At The Office – Thomas Love Peacock, published in 1852

Nearly 10 years ago, Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California conducted a study into workplace interruptions.

Observers literally followed people around all day and timed every event that happened in the office.

What they found is that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted – was just three minutes. And it took on average 23 minutes for the person to regain their focus.

More importantly, after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.
A decade later – how many companies have considered this and what it means for design?
How many of us truly consider how environments and work practices are conducive to productivity and fulfilment?

pablo

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set a precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – and this is the focus of my piece – they presume that there is a unique formula for productivity or creativity.

There isn’t.

One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm. The “very great bore to stay still until four” that Peacock wrote about – over 150 years ago – has gone largely unaddressed.

Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

As a result, very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

That’s why at Bromford we have no specific start or finishing time. As Philippa Jones writes , we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

IMG_5523
Nintendo and Google Home – My office space last week

Acceptance of the need to reimagine the world of work isn’t everywhere though.

Last week I badly needed to focus to hit a deadline. Focus comes to me not from sitting in silence but from short 30-minute periods of concentration accompanied by music, and punctuated every half an hour by rapid pacing, a quick video game or Twitter catch up.

Interestingly – it was commented on, fairly negatively, by a colleague, even though it was having no impact at all on their work.

That’s an entirely normal response for people – because it doesn’t look like the world  they are used to.

  • Sitting at a desk doing emails looks like work.
  • Playing Mario and shouting song requests at a virtual assistant – doesn’t.

It’s incredibly difficult for most people to imagine a different future, which is why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in the average of everyone.

New buildings need to be designed for networks – and organised to maximise a meeting of minds.

At Pixar for example, Steve Jobs created environmental conditions that promoted novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in the environment. As a result of this flow, creativity and productivity increased.

Traditional office buildings were built to isolate people, so forcing people to meet each other leads to different operating systems.

The challenge is that this won’t work for everyone. Most of us don’t work at Pixar and have to balance the needs of colleagues with very different working styles.

A good place to start would be better understanding our people.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

A world of work that’s in tune with your own circadian rhythms sounds like a more productive, more creative and infinitely happier place.

How To Find And Nurture Digital Readiness

When someone in public service says, ‘I don’t use social media. No one wants to know what I had for breakfast!’ I hear, ‘I don’t have the vaguest interest in understanding how an increasing number of citizens get information or choose to interact.’  – Leah Lockhart

What are we doing about boosting the Digital IQ of our organisations?

As we continue to transform and tilt ever further towards automation, it’s time to question the amount of support we are giving our colleagues.

The latest report from PWC says that confidence in our digital abilities is at an all time low.

pwc-digital-iq-moving-target

In a global survey of Executives 52% rated their digital IQ as strong. Down from 66% just three years ago.

Our people , it seems, simply can’t keep up with the advances in technology.  So what are we doing wrong?

First of all the scope of “digital” has changed. It used to mean our IT capabilities, then extended to take in social media awareness. Now it’s much more pervasive, touching on strategy, culture, customer and colleague experience.

Employing people with the right digital skills is now non-negotiable.

Yet some organisations are adopting a wait and see tactic:  let the old guard retire and be usurped by a new breed of younger digital natives.

Except that won’t happen.

‘Born digital’ millennials are a figment of our collective imagination. A review paper has concluded that “information-savvy digital natives do not exist.”

Instead we need to focus on seeking out what Pew Research call ‘digital readiness’.

This exhibits itself in two ways:

Digital skills: the skills necessary to adapt to new technology, browse the internet and share content online.

Trust:  people’s beliefs about their capacity to determine the trustworthiness of digital resources and to safeguard personal information.

These two factors express themselves in the third dimension of digital readiness, namely use – the degree and aptitude to which people use digital tools in the course of carrying out their day to day work.

Being digitally ready doesn’t mean having a CEO on Twitter or chasing the latest apps. It means knowing what your personal goals are and what tools to use to achieve them. It means creating new networks and sharing knowledge to benefit your team or organisation.

In the Pew research, only 50% of people describe themselves as very digitally confident. Therefore it follows we all have people in our organisations , from Executives to the frontline, that are falling behind.

Perhaps we need to identify the digital laggards and connect them with the leaders who are often hiding in full view from the organisation. They are often overlooked by traditional Leadership Development programmes which tend to perpetuate a hierarchical model of ‘identifying future leaders’.

In my experience the most digitally ready often operate in ways that are wholly inconsistent with the current operating structure. They take a more radical approach to decision-making, and they don’t recognise a command-and-control model.

We haven’t really discussed the implications of this for our leadership. The new potential of artificial intelligence and robotics poses major new challenges for organisational development.

Really we need a new set of questions:

  • What are the implications of new technologies for leadership at all levels?
  • How will these changes disrupt and impact the business model?
  • What knowledge and skills should be our priority?
  • What do we hold on to from our past? What do we discard?

Just like knowledge has been democratised through social media, leadership will become democratised and ever more flattened. Making the transition from the individualist nature of leadership to a more collective focus won’t be easy.

It requires moving away from thinking that tools and systems can transform us.

It requires moving away from seeing ‘Digital Leadership’ as the preserve of an elite few who we all follow.

Unless we all feel that our Digital IQs are improving – that we are ready for the challenges of an increasingly automated future – we may find we have no place in it.

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