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”.

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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.