Is Digital Bureaucracy Making Us Less Productive?

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.

Albert Einstein.

Some context for this post: I’ve been doing some thinking recently about why people keep saying they are ‘too busy’.

Is busyness an indicator of having too much work to do, or a sign of a lack of empowerment?

Or is it a sign of working within an overly bureaucratic system?

Back in 2015 Aoife McLoughlin from James Cook University‘s Singapore campus published an interesting hypothesis. What if our very use of technology makes time appear to go faster? She found that those who were almost always online overestimated the amount of time that had passed compared to those who rarely used technology. A person sitting playing with their phone in a waiting room would estimate that an hour passed in just 50 minutes. And it wasn’t just those who used technology often – McLoughlin found that even people who read an advertisement for the latest iPad perceived time as passing more quickly than those who had read an excerpt from a novel. 

“It’s almost as though we’re trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient,” McLoughlin told ScienceAlert. “It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time.”

Whilst feeling busy and the pace of life picking up is nothing new, we have more technology available to us than ever before – and whether you are home based or a field worker, your work life is a constant series of reminders and prompts – a smorgasbord of digital nagging to keep telling you some work is outstanding. Hurry up.

It’s my contention that we have created a new digital bureaucracy – where everyone can invade our most precious commodity: time.

Parkinson’s Law 1 – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson’s Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states that work creates more work, gradually expanding to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating rules or things to be filled in. Then they hire more subordinates, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision.

The theory has been developed in recent years by the likes of Gary Hamel and Michele Zahini who posit some useful indicators of bureaucracy:

  • In a bureaucracy, your power and compensation are the product of head count and budget.
  • No one ever downsizes their empire voluntarily.
  • Every new challenge begets a new CxO or head office unit. These soon become permanent fixtures.
  • As the organization grows, more layers get added, and the ratio of managers to frontline team members creeps upward.
  • With every crisis, authority moves to the centre, and stays there.

And as bureaucracy grows stronger, those who might resist it grow weaker

The new digital bureaucracy

It’s now easier that ever to delegate a piece of work or a task for someone to do. The growth of RPA, and the introduction of robotic managers could make our work lives heaven or hell – with freshly designed e-learning for us all to complete each morning.

Writing in Diginomica, Chris Middleton points out that in the name of efficiency the UK Government has created 21,000 jobs across 46 departments in support of its digital, data, and AI ambitions – and run up large consultancy fees in the process.

As he says ‘is all this frenetic activity and internal job creation better for citizens? The signs aren’t necessarily good. After creating a colossal bureaucracy, the government has also sought to shift the onus back onto citizens and businesses in some cases.’

And there you have it. Far from digital being our saviour it could unleash a whole new series of tasks for us to do.

As Gerry McGovern has said – this is the problem with digital. We make it easy. We make is cheap or free. Production and consumption explode.

There is a solution here but ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on their own. Ending digital bureaucracy means designing out the interruptions and the prompts, it means taking more personal responsibility instead of endlessly delegating it to others.

It means remembering that digital is an enabler rather than our manager.


Image licensed from Alfredo Martirena

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

The Hawthorne Effect: Why Employers Need To Be Cautious In Post-Pandemic Planning

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

During the 1920s and 1930s a group of researchers began a series of industrial experiments in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago. The research comprised several studies that tested the impact of changes in work structures on employee productivity.

The researchers looked to see whether workers would increase effort when physical factors like room lighting was changed. During the study, employee productivity improved both when the lighting was increased and when it was decreased. However, productivity decreased as soon as the study ended.

Other complementary experiments such as the effect of changes in working hours and work breaks also resulted in increased productivity, but again, this declined after the conclusion of the study. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that employees were actually responding to the direct attention they were getting from the researchers and supervisors during the study, rather than to any changes in the environmental variables.

The idea that merely consulting workers and slightly adjusting their conditions, without meaningfully changing anything, might make them more efficient and productive became known as the “Hawthorne effect” and entered the lore of leadership, HR and management BS. I say BS, as later research suggests that many of the original claims made about the effect are overstated.

That said – the central point is valid – the Hawthorne effect remains a useful term for referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment.

When you know you’re being observed, you behave differently.

It’s worth remembering this as employers, pundits, and even Governments scramble to draw conclusions from the Mass Remote Work Experiment.

First of all , it was an experiment only in the loosest sense. As Bryan Lufkin writes, ‘we weren’t just working from home – we were working from home during a pandemic. The experiment began almost overnight, with minimal preparation or support. We worked at our kitchen tables, sometimes watching our children, as we sheltered from a virus. Everyone was in the same boat, working remotely without choice.’

I’d disagree that everyone was in the same boat, the pandemic has neatly illustrated the divides that cross our country. Even at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, only 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home. And that figure doesn’t tell the whole story as there’s a huge regional disparity, for instance 71% of workers in Richmond upon Thames did some work from home in 2020, in Blackpool: just 14%.

And from this flawed experiment, huge conclusions are being drawn.

Ministers and centre right commentators have suggested it’s time to get everyone back to the office – even suggesting that those who want to continue working from home make a salary sacrifice for the continued benefit.

The liberal left have responded with, um, exactly the same proposal – with Google employees potentially seeing their pay cut if they switch to working from home permanently in the wake of the pandemic.

The thinking behind all this seems to be based upon an ideological position that those working from home are getting a ‘better deal’ that now needs recalibrating in their overall package. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with what you’d think employers would be more bothered about: productivity.

In an interesting piece that quickly goes down a dead end, Luay Rahil makes the point that the argument that “I’m more productive at home” isn’t always a good one. We should stop using an economic formula (productivity) to solve the office vs. home problem. It is a sociological issue (about collaboration, teamwork, belonging) and not a purely economic issue.

This is a point worth exploring in any discussion about the future of work. For years, people have predicted that the future of knowledge work would be remote and distributed, but rarely have we focused on what we mean by productive and valuable work, let alone how we measure it. For people like me, whose work is often hard to categorise and assess the value of, this is a much more interesting discussion than when and where that work is done. Is the work you are producing of value, does it make the world a bit of a better place, and will someone pay you for it?

Whatever that work is the post-pandemic fundamentals will largely remain the same: people will always need to find ways of collaborating and problem-solving together.

There IS something to explore about finding the sweet spot that works for the individual, the team AND the wider collective but the one thing I’m certain of is the answer won’t be “now, get back to the office”.

In truth, this isn’t the end of the minimum office experiment but its natural beginning.

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

Enlightened employers will let their employees experiment with ways of working that look after people, the planet and productivity, in ways we couldn’t imagine pre-pandemic.

The less enlightened will continue to see their workers as lab rats to be observed, experimented upon and measured. Rewarding them for good behaviour.


Image by andreas N from Pixabay

The Rise of The Four Day Work Week

A shorter work week might force us all to cut meetings, limit email and interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate, productive and happier level.

Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.

Rudiger Dornbusch

Like any crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to rethink how we do things. How we live, how we work and how we consume have been recurring motifs for the past fourteen months. Old ideas have gone mainstream. I never thought we’d see a large scale Universal Basic Income pilot in the UK – until Rishi Sunak placed over 10million workers on furlough.

The concept of a better work/life balance has been a common debate for decades – but the pandemic has forced the issue to the fore, with many now openly questioning the wellbeing impact of 40 hour+ work weeks.

Shorter workweeks are not a new idea. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, predicted that by 2030, technology would have advanced to a point where most people would work 15-hour weeks – all while productivity rose. He’s likely to be wrong on both counts.

In 1956, the then Vice President Richard Nixon  – another proponent of a universal basic income – said that a four-day workweek would arrive in the U.S. in the “not too distant future.”

Many of us have explored the idea. About fifteen years ago I trialled a four day working week for a member of my team. Their 37 hours were divided into four days meaning they were working nine hours a day. We did it for the person obviously but also to test the reaction of the rest of the team. Would they resent someone working a day less than them but getting the same salary.? The experiment stalled after a few months – for childcare reasons rather than it being impractical.

However , I noticed a strange thing over those few months. Productivity increased. Higher quality work, and more of it, was being produced in four days rather than five.

‘The old ways of working are outdated’

Henry Ford established Saturday and Sunday days off for his staff in 1926 and he was also keen on a 40-hour working week. It wasn’t entirely altruistic as it also gave his workers the opportunity to spend their down time buying (his) consumer products.

The 40/5 model has been the dominant default ever since, to the extent that people rarely question it.

However, times are changing.

A research piece from Henley Business School found:

  • Two thirds of UK businesses operating on a four-day week reported improvements in staff productivity
  • A third of business leaders say that making the switch to a four-day working week will be important for success in the future – a move which has already saved implementing businesses an estimated £92 billion annually
  • Three quarters of British workers back a four-day working week (although – why wouldn’t they?) – with 67% of Gen Z saying it would drive them to pick a place to work

Last December Unilever began a year long four day week for it’s 82 workers in New Zealand. The move is an “experiment” to see if shortening the workweek by one day can “bring material change in the way [employees] work,” Unilever New Zealand managing director Nick Bangs said.

In May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said companies should consider implementing four-day workweeks in order to boost employee productivity, provide workers with a better work/life balance, and encourage domestic tourism to make up for a pandemic-induced lack of foreign visitors.”I’d really encourage people to think about [four-day workweeks] if you’re an employer and in a position to do so,” Ardern said in May. New Zealand is known for now putting happiness above GDP challenging us to question how the world views productivity with the the first-ever “well-being budget”

They aren’t alone though, in the northern hemisphere Spain has become one of the first countries in the world to trial the four-day working week after the government, prompted by the left wing party Más País, agreed to launch a modest pilot project for companies interested in the idea.

In May 2020, the team at Buffer kicked off a one-month trial of the four-day work week. A year later, they’re still at it. They have an interesting set of principles that frame their approach including:

  • No meetings or expectation of communicating on Slack on Fridays.
  • Fridays as a default day off for most areas.
  • Teammates who are not meeting their objectives may choose or be asked to work 5 days.

All of these efforts followed the lead by Microsoft who trialled this in Japan during summer 2019 when their staff enjoying a three-day weekend — whilst getting their normal, five-day paycheck. The notable point about this was they stated they had seen a 40% increase in productivity. It’s not entirely clear how this incredible boost was measured – nor whether it would continue if the the experiment was extended – but it’s made a lot of companies take note.

The positive here is that people are finally experimenting with ways of work that boost productivity and wellbeing rather than presenteeism – this is to be applauded.

Whether you agree with a four day week or not isn’t really the issue. The question is whether it makes continued sense to contract jobs through the lens of a five day week. Indeed, the more our jobs require us to be collaborative and creative, the less is makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.

We’ve all witnessed Parkinson’s law in action. We know that work expands inexorably so as to fill the time available.

A shorter work week might force us all to cut meetings, limit email and interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate, productive and happier level.

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

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

Smaller, Flatter, Faster. Is The Two Pizza Team Finally Going Mainstream?

This weeks post looks at the two pizza team which was popularised by Jeff Bezos.

In the early days of Amazon he instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.
The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

Read the post by clicking the link. And if you like it I’d really appreciate a share on your social network of choice.

Have a great weekend!

Best wishes

Paul

The latest cartoon by Tom Fishburne seems to sum up what a lot of people are feeling right now. As he writes, “In a chaotic year, many brands and businesses are relying on adrenaline only. Organizations can only run on those fumes for so long. Adrenaline-based speed can lead to burnout.”

I’d argue that we are not seeing speed as much as lots of activity. Organisations are busy , sure , but it’s a reflexive response to an era in which they have no control over anything , even down to when and where people work. In organisational design terms – we are all still out there panic buying toilet rolls and hand sanitiser.

One of the issues here is that legacy organisations are not designed for speed, it’s just not what they do. Many people who have set up internal accelerators or innovation labs ultimately fail as they run up against hard wired bureaucracy and hierarchy purposefully designed to crush any ideas that threaten the status quo.

In their report , Reinventing the organisation for speed in the post COVID era , McKinsey note that CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run.

It calls for work to speed up in three ways:

Sped up and delegated decision making.  This means fewer meetings and fewer decision makers in each meeting. They point out that some organisations are adopting a “nine on a videoconference” principle. (I’d suggest this is still a couple too many). Others are moving towards one to two-page documents rather than reports or lengthy PowerPoint decks.

Step up execution excellence. Just because the times are fraught does not mean that leaders need to tighten control and micromanage execution. Rather the opposite. Because conditions are so difficult, frontline employees need to take on more responsibility for execution, action, and collaboration.

Cultivate extraordinary partnerships. Working with partners is routine. But the speed of action only goes so far if other players in the ecosystem fail to move just as fast. The connected world is breaking down the traditional boundaries between buyers and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, and employers and employees.

The building blocks at the base of all these things are , guess what, small empowered teams.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

I’ve been an advocate of a the minimum viable team for a number of years. The concept of as few as people as possible – small enough to be fed on two pizzas, is attractive because it reduces social loafing and allows us to get off the hamster wheel of management and ‘work about work’. Once you’ve done it and moved away from managing lots of people it would take an almighty pay rise to tempt you back.

The Two Pizza Team was popularised by Jeff Bezos who in the early days of Amazon instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas. The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Its roots lie in the concept of the Minimum Viable Team which recognises that many companies spend an awfully long time thinking and planning to do something: longer than it takes to actually do the thing. It’s built on the premise of Parkinson’s Law – that work just expands to fill the time and resources available. The MVT idea is rather than layer on additional resources (that are ultimately wasteful) , you “starve” the team and make them pull only the necessary resources as and when they need them. 

Most organisations reserve this structure, if they use it at all, for either DevOps type environments or hipster design or innovation teams. However it has a sound evidence base – after devoting nearly 50 years to the study of team performance, the Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman concluded that four to six is the optimal number of members for a project team and no work team should have more than 10 members.

How many project teams do you know that have four to six members?

Remote work exacerbates this problem. It’s hard enough to run productive in-person meetings with lots of people in the best of times, but trying to foster engaging discussions with lots of virtual participants is nearly impossible.

Despite the rhetoric of agile small teams – the shift won’t happen overnight as there’s a genuine question about what to do with all the people you might not need. I’d argue that post- COVID the immediate challenge is how we slow down to speed up.

We are in a new world with new challenges and we sometimes confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)—and the two concepts are very different. The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the more you can bridge the gap.

Do Fewer Things, Better. And Faster

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

This is not an either/or. IF we can reduce our priorities to a few key goals AND make small focussed teams the default way we operate , arguably we’d be a lot happier, healthier and more productive.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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

The Way We Work Isn’t Working

The office, after management, is arguably 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 (another 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 – our workspaces have a productivity problem.

Despite technology which previous generations could only dream of we’ve never felt so unproductive at work.

What’s the problem here?

A recent report from Asana finds that employees spend nearly two-thirds of their day on “work about work”. Constant emails, message notifications, and unexpected meetings consume the best part of most days.

Over 10,000 people were interviewed globally and there’s some significant findings:

  • The majority of respondents’ time (60%) is spent on work coordination, leaving just 27% for the skill-based job they were recruited to do.
  • Responding to a constant barrage of emails and notifications is the primary reason that nearly one-third of employees regularly log extra hours, followed by unexpected meetings and chasing people for input or approval.
  • Respondents surveyed believe that nearly two-thirds of meetings are unnecessary.
  • Over 10 percent of an employee’s day – 4 hours and 38 minutes per week – is spent on tasks that have already been completed. This amounts to more than 200 hours of duplicated effort and wasted efficiency annually.
  • Less than half (46%) of respondents surveyed clearly understand how their output contributes to the achievement of their organization’s objectives and mission.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 10.32.27

It’s astonishing to me that this isn’t bigger news within organisations – the cost of unproductive downtime plus the wellbeing impact is mind boggling.

Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to fit the time available for its completion

In a post that is more relevant than ever Chris Bolton asks why do we waste so much time on trivial things in work? One of the reasons is our tendency to hoard unnecessary resources – to fill work with work.

“The basic theory is that an individual within a large administrative organisation will reach a point in their career where things start to get a bit ‘too much’ for them. Rather than leave the job or share it with anyone else, they make the case for acquiring subordinates. Subordinates will lead to more subordinates and eventually there is a department to manage. However, the quantity of real work hasn’t actually increased very much (if at all).”

Brooks’s law – Adding manpower to a late project makes it later

The ways most organisations respond to a new circumstance is simple: hire more resources. Even though everyone knows that throwing more resources at things is the very worst thing you could do.

The growth of ‘work about work’ seems unstoppable.

As Gary Hamel has explained – 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.

The constant interruptions to our work day means 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.

What’s the solution here?

Arguably we are into wicked problem territory – with a complex web of technology, management and bureaucracy.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 11.30.48

In the report Asana naturally put a lot of emphasis on the role technology could play – and they are right – it is ridiculous that in 2020 colleagues are duplicating effort on the same tasks. The tools are here to design that out today.

I’d go further and suggest that every manager should attend productivity training on an annual basis – and be assessed at their competence at using collaborative tools.

We also need to challenge our culture of busyness which worships at The Altar Of Having Too Much To Do.

We haven’t got too much to do – we’ve got too much ‘work about work’.  And the onus is on each and everyone of us to fight it.


 

 

The Asana Anatomy of Work Report can be downloaded here 

The Smartest People Will Never Work For You

Joy’s law is the principle that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”.

Bill Joy, the computer engineer to whom it’s attributed argued that if you rely solely on your own employees, you’ll never solve all your customers’ needs.

It’s a quote that’s never been more true.

Joy was not talking about the hackneyed “war for talent” trope. Even if you somehow manage to get the best and the brightest to work for you, there will always be an infinite number of other, smarter people employed by others.

Even if it was possible – these days we don’t need to employ those people. We live in a networked age – and having people who can master ‘distributed problem solving’ and collaborate at scale – will be a differentiator for organisations.

This week I was in Wales speaking at an event organised by the Good Practice Exchange – all about effective collaboration using technology.

Harnessing the power of collective thinking is one of the most effective ways to maximise innovation output. The more minds, brain power and insight you can gather, the better.

It’s recognised that CEOs with connections to diverse social environments built of people from a variety of backgrounds can create more value for the organisations they lead.  In today’s digital economy this knowledge exchange is open to any of us – IF we stay clear of echo chambers and embrace genuine diversity. (That means, not blocking people who disagree with you.)

Social media gives you access to people who behave and think differently.  Used wisely it can encourage people to break out of your own sector.  By actively following people you don’t agree with your people will become less prone to groupthink.

If you’re only surrounding your people with those who think like them – you are limiting your companies capacity and capability for innovation.

Groupthink – “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” – historically only happened to small groups.

Hashtags have changed all that.

In a society in which social networks consume so much of our time we have evolved into a mass version of groupthink. A herd mentality of a scale we’ve never previously encountered.

It’s time for us all to really consider the role of diversity in our social media content. The algorithm is deliberately feeding you more of what you want to hear.

This diversity can be advantageous: research suggests that employees with a diverse Twitter network—one that exposes them to people and ideas they don’t already know—tend to generate better ideas.

Screenshot 2019-10-18 at 06.39.28

 

This research differentiated between idea scouts and connectors.

An idea scout is someone who looks outside the organisation to bring in new ideas, using Twitter as a gateway to solution options.

An idea connector, meanwhile, is someone who can assimilate the external ideas and find opportunities within the organisation to implement these new concepts.

In the research,  Twitter users who performed the two roles at the same time were the most innovative.

That’s easier said than done, we often find that people who are great at making connections and opportunities aren’t the best ones at matching them to strategy and implementing.

A good innovation team plays this role – acting as a pressure chamber where external influences can enter the organisation, in a controlled and measured way.

Social media will help your people crowdsource opinion from others. I often find myself thinking out loud-  this blog is essentially a brain diary to see if what I’m thinking connects with others. Learning out loud in our networks helps to seek new opinions and share our own with a wider group. It allows us to take half-baked ideas and test them out in public, with low risk.

Just soaking up other people’s opinions doesn’t lead to innovation though. Rather – it’s the ability of employees to identify, assimilate and exploit new ideas to create new value.  This is where our organisations need to put more effort and support in for people – it’s hardly ever talked about, much less taught.

The smartest people will never work for you. We need to create a network of as many great contributors as we can–and transform it into a community.

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems. To address these complex problems our organisations must be reshaped for a community where ideas and information flow openly and transparently.

The real opportunities lie right at the heart of it.

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

How To Avoid Corporate Initiativitis

We’ve never felt so busy at work, and never been less engaged.

90% of people say they expect to find a substantial degree of joy at work, yet only 37% report that they do.

Many of our organisations remain afflicted by:

  • Initiative-itis: The condition of mistaking busyness for productivity
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Zombie Projects: Things that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

Part of the issue is that there’s too much change in the wrong places. This is anti-productivity  – when the organisation appears to be doing lots of good things but is actually achieving very little.

Change overload happens because every major department is trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves, adding layer upon layer of new initiatives.

Prioritisation , if it as done at all, is often done in silo. “We’re going to do these five or these 10 or these 20 initiatives.” As if anyone is good at 20 things.

With a surfeit of ideas, and the subsequent organisational complexity, a form of inertia sets in.

Two things can happen:

  • Leaders literally don’t know where to start. So they don’t.
  • With limited bandwidth to absorb all the change,  people get burned out by everything coming towards them. People want to support these initiatives, there are simply too many of them to pay attention to.

change-001

Problem Definition As An Initiative Killer

Earlier this week I was with a colleague explaining the importance of problem definition. By way of example I dug out the notes of a session we had done over two years ago and was shocked to see how many problems we’d not yet begun to tackle.

It was a reminder to me that although we’ve got better at saying no to things, there’s still a journey to go on. Whilst we have got much better at circling around fewer problems we have to recognise that people are hardwired to seek out new things rather than spend time on purposeful contemplation and questioning.

The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the deeper you can go into them.

Do Fewer Things, Better

I can receive upwards of 30 new opportunities every week. I’ve tried to stick to a very simple way of prioritising.

1. Decide on what matters the most.

2. Say no to everything else.

If I can’t decide, between 1 and 2 I file it for a week then move it to 2.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

If you focus on 8 or more priorities you will make some progress in all of them but will struggle to be game-changing in any of them.

Taming Initiative Overload

Initiativitis is not to be laughed at.

It means decreased employee engagement.

It means lost productivity.

It means people leaving for other jobs.

The first step to taming overload is to align people with the organisations stated strategy – that should kill off pretty much 50% of initiatives.

The second step is to ask people for a problem statement. Actually writing down the problem helps everyone better understand the complexity. It can be short too. We should be able to summarise the problem in fewer than 140 characters. Anything longer and people start going into the solution.

Finally , consider establishing a ‘change group’ in your organisation to keep track of the amount of ideas flying around. At Bromford we meet weekly as a kind of air traffic control centre, trying to make sure that existing initiatives are safely landed before we launch a load of new ones up into the sky.

Building a culture around problem definition, and saying no to distractions might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

The Fruitless Quest For Inbox Zero: Eight Tips To Protect Your Time

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology.

They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas – Oliver Burkeman

At the back-end of 2018, I did an experiment, I exported nearly two years worth of email and meeting data into an analytics tool.

The results were unsurprising to me , but still alarming.

Time spent in meetings , especially meetings arranged by others, was increasing exponentially.  The amount of email was increasing too.

Four years earlier I wrote a post called Six Ways To Kill Email , which set out a discipline for drastic email reduction.

This regime worked for a long time, my inbox never contained more than half a dozen items. So what failed and why?

We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem

We’ve never had more productivity tools than we’ve had today, and yet we’ve rarely felt less productive.

Part of the problem is that our new tools have given people unparalleled powers to intruding into one anothers time.

  • Want a meeting? Spot some free time in their calendar and grab it.
  • Need them at the weekend? Message them from your phone.
  • Can’t get hold of them? DM them via their preferred social network

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson write in their book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work companies are failing to protect their most precious resource – their employees time and attention.

It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a culture of back to back meetings, and even double or triple booked meetings.

As they write “the shared calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times. People’s calendars are not only completely transparent, they are optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it”.

It was this realisation , that most things in my calendar had been put there by other people, that led me to create some new rules at the beginning of the year.

It was a silent new years resolution to myself to do something to address the overload. As a third of the year has gone – this is how I’ve gotten on.


1: Ignore the quest for Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero (the idea that every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”) was quite the thing a few years ago but in my experience it doesn’t work – as it actually focuses on email as the cause of the problem rather than the symptom.

Even when you do successfully reach Inbox Zero, it doesn’t reliably bring calm if you’re still being invited to lots of meetings and assaulted by instant messaging.

2: Give yourself permission to walk out of meetings

Last year Elon Musk sent a memo to his staff advising them to ‘just walk out of bad meetings’.  Funnily enough it was a rule we had at Bromford many years ago instigated by then CEO Mick Kent.

Walking out of meetings, or not turning up to ones that you’ve previously accepted may seem like bad manners. However if we are serious about valuing peoples time we have to develop new codes that allow people to maximise their productivity and creativity rather than just be polite and wasteful.

3: Don’t send any emails

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. Email in 2019 is still effective, but it’s best used sparingly.

4: Divert long chat threads to Chat Apps 

At the formation of Bromford Lab , we turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. Along with Trello and Google Docs, it’s the tool that’s survived five years of uninterrupted use. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It doesn’t beg you to respond.

4: Delete emails that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

6: Use Pomodoro for manageable periods of focus

It might sound easy to work on one task for 25 minutes with no interruptions, but it actually isn’t. Pomodoro is a cyclical system where you work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that boost your motivation. Use a Pomodoro app on your phone and put it into flight mode to kill other distractions. It’s the best way I’ve found of powering through the work you need to do, but don’t always want to. There’s a more extreme 50 minute  version of it called Focusmate, where your concentration is remotely observed by a total stranger. Try it if you dare.

7: Try Trello for transparent work sharing and delegation across teams

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 07.53.22

We are big Trello fans at Bromford Lab with our work shared openly for all. We also keep a private board as well to prioritize work across the team. Making it visible this way means we can call for help when we are blocked or delegate work when people have capacity. It shifts the focus completely away from your inbox.

8: Set visible boundaries

The way you work has to be the way that works for you, not for everyone else. That might mean setting an email out of office communicating you only check in once a day. It might turning your phone off and saying you are concentrating on deep work. It might be wearing headphones in the office to signal you don’t want interruptions.

Whatever it is – set your own boundaries and make them known.


 

I haven’t cracked this 100%. However as I finish writing this post at 8:15am I have nine unanswered emails and just 90 minutes of meetings today. Something is beginning to work.

Most productivity hacks fail, no doubt many of the above would fail for you personally.

The trick is finding the ones that work for you and balance your needs with those of your colleagues. My advice however would be to not sit around waiting for this, it’s a truly rare employer than places restrictions on meetings, emails and phone calls.

You need to develop your own rules and boundaries that protect your time and creativity, never mind your sanity.

Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks himself said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.

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The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

Ending The Myth Of Collaboration

The best organisational cultures are tolerant of the loner, the thinker. – John Wade

“If I was you,” said a colleague recently “now would be a very good time to involve customers, to get more people involved”.

No, I thought, right now that would be the worst thing we could do.

Collaboration can kill creativity.

Most people in your office have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – all the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘brainstorming’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces any results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

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Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at keeping people apart.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

As Simon Penny and Michelle Butler write knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

At Bromford Lab, we’ve learned:

Collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.

More is not always merrier.


Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

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.

Why We Need To Learn To Love Project Managers

‘There isn’t a child alive who dreams of being a project manager’ –  so said Scott Berkun.

He pointed out that project managers can unintentionally reinforce their work as (let’s be honest) dull – by trying to get everyone to pay attention to spreadsheets, specifications, PowerPoint presentations and status reports, failing to realise these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the entire world of work.

Last year I suggested that you should never take an idea to a project management team -unless you want it to be accompanied by a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

It was said tongue in cheek, but it upset a couple of people who thought I was criticising project management.  The intention was the opposite: I was trying to show the value of controlled management – at the right time, in the right places. 

The issue is one of differing perspectives.

Exploration and implementation are completely different mindsets, never mind skillsets.

  • The purpose of project management is to predict as many dangers and problems as possible; and to plan, organise and control activities so that the project is completed as successfully as possible in spite of all the risks.
  • The purpose of innovation is to help us see beyond current convention, to counter the natural risk aversion that lies within organisations and to mobilise employees to experiment and discover new value for customers.

The behaviours this requires are fundamentally contradictory as one is about controlling risk and the other is about creating risk, usually in risk-averse environments.

Innovation tends to start with loosely defined, sometimes ill-defined objectives that gradually become clearer over months or even years. The processes used are more experimental and exploratory and don’t follow linear guidelines.

Because failure is a built-in possibility innovation teams have to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to better options.

This is feasible in a ‘Lab type’ environment as you can control the cost and impact of failure. Whereas innovating in large projects is problematic as there are interdependencies between the components that make changes risky.

Can we combine the two approaches to get better outcomes?

At Bromford we’ve been exploring a better way to deliver change for a few years – and have now combined a broad range of colleagues with very different skill-sets all focused on one thing: solving the right problems.

You can see from our publicly accessible Trello board that the areas we are exploring are completely aligned to projects – indeed Project Managers and analysts are involved at the outset as part of innovation ‘discovery’ sessions.

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Increasingly, as work gets automated, simple problems should be eliminated. We’ll be left with the complex, messier ones – and these need a different approach to what once served us.

Traditional management models have focused almost exclusively on delivery of products and services. Newer management models, in contrast, focus primarily on the achievement of a result or the answer to a complex question.

As John Mortimer has said – maybe we need to unlearn our thinking that says, before we start doing anything, we need to define what the outcome will be, how long it will take, and what the solution will be.

Whether you are a Project Manager, Business Analyst, Designer, Researcher, Self Styled Innovator or Corporate Rebel – we have a common purpose:

Understanding problems, putting zombies down and reallocating resources to the most promising opportunities.

Everything is a project: and we are all project managers.

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?

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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.

Don’t Let Busyness Kill Your Creativity


Last week I was getting a drink when a colleague asked me “So, you busy as usual?”

I took a second to avoid my kneejerk affirmative response and went for it:

“No – we’ve decided to slow down. Give ourselves some time to really think about things”.

They looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

In the world of work, more and more of us have bought about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

But we are busier than we used to be, right?

No – we are not. In fact we are working less than we did 20 years ago – whatever it might feel like to you or I.

We are undoubtedly working in a new reality, one where we now have the distractions of machines to add to those of people. Being busy as a status symbol though is a modern phenomenon.

Thorstein Veblen suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (the “conspicuous abstention from labour”) was the most powerful way to signal your status.

However a study earlier this year challenges whether that represents our modern reality. It explored cultural differences, finding that busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, with the effect being reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.

I recommend listening to the Oliver Burkeman shows that explore the way we fetishise being busy. You’ll recognise the stories of people complaining about the size of their inbox and all the meetings they have to go to.

It’s easy to say you’re too busy. Even when you’re the one to blame for it.

As example I’ve kept up a pretty good blogging schedule this year — usually every week or so. I’ve had a gap for the past two weeks —  and I could blame being been too busy.

But just like eating the right food, reading more books and exercising – busyness is often just an excuse for lack of discipline. 

I like not being busy and I’m proud of it.

I resist being busy at every opportunity.

Busyness for me — and telling people I’m busy — is a sign I’m being undisciplined and unproductive.

Worse still — busyness makes you lose self-awareness. Telling other people how busy and important you are means you start to believe it yourself.

Here’s what makes me busy:

Trying to multi-task (there’s no evidence that our brains work well with too many tabs open)

Attending standing meetings (they just create actions rather than focus on being reductive)

Letting people schedule back to back appointments (which kills any time for you to breathe and think)

Sending lots of emails (you just get more mails back)

Letting people “pick your brain for 5 minutes” (It’s never ever five minutes)

Although we don’t like to admit it – we have a lot of control over our own busyness and the busyness of others.

Someone recently told me that they checked their colleagues diaries to “see how busy they were”.

The implication was clear — busyness was being directly equated with productivity.

The colleagues whose diaries were full , a sign that they say yes to everything, were lauded.

Those engaged in purposeful contemplation or those just getting stuff done were not.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.  It can’t be a coincidence that the growth of busyness has come at a time during which there has been a growth in management.

Not for nothing does the world’s most valuable brand eschew management fads and concentrate on getting the basics right. All staff at Google have to learn how to run meetings, have conversations, and set goals.

Great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

We Need To Promote Outcomes At Work Not Presenteeism

“Presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity. Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous than absenteeism” – Professor Cary Cooper

A full car park and people appearing busy at their desks is zero evidence that any meaningful work is taking place.

UK productivity, our output divided by the hours spent producing it, is a problem.

Almost every company will measure sickness absence: being away from work and doing nothing. Very few measure the hidden costs of presenteeism – being at work , but still doing nothing. 

We need to start setting principles that promote outcomes rather than reinforcing cultures of presenteeism.

With that in mind Bromford Lab have been setting some new principles for how we work. It’s very much a first attempt as we envisage we’ll change it as we go. It drew quite a lot of attention on Twitter so I thought I’d outline the thinking behind the initial principles.

Focus on outcomes not hours 

It’s time to abolish the 9-5. In a digital age and with increasing congestion on the roads, why do we insist on our employees all rocking up, and leaving, at the same time?

We want people to focus on the quality of their hours not the quantity. Accordingly we’ll set our own schedules and work patterns that boost our mental and physical being – whilst being focussed on the outcomes we need to deliver for our customer.

Design your own unique day

 ”Most offices are the average of what works for everyone,” says Mike Del Ponte, the founder of the water filter company Soma. “But they are perfect for no one.” Mike established an approach to encourage people to work from anywhere –  giving employees an opportunity to find inspiration in new places.

Accordingly we are encouraging the team to be intentional about where they work and to seek out places they’ve not been to, are unusual, or provoke thought. We’ll be getting the team to blog about this and the effects on productivity – good or bad – at least twice a month.

Work out loud 

We can underestimate the challenges to working out loud. The gravitational pull internally is to communicate internally. We are defaulting to make everything publicly accessible , including our job profiles, our weekly meetings and our resources and toolkits.

Kill meetings 

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What if every meeting had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We expect to put some more guidance around our approach to meetings such as:

  • We’ll only have one team meeting each week and it’ll never be more than an hour.
  • Never schedule a physical meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished by video or phone.
  • We won’t schedule meetings before 10 or after 4. Sleep in when needed, go to the gym or do something with your family and friends.
  • Leave space between sessions for reflection and after-work.

Use open tools 

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems Digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

Accordingly we’ll default to openly accessible Google tools and will not hide information or thinking away on intranets.

If we are truly committed to social outcomes we need to stop hiding our organisational intelligence. We have a moral duty to ensure our work contributes towards change.

Get work out there 

Slow decisions and no decisions are harming our productivity. So our final principle is about being happy with less than perfect. We are committed to high quality work but we want to avoid obsessing over detail or waiting for approvals.

That means you might spot typo’s in our content, links that don’t work or poor formatting. As a team we’ll watch for each others mistakes and correct it as we go.

The priority is on getting work shipped and moving forward.


This is Version 1 of our work principles and we’ll amend our publicly accessible document based on what works and what doesn’t. A number of people have said they’ll try some of these out themselves – let us know how you get on!

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